Welcome to the Postmodern World

Welcome to the Postmodern World

Tired of Your Old Reality? There Are Plenty More to Choose From.

By Maureen O'Hara and Walter Truett Anderson

September/October 1991

Jerry feels overwhelmed, anxious, fragmented and confused. He disagrees with people he used to agree with and aligns himself with people he used to argue with. He questions his sense of reality and frequently asks himself what it all means.

He has had all kinds of therapeutic and growth experiences: gestalt, rebirthing, Jungian analysis, holotrophic breathwork, bioenergetics, the Course in Miracles, 12-step recovery groups, Zen meditation, Ericksonian hypnosis. He has been to sweat lodges, to the Rajneesh ashram in Poona, to the Wicca festival in Devon. He is in analysis again, this time with a self-psychologist. Although he is endlessly on the lookout for new ideas and experiences, he keeps saying that he wishes he could simplify his life. He talks about buying land in Oregon. He loved Dances With Wolves.

Jerry is like so many well-educated professionals who come in for psychotherapy these days. But he is not quite the typical client: he is a well-established psychotherapist. He conducts stress-reduction workshops nationwide; his current foray into self-psychology analysis is another attempt to find some conceptual coherence for his own work—and, of course, for his own life.

Alex is also a client, but not a therapist. He’s 42, single, and for most of his life has felt lonely and alienated. He’s never cared much about politics, considers himself an agnostic, and has never found a hobby or interest he would want to pursue consistently. He says he doesn’t think he really has a self at all. He’s had two stints of psychotherapy; both ended inconclusively, leaving him still with chronic, low-grade depression.

Nowadays he’s feeling a little better about himself. He has started attending a local meeting of Adult Children of Alcoholics. People at the meetings seem to understand and validate his pain; he’s making friends there and believes he “belongs” for the first time since he left the military. But he confesses to his therapist that he feels “sort of squirrely” about it because he’s not an adult child of an alcoholic. He is faking the pathological label in order to be accepted by the community, and he’s not too sure he really buys their 12-step ideology, either.

Then there’s Beverly, who comes in to therapy torn between two lifestyles and two identities. In the California city where she goes to college, she is a radical feminist; on visits to her Midwestern home town she is a nice, sweet, square, conservative girl. The therapist asks her when she feels most like herself. She says, “When I’m on the airplane.”

All these people are shoppers in the great marketplace of realities that the contemporary, Western world has become; here a religion, there an ideology, over there a lifestyle. They, and millions like them, browse among a vast array of possibilities and in the process change not only their believes but their beliefs about belief-their ideas about what truth is and where it is found. They change not only their identities (I’m a woman, I’m a Jew, I’m a Jungian, I’m a liberal, I’m a Libra) but their ideas about what identity means. Some enjoy the freedom that can be found in this, some try to escape from the freedoms and some are nearly destroyed by it. Meanwhile, new products keep arriving at the marketplace. If old-time religion doesn’t do the job for you, perhaps Deep Ecology will.

Without quite noticing it, we have moved into a new world, one created by the cumulative effect of pluralism, democracy, religious freedom, consumerism, mobility and increasing access to news and entertainment. This is the world describe as “postmodern” to denote its difference from the modern world most of us were born into. A new social consciousness is emerging in this new world and touching the lives of all kinds of people who are not the least bit interested in having a new kind of social consciousness. We are all being forced to see that there are many beliefs, multiple realities, an exhilarating but daunting profusion of worldviews to fit every taste. We can choose among these, but we cannot choose not to make choices.

Prophets of modernism used to predict that, with progress, old beliefs would simply wither away. But that hasn’t happened; ancient traditions, from astrology to Zoroastrianism, are still around. Some contemporary prophets of neo-primitivism, fresh from a weekend of shamanistic drum beating, actually express their hope that the old beliefs will triumph and the modern ones will disappear. But that doesn’t seem to be happening either; science and modernism are still alive and well. What does seem to be happening is that belief itself is changing. People do not so much believe as have beliefs. Look back over the brief anecdotes above—the stories of Jerry and Alec and Beverly—and you can see them moving through different belief systems, cultures, lifestyles, inhabiting them in rather tentative ways. You may disapprove of them for this, as they often disapprove of themselves, but it is hard to imagine a contemporary world in which people didn’t or couldn’t shop around among different realities.

Frequently these cultural/ideological/religious consumer choices become the “problems” of psychotherapy. They underlie family conflicts and identity crises; they generate deep uncertainties about what—if anything—is real.

The shopping is playful for some, deadly serious for others. People sample from the postmodern smorgasbord of belief systems looking for The Truth and hope it will help them to discover their own True Selves. Confused by the staggering variety of beliefs from which they may choose, clients come to therapy hoping for some sure guidelines. But frequently the therapist is as confused as they are.


