When A Guru Says “Get Over Yourself,” Beware

It’s not often that, in the middle of reading a book, I gasp in distress. Last week, I did.

With my daughter on the couch behind me braiding my hair, I was sitting on my living room floor reading Mark Epstein’s Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself. It’s a book about Buddhism and psychotherapy, and in a chapter entitled “Right Action,” as an example of both good therapy and good dharma, Epstein offers a detailed description of an abusive interaction between a therapist and his much younger female patient.

I reacted so strongly, my daughter was sure she must have pulled my hair by accident. But she hadn’t; it was the book. I read the passage again, and then again. It still seems shocking to me, and it also seems an important example of the way our society works.

Epstein writes that many years ago at a workshop on psychotherapy and Buddhism, he met a woman who had once been in treatment with the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. The treatment had occurred sixty years earlier, when this woman was a college student and went to Reich seeking treatment after a panic attack on a crowded train.

“There is a long history,” Epstein writes, “of experienced therapists doing whatever they can do to shake their patients out of their comfort—or should we say discomfort—zones.” He then recounts the story this woman told him years ago.

“As [Reich] apparently did with all his patients,” Epstein writes, “he asked her first to undress and lie naked on a table in the back room so that he could observe her. She complied. Then he asked her to get dressed and come talk with him. Your problem, Reich told the young woman, “is that you don’t know how to flirt. I’m going to teach you how […] she had to make eye contact with him and flirt. They role played for the better part of the session” (95-96)

This was the passage that literally took my breath away. I’ve read of sexual abuse before, but usually perpetrators try to keep the abuse secret. Here, by contrast, was an example of abuse being lauded. Not just by Reich, but by Epstein: “For me, hearing her story was akin to meeting someone who had been in treatment with Sigmund Freud himself. To hear it in the context of a workshop on Buddhism and therapy was particularly delightful.” (94-95)

I thought we had understood, as a society, that it is not a good idea for a therapist to ask his patient to undress. I thought that we had understood that it is not a good idea for a therapist to ask his patient to flirt with him. But apparently not.

The back cover of Epstein’s book, which came out in the middle of the #Metoo movement, offers a chorus of praise from eminent authors and Buddhist teachers—from Robert Thurman to Ann Patchett to Jack Kornfield to Norman Fischer to Maggie Nelson and others, all of whose work I admire. The book got glowing reviews in major publications, from The New York Times to Pyschology Today to Publisher’s Weekly.

Had all of these people read this section of the book? Had none of them reacted with concern? Had none of Epstein’s editors red-flagged this section?

Did reviewers notice the passage but excuse it because the abuse happened in the past when mores were, supposedly, different? Although of course, Epstein’s praise of the therapy happened in 2018.

Or are we still so accustomed to sexual abuse of young women by male authority figures that we don’t recognize it when we read about it?

If we are going to change the culture that leads to this kind of abuse, we need to be able to recognize abuse when we see it—not only in life but also in books. And we need to understand the kinds of thinking that excuses abuse and mistreatment of women.

Epstein’s book offers an example of the very kinds of misconceptions and cultural blindspots that in part lead to the prevalence of abuse—even in, and sometimes especially in, those places that we go to heal from abuse.

So what was it about this story that Epstein tells that made the abuse invisible for him and for other readers? If other readers didn’t gasp aloud, why not?

Perhaps the abuse was not noticeable because, according to Epstein, the woman examined by Reich told Epstein that her session was healing. Epstein tells us that by her account she “enjoyed herself [in her session with Reich] and she believed him [Reich] that her anxiety was a function of her sexual timidity.” (96)

I would hope, however, that a therapist in 2018 understands that victims themselves, especially in certain contexts, may not immediately recognize and be able to protect themselves against abuse. This is especially the case when patients are vulnerable and go to an authority figure for help, and was even more true in the late 1940s, when the woman went to Reich for treatment.

