Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

The Bobo Dilemma: Psychotherapeutic Reflections on a Contemporary Myth

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

The Bobo Dilemma: Psychotherapeutic Reflections on a Contemporary Myth

Article excerpt

This paper investigates the psychological consequences of a social ethos that has emerged in the 1990s; the Bourgeois Bohemian (in short, Bobo) that claims that the bourgeois striving for financial success and status can be reconciled with the Bohemian striving for creative self-expression. An extended case history shows how a man in his thirties grappled with the inherent complexity and contradictions of the Bobo ethos. The question is raised how, as psychotherapists, we can deal with the individual patient's search for a good life amidst the growing pressure of the Bobo ethos, to get the best of all possible lives, the combination of authenticity and success.


This paper is an attempt to forge a bridge between the emergence of new cultural paradigms in the Western world and the dilemmas, conflicts, questions, and quests of individual patients. The particular configuration I would like to investigate has been exposed and analyzed beautifully in David Brooks' (1) Bobos in Paradise. Brooks main thesis has the brilliant simplicity of insights that capture a truth that is there under our noses. He claims that the last decade of the twentieth century has created a new ethos that merges (or tries to merge) between two seemingly irreconcilable sets of values: that of the work- and money-oriented bourgeoisie and that of the bohemian search for the authentic life and spiritual self-fulfillment. His term for the new class is Bobo, derived from of Bourgeois Bohemian.

Brooks (who freely admits that he is a typical Bobo) succeeds in providing a tongue-in-cheek description of Bobos. He exposes the ironies of the new ethos that seems to square the circle, yet he relates to the Bobo ethos.

From a psychotherapeutic point of view it seems to me that the bourgeois bohemian culture is an interesting way of dealing with a dilemma that has preoccupied psychodyamic thinking in various versions: Jungians have dealt with it as the tension between persona and self, Lacan spoke of it in his investigation of the relation between the subject's desire and alienating identifications, Winnicott conceptualized it in his writings about the true and the false self, existentialist writings spoke of authentic vs. inauthentic existence.

As Winnicott (2) said, the theme of the true and the false self is age old, it has been taken up by almost every religion. The sense that there are ways of living that are more or less authentic, true to our real core, has been taken up by a wide variety of cultures. It has been played out in all kinds of version: external success vs. spiritual existence, true love vs. marriage of convenience, vocation vs. money-and in the 19^sup th^-century romantic narrative that still hovers over us, adherence to bourgeois values vs. creative self-expression of the artist.

Do Bobos, as Brooks' title (certainly with some irony) implies, really live in paradise? Have the 1990s indeed managed to reconcile money and soul, the search for social status and self-realization? Brooks does not seriously think so. As we will see, he views the plight of the Bobos with mild irony.

While certainly a well-meaning ideology (who would have anything to say against a form of life that presents you with the best of possible worlds?), it is my clinical impression that boboism has also created new problems (as if indeed the sum total of human unhappiness will always stay constant). Bobo ethics makes the harmonious combination of financial success and self-actualization normative. Consequently, expectations of life are very high indeed-and the sense of failure when the goal is not reached increases.

My clinical experience of the last years indicates that Brooks' analysis touches upon a powerful point. Patients who are in their mid-thirties are often torn between the two poles of Bobo ethics. Of course, psychoanalytic investigation can never be content to reduce a patient's conflicts to the current social situation. …

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