Culture on the Couch

A Case Study of Western Civilization

For better or worse, the values of Western Civilization set trends for much of the world. Witness the ubiquitous suit and tie, the emulation of corporate capitalism, and the universality of the English language, to say nothing of the endless gadgets, innovations, and media images that flow into the planetary nervous system. With such a powerful influence, we have the potential to lead the emerging global civilization toward endless consumption and destruction of the biosphere or to an exciting and sustainable future. Which do we choose? This may be a no-brainer question, but today’s events tell us the reality is more complex. Just as it is for individuals, the collective gestalt can be led astray of its nobler goals when its health is out of balance.

By the abundance of data that tells us our world is in trouble, Western Civilization, and the United States in particular, seems headed for a crisis. Our collective behavior is driving the biosphere into its sixth mass extinction. The increased deficit due to military spending, the depletion of natural resources, the instability of global warming, with its increased storms and droughts, economic disparities of rich and poor, and rising epidemics, all indicate a civilization heading for potential collapse. Though we’re a long way from “hitting bottom,” we may need to call for a “cultural intervention” before it’s too late.

Therapists know it is often a personal crisis that brings a client into the office for the first time. They also know that what emerges from that crisis is a deeper transformation than the client had previously imagined. Once the healing has taken place, the person is literally better off than they were before the crisis began, with new strengths and potential awakened. The Chinese character for crisis implies both danger and opportunity. It is the danger of an impending crisis that sets off the alarm that wakes us up, but it is the opportunity that inspires us to get out of bed and do something after the alarm goes off. That opportunity emerges from a vision of what we could become on the other side of the transition.

What if our impending social and environmental crises were just what we need for global healing and transformation, just as it is for clients that come into a therapist’s office? What if this situation were to put the “culture on the couch” and open the doors to change? What would this look like, and how would it serve us?

While we can’t imagine a couch large enough for a whole culture, we can examine the psychology of Western Civilization through the eyes of a psychotherapist. Just as we might proceed with an individual, we can analyze the client’s behavior, history, diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment. In this light, perhaps we might all understand ourselves a bit better, have more compassion for our predicament, and find the strength and clarity to make the necessary changes. (To preserve the client’s anonymity, I will use the initials W.C.)

Initial Observations

If I were writing a case study on this client, I would begin by stating that W.C. appears to be an adolescent, white male. Like many therapists, I understand that all clients contain both masculine and feminine aspects, as well as cultural influences, and W.C. is no exception. But W.C. usually comes to the office dressed in male clothing, (tailored suits and muted colors) and his conversation centers obsessively around money, power, and a preoccupation with women’s bodies – typically male subject matter. I would note that the feminine aspect of this client is in the process of awakening, yet still poorly integrated into the client’s psyche and remains largely unrecognized, appearing mostly as idealized images in dreams and fantasies. Other cultural influences exist as well, but are largely subsumed by the client’s need to conform to the predominant white culture.

W.C.’s adolescent tendencies reflect behavior typical of teenagers in general: he’s experiencing a surging physical growth spurt, fueled by voracious consumption. (Oil seems to be the adolescent growth hormone that is fueling this growth.) He uses resources wastefully with little regard for the future. He is narcissisticly self-absorbed and obsessed with image and popularity. He recklessly seeks danger, uses drugs of all kinds, and is tormented by the simultaneous lure and taboo of his libido. Upon deeper observation of his behavior, it appears that W.C. harbors suicidal tendencies. Needless to say, the thought of this adolescent possessing nuclear weapons while driving the home planet under the influence is of grave concern. (I would consider my mandated responsibility to report his potential to cause harm to be applicable here.)

Presenting Problems

W.C.’s presenting complaints include a deteriorating home environment, difficulty getting along with others, with persistent outbursts of violence. His financial affairs are taking him deeply into debt, with criminal activities that are getting increasingly harder to conceal.