Panic attacks are not caused by “sexually timidity,” or by not knowing how to “flirt” on crowded trains. It is baffling to me that I need to write this in 2018.

Rather than being a sign of a positive treatment, the way in which this woman regurgitated Reich’s diagnosis of her panic attack instead signals to me her continued lack of clarity about the incident. Epstein himself only met the woman over lunch, so could have no way to understand her full story. (Had a woman told him that she was therapeutically helped by being raped by her therapist, would he describe the rape as an example of good therapy? This example isn’t, to my ears, all that different.)

The reasons readers and reviewers may not have reacted as I did to the anecdote are similar to the reasons the woman herself may not have recognized what happened to her. First, we are so conditioned to accept male authority figures’ versions of events and truth that we don’t question them, and if we do, we are gentle, because critiquing respected authority figures is too uncomfortable. And second, we are so accustomed to sexually abusive behavior that we don’t know how to recognize it when it’s described.

Questions of authority are central to Epstein’s book, and worth examining. An overly trusting acceptance of an authority figure’s diagnosis of a situation, or of oneself, is one of the dangers of therapy and of spiritual teachings. Indeed, one of the prime factors leading to abuse is the unquestioned authority given to men in positions of power. And if the woman is particularly vulnerable, and if the authority figure is in a healing or spiritual position, she becomes all the more at risk.

In Epstein’s anecdote, Reich displays classic “grooming” behavior: the guru (or therapist) encourages the woman turning to him for help to put her trust and faith in him, not in herself. She lets down her guard yet further. He does something to jostle her out of her comfort zone, to make her feel all the more vulnerable (examining her naked on a table, for example. She doubts herself all the more, and perhaps comes into shame or even a traumatized freezing. He then declares to her that what she needs is to explore her sexuality with him, and she goes along with it.

The “spiritual advice” that most often goes with this behavior is that the patient/student needs to “let go of her ego,” or “get over herself,” and that advice is the subtitle of Epstein’s book.

It’s worth pausing a moment here. The teachings of non-self are central to Buddhism and can be extremely helpful and insightful. But they also have a dangerous shadow side.

If, on the one hand, over-attachment to the self leads to suffering and selfish behavior, on the other hand, teachings of non-self have throughout history been misused by the teacher or authority figure to take sexual advantage of others. Increasing numbers of abuse stories are surfacing within Buddhist and spiritual communities, where teachers have taken advantage of just this kind of rhetoric. Similarly, sexual abuse of patients by therapists is also a serious concern.

The advice not to take oneself seriously must itself be taken seriously. Its dangers should be made explicit and its historical and social implications should also be explored.

This advice is particularly insensitive when given to women, as it has been, often, through history. I’ve been in Buddhist circles in which teachers have told women complaining about domestic violence not to put themselves first. But then, Buddhist teachings weren’t developed with women in mind; women were not part of the sangha.

By looking at these teachings, however, through the eyes of the women and men who have been historically unrepresented and oppressed —sexually, economically and politically—I think we can learn to have more discernment and understanding of when teachings are appropriate and when they are not.

And at the heart of both Buddhism and psychotherapy is a complicated question of when to take seriously one’s own authority.

If therapy has developed into a tool to help people listen more carefully to their own stories, it’s important to remember that its origins are in many ways deeply problematic. Freud—one of Epstein’s explicit heroes—built his theory of female hysteria specifically on not listening to women’s accounts of their own problems, and instead on asking that women cede their understanding of their mental state to his diagnosis.

