You are not alone: therapy, individualism and collectivism

I have often felt that western individualistic therapeutic models tend to distort therapeutic outcomes. I don’t see humans as self-contained and independent –  we don’t exist in isolation. Indeed, evidence from human and animal studies shows that isolation prompts sensitivity to social threats and usually motivates the renewal of social connections. I see humans as fundamentally interdependent, I was always more inclined (intuitively and academically) towards social psychology and small scale, interpretive and interactionist sociology, but then I tend to slot that into a broader structural context. Rather like R.D Laing’s existential starting point, as he writes, he moves outwards from self, to others, to a society which he analyses using a Marxist frame. We cannot examine mental health without reference to the intersubjective home which cultivates it. Society: the very crucible in which selves are forged.

Many of my colleagues also noted that the complexity of individual personality and psychological processes tended to get lost in a “one-size-fits-all” approach to “improving human functioning and experience.”

For example, that the costs and benefits of different kinds of optimism and pessimism may vary across different individuals, situations, and cultural contexts was rarely if ever taken into consideration. Yet we know that there are times when pessimism and negative thinking are positive psychology, as these approaches often lead to the development of better coping mechanisms via diligent problem-solving, learning and personal growth.

I was always very interested in people’s attitudes toward styles of social interdependence and how people derive self-esteem. Studies show that there are correlations between attitudes towards styles of interdependence and of deriving self-esteem and a sense of self worth which indicate distinctive and theoretically predictable patterns of relationship.

Those who indicate a cathexis for cooperative relationships tend to report patterns of higher self-esteem related to freedom of personal expressiveness and feelings of personal well-being; those people indicating a cathexis for competitive or highly individualised patterns of interdependence experience greater vulnerability on dimensions of self-esteem reflecting a sensitivity to the experiences of approval, success and support of others.

The magnitudes of the correlations between a global measure of personal worth and attitudes towards types of interdependence reflect the extent to which positive social reinforcement is available in these contexts.

In 1902 Charles Horton Cooley wrote about a social psychological concept that came to influence much symbolic interactionist sociology, and its central themes are manifested in labelling theory, for example. Cooley said “the human mind is social.”  As children, we begin to define ourselves within the context of our socialisation. We learn that crying will elicit a response from our parents, not only when we are in need of necessities such as food, but also as a symbol to receive their attention.

The term “looking glass self” was first used by Cooley in his work, Human Nature and the Social Order , it’s a description of a process where a person’s self-concept [cognitive or descriptive component of one’s self] develops through  interpersonal interactions and the perceptions of others. The term refers to people shaping their self-concepts based on their understanding of how others perpetually perceive them to be. Because people conform to how they think others think them to be, to a significant degree.

George Herbert Mead described the self as “taking the role of the other,” the premise for which the self is actualised. Through interaction with others, we begin to develop an identity – the “who” we are, as well as developing empathy for others. In respect to this Cooley said:

“The thing that moves us to pride or shame is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but an imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection upon another’s mind.”

But we are capable of reflection and reflexivity, [reflexivity includes both a subjective process of self-consciousness and the study of social behaviour with reference to theories about social relationships. We bridge the gap between structure and agency] self-fulfilling and self-negating prophesies [the prophecy has a constitutive impact on the result, changing the outcome from what would otherwise have happened]: we have intentionality and a degree of free-will.

Conservatives perpetuate and utilise our western tendency towards individualism, amplifying it and using it as a way to deliberately undermine social cohesion, cooperation and collective responsibility. It isolates many. Individuals are easier to manipulate and persuade, they are more likely to conform. [See the Milgram experiment]. Furthermore, competing for resources with others diminishes empathy.

Collectivism is a fundamental element of human culture that has existed independently of any one political system and has existed since the founding of human society, roughly some ten thousand years ago. It is a feature of all societies to some degree and therefore may be regarded as an inherent feature of human nature.