Not surprisingly, W.C. shows paranoid tendencies. He is obsessed with the idea of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, while projecting his shadow toward an “axis of evil” on the other side of the world. He shows co-dependent tendencies by wanting to “fix” other countries, while ignoring many of the problems in his own land. His delusions of grandeur are reflected by the fact that he thinks he has the one true right and only way, while he shows pointed denial and avoidant tendencies in regard to his more immediate environmental, social, and economic problems. He distracts himself with cheap entertainment, such as sensationalist “reality” TV and Internet porn, eats mostly junk food, and is in poor physical condition, with numerous health problems. (It is noted that his health insurance has very poor coverage.)

Client History

In exploring W.C.’s history, we would discover that he never mentions his mother, and in fact, has no recollection whatsoever of having ever had a mother. (Research into his birth records revealed that his mother was an ancient primordial goddess, equated with the living earth, but this fact is something that he is not quite ready to embrace.)

We would find that this father was well known and very powerful, but remained distant throughout his life, working hard to conquer other lands, keep the kids safe, and acquire enough wealth to feed the ever expanding family. While there was very little physical contact between them, this distant father was W.C.’s only role model, so he copied his father’s behavior, and believes he can become omnipotent. His father kept order and taught morality through a sacred book, written some 2000 years ago when W.C. was a young child still unable to read. In the absence of a father at home, brothers in uniform enforced the laws that kept things in order. Most of his life was spent in institutions that understandably became his main social environment.

In exploring W.C.’s relationship to his brothers, we would discover that from as far back as he can remember– for the last 5000 years, really– the brothers were constantly fighting with each other. As the fighting escalated over the millennia, more and more of his energy went into creating defenses. He trained himself as a soldier, and created gangs of men that he called armies to assist him, at times engaging in full scale warfare in which many of his family died, and many more were wounded and traumatized. As a result of this repeated devastation, W.C. believed that militarization was the only way to survive, so he put increasing amounts of attention and resources into it. In addition, the millennia of trauma numbed his feelings and trained him to respond obediently to orders from authority figures. He was outwardly dominating, but inwardly submissive. His body was rigidly armored, especially around the heart, and his movements were often mechanical.

What of his sisters? W.C. claims that he doesn’t know his sisters very well. So different were their worlds that he believed they may have come from a different planet! In his formative years, he largely ignored his sisters, but lately he was finding himself more attracted to them – quite normal for an adolescent. However, he held an idealized image of feminine perfection that was often disappointing in reality. Yet the strength of this illusion was driving his sisters to ever more extreme attempts to fit that idealization. With his poorly developed relational skills, most of his attempts to form lasting relationships with the opposite sex were short-lived and superficial. Furthermore, his sisters seemed pretty angry much of the time, and that was frightening to him as well.


It is understandable that W.C. felt alone and misunderstood. He was at a loss for how to relate well with others. He was disconnected from his body as his innate ground of being. He had fallen into consumption as a way to fill his emptiness, through the use of drugs, food, and sexual fantasy. He was paranoid and delusional, believing that terrorists were sneaking bombs onto airplanes in the drinking water, shampoo, and toothpaste carried in people’s carry-on luggage. His avoidant personality syndrome was evident in his avoidance of the environmental problems that were getting increasingly out of control and his refusal to deal with his increasing debt. He was dissociated and depressed – in fact, according to the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders it seems that W.C.’s diagnosis fit everything in the book – almost as if it was written for Western Civilization itself!


Despite such a multi-layered diagnosis, the prognosis for this client would be hopeful, provided he receives treatment early and often. The client is very intelligent and extremely high functioning, with an enormous amount of untapped inner resources. He is still young enough to be open to new ideas. The main stumbling block seems to be his denial of the scope of his problems and the race between his self-destructive tendencies and his still unrealized future. I would suggest that this client be watched closely for self-destructive tendencies while in the critical phase of the healing process.