People in “premodern” societies had little need to struggle with the kinds of questions about identity and belief that bedevil most of us. The premodern mind, whatever its pains and sorrows, saw itself mirrored in every detail of its world. There were psychic anchors everywhere in the myths that explained the cosmos, in the environment of signs, symbols, and metaphors that gave form to thought; in the rituals and customs that shaped decisions and action; in the social organization that assigned to every person a clear role and reason for being.

It is quite impossible for the contemporary mind, no matter how strong the romantic tug in that direction to return to such a pre-modern consciousness. We can playfully explore primitive ritual and art, but we do it with a 20th-century awareness of other rituals, other art forms, other ways of being. Nor can we ever truly understand what it was like to live in a world in which people did not have to choose what to believe—indeed, could not choose—what to hold valuable, how to be.

As long as there was limited contact with outside influences bringing different realities, premodern societies remained stable, some persisted relatively unchanged for thousands of years and produced generation after generation of individuals congruent with their cultures. Inevitably, however, contact with other cultures and the confrontation with world that held a variety of different rules of human selfhood in which individuals defined themselves through personal choice set in motion the transition from premodern to modern society.

Modern civilizations formed larger and more complex social structures, usually containing people of different cultural heritages. Increasing mobility and urbanization put more and more people in proximity to others with different beliefs and cultural traditions. Issues of pluralism began to invade daily life, and modern civilizations invented all kinds of rules and arrangements—civil rights, separation of church and state, ghettoes, apartheid—for managing difference. Religion, values and worldview ceased to be integral parts of the social environment and became matters of individual choice and conflict.

Most people formed allegiances to some sort of institutionalized belief system, such as a religion or political ideology, which served as their primary definer of reality. Belief systems battled one another, and a great intellectual movement—the Enlightenment-attempted to establish a new universality based on reason. In the words of historian David Harvey, the Enlightenment “took it as axiomatic that there was only one possible answer to any question”—an axiom from which it followed “that the word could be controlled and rationally ordered if we could only picture and represent it rightly,” and that presumed “that there existed a single correct mode of representation which, if we could uncover it...would provide the means to Enlightenment ends.” The Enlightenment never full succeeded, but its values of rationality and order became the core of modern culture, uniting and sometimes overriding other cultures and values.

In the Western world, the modernizing process also brought increasing individualism. The person became the chief container of value, replacing the premodern sense of self as part of a unified whole that extended from individual to community to cosmos. Autonomy and freedom became vital issues in the lives of individual and societies. There was a paradoxical catch to this. In order to qualify as an autonomous, modern individual, you had to adjust to the norms of modern civilization, and this meant taming some of the wild energies that had been allowed to run free in emotionally laden rituals and ceremonies of premodern civilizations. Attaining to the model of the modern self involved repressing unacceptable thoughts, feelings and desires. Some of these could be projected back out onto others who took on special roles as feared, despised social outcasts; heretics, deviants, lunatics, subversives. The literature of modern civilization produced classic “outsider” characters—Heathcliff, Mr. Hyde, the madwoman in the attic—who embodies this preoccupation with the unacceptable (even unthinkable) aspects of human nature. There was always a certain tension between the needs of the self and the needs of society.

In the past century, therapy emerged as a critical social institution whose task it was to help individuals adapt to the often contradictory demands of the modern world The job of the “alienist”—the 19th-centruy term for psychiatrist—was to help patients domesticate their deviant tendencies. Psychoanalysis was designed to provide a context within which the patient could admit to troubling and chaotic irrationalities thrashing about within the psyche and be guided in the struggle to bring them back safely under the control of the normalizing ego; “Where Id was,” Freud promised, “there shall Ego be.”

Many people were frightened by Freud’s insistence on the power of the unconscious, but Freud himself was firmly on the side of reason. Psychoanalysis was an extension of the Enlightenment, in some ways its most ambitious effort. Freud describe it as a science. He encouraged the belief that he knew how the mind worked. For many of Freud’s followers, psychoanalysis was The Truth. For many patients, the only way to hold onto sanity was to hold onto the therapist—to live a life continually reinforced by the therapist’s values and interpreted by his insights. Psychoanalysis became yet another belief system.

To train as a psychoanalyst was to be socialized into that belief system, and to deviate from its doctrines was to be regarded as wrong. Many of Freud’s students, as we all know, persisted in their wrongness, founded their own schools, constructed their own belief systems and punished their own deviates. Disputes between schools were bitter and often personal; psychiatrists frequently noticed that their intellectual rivals not only had unsound ideas about sanity but didn’t look too sane themselves.