But in my [ex-]professional experience, there is an over-emphasis on Western individualism – with its concomitant selfishness, alienation, and divisiveness – it’s one of the root causes of our personal, social and political problems. It’s not possible to address the New Right neoliberalist, narrow, competitive self-interest kind of ontological insecurity – a very paltry view of human “nature” – with a commitment to any higher social purpose. Individualism is fundamentally incompatible with egalitarianism. Laissez faire individualism, as we ought to have learned from history, only ever results in increasing inequality, a nation of a few very rich and a lot of very poor people. It elevates a handful of individuals in terms of social status and oppresses many others, whilst also restricting or destroying our human potential.

Our very language derives from the individualism of Hobbes and Locke, the contemporary cost benefit analysis, and from the individualism of modern therapists – we have the self-made man and the self actualised one -“looking out for number one”, and “being your own best friend”. It’s an overarching narrative, it’s become tacit “knowledge”, yet in the English language, the word “individualism” was first introduced, as a pejorative, by the Owenites in the 1830s.

There is a concomitant dominant paradigm of individualist psychological perspectives that enshrine the idea that human behaviour is primarily governed by self-interest. Humans first seek to ensure survival, and then they seek to dominate. These facets of human nature are seen as a product of genetically coded survival instincts modified by the totality of our environment and expressed as neurochemically-mediated emotions and actions.

This culture of individualism – which is embedded in both Western therapy approaches and enshrined in popular self-help mantras – helps to sustain Conservative free-market ideology and cultivate narcissism. Free-market ideology is deterministic. It implies that there are no institutional choices: the market “decides”, whilst the individual is held responsible for his own fortune, or lack of it. Do mind the logical gaps there…

Furthermore, the government is actually expanding ever more rapidly rather than shrinking – seizing public funds and spending more and more of our money on handouts to the wealthy, and intruding on our lives in increasingly oppressive ways.

“There’s no such thing as society” has become something of a Tory mantra since the Thatcher era. Tories reduce the social to the alienated isolated individual, and individuals are free only insofar as we compete with each other for resources in the market place. The market place is where money is taken from the poor in exchange for their survival, and handed out to the wealthy, in exchange for the subversion of democracy to suit themselves. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

It’s an irony that whilst we traditionally contrast collectivism and individualism, it was collectivism that brought about the process of civic emancipation in Western societies which resulted in social and civic structures that champions the role of individual choice, personal freedom and competition.

Individual sovereignty or individual autonomy is only feasible anyway when it is balanced carefully with personal responsibility and interest in the autonomy of others. But that isn’t happening: instead we have a steep hierarchy of autonomy which is based on economic determinism: a society of a few autonomous, wealthy narcissists and psychopaths, and a growing mass of a stifled, dehumanised, poor precariat class .

Conservatives create a myth that we live in a dangerous world. Such a dangerous world metaphor has long been associated with right-wing ideological views. In the last couple of centuries, though, this metaphor has taken the form of Social Darwinism.

This ruthless “survival of the fittest” concept [a phrase coined by British conservative sociologist Herbert Spencer, and not Darwin] is a one-sided [and frequently distorted] view of the fuller scientific picture of evolution that has developed over the second half of the twentieth century. Since the 1960s, biologists have made advances in understanding how evolution motivates various kinds of altruistic cooperation in nature – in addition to self-interest. Kropotkin had observed this at the time Darwin wrote his classic text anyway, in his own work “Mutual Aid”. Nonetheless, public opinion of folk-Darwinism, which situates people in a dangerous “red in tooth and claw, jungle world,” has  been very frequently been evoked to support a right-wing moral philosophy.

Kropotkin’s work about altruism and cooperation was dismissed because, despite the fact it was very coherent and compelling, and provided empirical evidence, it did not fit the Conservative and Liberal laissez faire dominant paradigm at the time, which was comprised of the ideas of Mathus, Smith’s laissez faire economics and “market forces”, competitive individualism. These are culturally specific and relative views, and not ones which are shared by many eastern countries, for example.