At first, Freud actually did listen to his patients, and when they told him that they had experienced sexual abuse, he believed them. But it was disturbing for middle-class Viennese society that so many of their own women had been sexually abused, often by esteemed members of that society. And so, to make his theories more palatable, Freud changed his theories. Women, he hypothesized, were disturbed not because they had been abused but because they were repressed and had sexual fantasies. They should not trust their own self-knowledge or memories, but should instead listen to his re-interpretation. Reich was a student of Freud and took Freud’s ideas even farther, examining patients’ orgasms as signs of their mental health. The idea was that the male therapist could assess the health of his female patient by the fluidity of her ego: if she did not have easy orgasms (under his gaze presumably), then she was repressed. Epstein explains Reich’s theory, again without batting an eye: “Not only could [the orgasm make] one’s muscular tensions dissolve, but the ego itself could temporarily lost its rigidity under the spell of sexual intercourse and the surprise of orgasm.” (95)

Reich’s treatment of sex as a practitioner and his own sexual life are too big a topic to go into here, but his daughter believed that he experienced sexual abuse as a child, a hypothesis that seems very likely reading his biography. Like Freud, then, Reich’s own theories of sexuality and repression can be seen as expressions of a man in a culture that was not yet ready to look at the prevalence of, and damage caused by, sexual abuse.

And while it is true that orgasms are powerful, there is a healthy time and place for them and also an unhealthy time and place for them. Again, it is surprising that this needs saying in 2018, but apparently so, because at the heart of our health as a society is the ways in which we are able to recognize healthy—and unhealthy—sexuality.

The #metoo movement is asking that we look again at the prevlance of sexual abuse. One of the most difficult things about seeing and naming sexual abuse is how very widespread it is: abuse is not just a shocking aberrant thing that happens only to some unlucky people by some rogue individuals. It’s a practice that is ingrained in almost every area of our culture and even in some of our most respected institutions and teachers.

Against a history of denial, the #metoo movement is asking us to listen in a different way to women’s stories. It is asking us to take women’s stories seriously. It is asking that we stop tricking ourselves into not seeing what is in front of us.

So does that mean that we need to take the patient’s story of her successful treatment with Reich at face value?

Here, in fact, is where Buddhism and therapy are both helpful: they teach us that we don’t need to believe everything that we think; that we don’t need to attach to our first ideas. Often the first or second story that we tell about ourselves might not be the accurate one. And often the ego gets identified with these false stories.

But the fact that we sometimes tell mistaken stories about ourselves does not mean that we should just “get over ourselves” and cede our authority to someone else. Rather we need to listen more attentively and more deeply, with more compassion, curiosity, and patience; we need to listen to the stories behind the stories behind the stories, to understand the full picture and to access our full self or, if you prefer, Buddha-nature.

Only when we give women the authority to do this kind of deep listening to themselves, in safe and protected spaces, will their real stories come out, and it is only from listening to true stories that we will have the tools to make the world a safer, more equitable, more peaceful place.

To listen to and trust ourselves we need a respect of boundaries before the ego can be dissolved.

Nowhere in Mark Epstein’s book does he provide this kind of layered, curious listening. Though he says that he strives to “make [his] office a place where patients felt safe enough, over time, to reveal the things that frightened them,” (55) I was dismayed to see the number of times where Epstein essentially tells women to “get over” themselves—for almost all of the clients he talks about are women.

Indeed, this kind of disrespectful advice is the founding example of the book, where in the first chapter Epstein’s Buddhist meditation teacher told Epstein’s grieving wife, who had just lost her best friend, to “get over herself.”

When one of Epstein’s clients, a female sculptor, is “resentful of the extra effort she was required to make and the lesser compensation she was afforded” as a woman compared to her male peers, Epstein’s advice is that she “get past herself.” Her therapy consists of Epstein guiding her not think about or act to change the structural inequity of her profession, but instead to think of herself as the “poorest of the poor,” and from that place to enjoy what she had. She was, according to Epstein, “recognizing the inner scarcity of her own withholding,” a strange lesson for a male doctor to highlight when the woman was already giving more than all of her male peers (112-113).

Epstein also describes his session with a middle-aged woman who is disturbed because she has been reminded of her experience as an eleven-year-old when her cousin came into her bed and tried to molest her. She carries shame and concern that this experience shaped the way her father saw her. Epstein’s response is to tell the woman that her analysis of the situation is probably not accurate: “I suggested to Martha that her father might have become more distant when she was a teenager anyway… (144)” In other words, he told the woman that she was mistaken to think that the sexual abuse had any real consequences. And he suggests that his, interpretation, is more valid than her own: “I was quite insistent on my comments.”