There is need for considerable healing to turn this client into a healthy and thriving adult. He needs a deeper exploration of his story, with a chance to grieve what has been lost, especially his maternal connection. We would need to see if he and his mother could be reconnected, so that he might learn to respect and develop his feminine side, and acquire self-nurturing techniques. We would teach him stress reduction techniques and recommend deep tissue bodywork to soften his physical armoring.

W.C. would need to heal his relationship with his brothers, especially those in other lands and other religions. Seminars that teach effective communication skills and conflict resolution would help to offset the need for violence. This would help him heal his masculine side, and perhaps make more room for his repressed feminine.

He would need to recognize and integrate his shadow – the elements of his personality that have been rejected. He would need to confront his unmet needs, his anger, and his own terror. Though he thinks himself to be very powerful, he would need to understand the extent of his submission to other’s authority and help him find and develop his own, internal authority.

This client would need numerous structures to support his growth: 12-step programs for his addiction to consumption; yoga and meditation for his spiritual growth. We would recommend dream analysis of his media content, to understand why his dreams are so often violent, and why their sexual content is so shallow and frustrating. We would need to help him find the spirit of his true self, clarify his values, and communicate these values to others effectively without force or domination. He would need to find supportive communities to help him on his journey, and others of like mind who were healing their own wounds and creating a path to the future.

Because of the extent of the mother wound, and the need to develop the traits of beauty and compassion, it is likely a female therapist might be more effective for this client’s healing, despite the likelihood of negative transference toward her. It is noted that this would require regular attendance in men’s groups as a necessary balance.

Progress Notes

Early application of these treatments would show that W.C. is slowly opening his heart. He is beginning to reach out to others with compassion, insight, and wisdom. Even if he does not yet know how to stop using violence, our observations show that he is developing and beginning to express a deep longing for inner peace and stability, something we consider to be a good sign of progress. His internal masculine and feminine are starting to become more balanced and W.C. is no longer self-referent as entirely male, but recognizes a larger body of awareness that includes many selves, both male and female, as an emerging “we.” W.C. is beginning to acknowledge the extent of its problems and ask for help in solving them. We are noticing that the numerous conflicting voices inside this client find agreement when focused on a common purpose. A new sense of hope and possibility are arising.

As W.C. completes this journey of healing, the newly strengthened collective self might then be ready to lead others along a similar path. Those with sustained traumatic stress might learn by example to heal their own wounds. Cultures that resort to violence might notice that there is another way. Examples of how to take better care of our home and environment would become inspirational models for others.

Concluding remarks for the healing team

As therapists, we know this journey. We have seen it many times as we’ve guided our clients along the healing path, witness to the miraculous awakening process that turns suffering into joy. Our task now is to heal the culture itself. For humanity has come a long way through a tortuous history, and the wounds are many. But those wounds, once brought to resolution, bring us up to date with our past, so that we don’t bring our baggage into the future.

If we are to reach our planetary adulthood, we must heal our wounds, both individually and collectively. We must reclaim the ancient mother and restore her relationship to the archetypal father. We must face our collective shadow of domination and greed. We must find structures that support our spiritual natures, disciplines to strengthen the body. We can improve our health with good food, plenty of exercise, and fresh air.

As individuals enter their own healing process, they clear the way for a promising future. And as we apply these healing principles to our collective existence, the culture itself begins to heal. No one can do it alone, and the good news is that no one has to. The one and the many work together as a complex field of mutual influence.

For what lies ahead is beyond our imagining, nothing less than the dawning of the next age of civilization, the young adulthood that takes the reins from the decaying patterns of the past and hitches them to an evolving vision of the future. For in the healing crisis of adolescent transformation, we are the ones being called to awaken to our divine potential.

The world is in our hands. Healing our wounds is the least we can do to preserve it for the generations that follow.

Anodea Judith, Ph.D.

Author of

Waking the Global Heart: Humanity’s Rite of Passge from the Love of Power to the Power of Love