The Social Darwinist survival of the fittest idea appears most obviously and prevalently in narratives of the extreme right. Hitler saw life as a zero-sum struggle between races, in which one group would always seek to dominate the other. In 1928, Hitler gave a speech in Kulmbach, Bavaria, he envisioned a conflict between races in pseudo-Darwinian terms:

“The idea of struggle is as old as life itself, for life is only preserved because other living things perish through struggle . . . in the struggle, the stronger, more able, win, while the less able, the weak, lose . . . it is not by the principles of humanity that man lives or is able to preserve himself above the animal world, but solely by the means of the most brutal struggle.”

Hitler rejected that cooperative behaviour in human and non-human animals plays a significant role in the struggle for survival and in fitness generally. Moreover, the inhuman acts committed by humans in the name of Nazism greatly surpassed the brutality of any other animal. Nonetheless, Hitler viewed the world as extremely dangerous, and he attributed the danger to a misconstrued Social Darwinism.

Marx described us as essentially creative and productive beings. It is not just that we produce for our means of survival, it is also that we engage in creative and productive activity over and above what is necessary for survival and find fulfilment in this activity. This activity is inherently social – most of what we produce is produced collectively. This contrasts completely with the individualist basis of conservative and liberal thinking, which came from the likes of Edmund Burke, I agree with Marx: we are fundamentally social creatures.

We become consciously aware of ourselves as a discrete being through language – and language is inherently inter-subjective; it is a social practice. What we think – including what we think about ourselves – is governed by what we do and what we do is always done socially and collectively.

In contrast to the tories, the left have fairly expansive view of human nature – it is our nature to be creatively adaptable and for our understanding of what is normal in terms of behaviour to be shaped by the social relationships around us. For Marx, we flourish and thrive in a society that allows us to express  sociability and creativity. Self fulfilment and self-realisation is a reciprocal process because we are social beings.

There never was a time when we had a more compelling need for democracy, cooperation and collective citizen participation than now. That means we need to transcend the individualistic therapeutic mentality and dog-eat-dog individualism that is descending from the establishment via a divisive, toxic political rhetoric, the media and the Nudge Unit – which is aimed at “fixing” our alleged irrationality, so that we behave in line with state definitions of rationality. Of course this assumes our collective fallibility and the infallibility of the Nudgers.

The conceptual framework was already in place though. As a society, we have long thought that the self is [pathologically] more important than others.

And personally, I think we need more therapists who sometimes say: “Today, I couldn’t give a f*ck about how you feel, I would like you to consider the impact of your actions on the feelings and experiences of others, let’s explore that …”

Because you are not alone. None of us are.


Manly P Hall
Picture courtesy of Robert Livingstone.

“All being in each being
Each being in all being
All in each
Each in all
All distinctions are mind, by mind, in mind, of mind.
No distinctions no mind to distinguish.” R.D Laing

5 thoughts on “You are not alone: therapy, individualism and collectivism

  1. Hi Kitty

    Good psychology writing here. This government are narcissistic creating a narcissistic society. Competitive individualism never leads to happiness in the long run, no matter how rich they get, something will always be missing on the inside. It is being with others, being altruistic, authenticity and helping others that leads to happiness. Yes we should be looking out for one another and becoming more collective and community orientated. I detest this pathological government the same as you do. I am so sad at the abuse and oppression, and isolation so many sick and disabled people have endured. When will it stop? Pleased to see you highlight narcissism and psychopathy here. I have warned others on a certain websites but was met with hostility.


    1. Have a look at the work by Ignacio Martín-Baró, Paulo Freire (he was an educationalist rather than a psychologist, but embraced the same principles as collectivist psychologists), and more generally, community social psychology approaches.

      I spoke at a psychology conference in 2016, and discussed a little about these approaches here:

      This one reads more of a critique of individualism –


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