Having thus dismissed the problem, Epstein then reports the woman’s congratulations of him: “‘Dr. Mark!’ she exclaimed with obvious relief. ‘This is why you get the big bucks.’”

I think it’s reasonable to imagine that the woman was being sarcastic. Despite what Epstein seems to be arguing here, abuse does change things, if not necessarily in the father, then in how the daughter herself feels.The experience is complex and needs unpacking, and no matter how big the bucks one pays, its effects cannot be cleared up easily in one session.

The book, however, is full of such self-congratulatory tales of male doctors quickly and easily fixing confused women patients by telling them to “get over themselves.” The book offers no women as authority figures, and has only a very few examples of male patients, so structurally the book is full of men telling women to “get over themselves.”

One of the few stories of a male patient is of a 70-year-old man with violent sexual fantasies: “when I see a pretty girl coming down the street…I have fantasies of strangling her.” Epstein normalizes his patient’s feelings. Rather than exploring the source of those feelings, and where the violent sexual imagery might come from, he instead suggests that there is nothing wrong with the man’s fantasies. Indeed, Epstein encourages the patient to do what he wants to do in this situation–to look more directly at women, specifically their breasts (89).

In a book that is already so dismissive of sexual violence toward girls and women, it was hard not to read this as an example, again, of the normalization of sexual violence at the heart of psychoanalysis. To tell women who have been sexually abused that their story is a figment of their imagination, as Freud essentially did, is a re-traumatization. And to normalize fantasies of sexual violence perpetuates a culture which does not look directly at violence, but instead must distort it.

While the dangerous and mysogynist sexualization of pschoanalysis has been deconstructed by many women in the field, from Judith Herman to Alice Miller to Germaine Greer, their insights apparently bear repeating. The assumptions that we make about a healthy inner life shape the kind of society we live in.

We live in an age in which a man who brags about grabbing women by the pussy is President, and in which the attorney general of New York was regularly violent with his sexual partners. Every day, it seems, we are hearing about another flagrant abusive encounter. We still have a lot of work to do. And if it’s important to call out abuse when it occurs in person, it seems equally important to call it out when we see it written about. Only by changing our underlying assumptions about women, women’s bodies, and women’s authority, will we be able to change a culture of abuse and rape.

According to Epstein, the very unconventionality of Reich’s treatment is what he admires about it, and why he places it in the “right action” section of his book. But the example shows me, conversely, the importance of conventionality in our moral code. Having conventions of appropriate behavior, in our boundaries and in our laws help to keep us safe and also sane.

It is not appropriate for a therapist to undress his patient and to ogle her naked body. When we are told that it is appropriate, the well-being of our bodies, of our minds, and of our society are at risk. To change, we must be able to recognize and call out sexual abusive behavior when we see it. And we must allow women–and all people–authority over understanding their own stories, and give them truly safe places to listen to and trust themselves.

If a doctor more than twice my daughter’s age were to tell my daughter “get over” herself and to undress and lie on that table to be gawked at, I would hope my daughter could, rather than get over herself, hold onto her boundaries and herself—both her confidence and, yes, her ego—say no, walk out of the room, share her experiences with others, and have the therapist investigated.

Nadia Colburn is the founder of Align Your Story classes and coaching to help women claim the full power of their voice. Her writing has been widely published in such places as The New Yorker, Spirituality & Health, The American Scholar, Lion's Roar, The LA Review of Books, and elsewhere. She has taught and given workshops at MIT, Lesley University, Copper Beech Institute, and other universities, yoga and spiritual centers around New England. She holds a PhD in English from Columbia, a BA from Harvard, and is a certified yoga teacher and serious student of Thich Nhat Hanh. For free meditations and writing prompts and to learn more, please visit www.nadiacolburn.com.