Yet despite the doctrinal differences, there was agreement about certain core issues, including the task of psychiatry (to create a well-adjusted person); the role of the therapist (analyst, doctor, teacher, sometimes disciplinarian); and the objective status of the theory upon which the therapy was based. There was also agreement about what the well-adjusted self, the successful product of therapy, was like: rational, consistent, autonomous, moderate and (as feminist analysts point out) suspiciously male in habits and thoughts. Above all, the healthy self was an integrated self, and not a psychic battlefield of warring tendencies. Psychoanalysis has gradually evolved away from its preoccupation with adjustment and toward a greater emphasis on identity without abandoning its tendency to equate mental health with integration; the self may have parts, but they had better fit neatly together.

As time went on, schools of therapy proliferated: Freudian and neo-Freudian, behaviorist, humanist, transpersonal, cognitive. So have therapeutic professions—clinical psychologists, marriage and family counselors, social workers, alcohol and drug counselors—generating still more schools. Some of the schools of therapy are more or less compatible with one another and can be selectively blended by the eclectic practitioners, but many work from irreconcilably different ideas about the psyche. In the bewildering world of modern psychotherapy, then, schizophrenia may be described by one authority as a disease of the physical brain, by another as a result of dysfunctional parenting, by another as completely nonexistent. It is ironic, and to many prospective clients of psychotherapy rather disturbing, that a profession that purports to produce integrated selves is itself so fragmented.


A society enters the postmodern age when it loses faith in absolute truth—even the attempt to discover absolute truth. The great systems of thought like religions, ideologies and philosophies, come to be regarded as “social constructions of reality.” These systems may be useful, even respected as profoundly true, but true in a new, provisional, postmodern way. Few expect that one truth ought to work for everybody. 

Irony is endemic to postmodern times. Traditionally irony has been regarded as a mild form of sarcasm that implies a disbelief in what appears on the surface to be true. For philosophers, the supreme ironist was Socrates, the wise man who played at knowing nothing. The person speaking ironically implies something entirely different, even opposite, to his or her actual words. Richard Rorty, the leading philosopher of postmodern America, offers a challenging description of the person who understands and accepts the conditions of life in this era. Ironists, says Rorty, “realize that anything can be made to look good or bad by being redescribed,” and are “always aware that the terms in which they describe themselves are subject to change, always aware of the contingency and fragility of their final vocabularies, and thus of their selves.”

Irony becomes a survival strategy in a world of constant uncertainty. For Beverly, the radical feminist-nice girl-airline passenger, this would mean that the rhetoric and agendas of the women at the university, the traditions of the folks at home and, for that matter, the rituals and mannerisms that go with airplane flight are all only vocabularies that work perfectly well in their contexts but do not have to be regarded as universal. Being an ironist also means-and this is the more frightening part-letting go of the idea of a True Self that is the same in all contexts. 

In some ways, most of us already think that way. But in some ways we do not—or, when we think that way, we think we shouldn’t be thinking that way. There can’t be many people who have fully embraced the ironist worldview. Such an all-encompassing skepticism suggests the inability or unwillingness to believe anything is true at face value.

It is useful to look at the contemporary world as “postmodern,” but this doesn’t mean that we have left the modern era behind. It is all around us, and within us. Most of us slip back and forth like bilingual children between postmodern/constructivist modes of thought, in which we regard reality as socially constructed, and modern/objectivist modes of though in which we regard reality as something that is nonhuman yet known (or at least potentially knowable) with unshakable certainty through some approach to the truth-science, religion, history, psychotherapy. We cling to the hope that one or another of these approaches will explain everything for us and maybe even for everyone else as well. Both modern and postmodern, but never sure which, we also have wistful hankerings for what we imagine were the simple joys of the premodern.

The profession of psychotherapy also stands with one foot in each world or, to stretch the metaphor, in all three. It is as pluralistic as any postmodern theorist could hope for, yet unwilling to confront the implications of its own pluralism, which is that none of its approaches can qualify as a universally acceptable body of knowledge of the human psyche. It has not only multiple realities but multiple approaches to reality-everything from science to myth. What it doesn’t have is a way of making sense of this multiplicity and helping its clients make sense of it.


Most of Jerry’s professional life has been spent pursuing the therapist’s equivalent of the Holy Grail: a universally true psychological theory and practice in which he can find himself—his true self—mirrored. He has spent literally tens of thousands of dollars searching for an approach that he can trust unreservedly and that dependable meets the needs of his clients. Yet it seems to Jerry and to many others like him that the longer he searches for therapeutic certainty the farther he gets from it. The plurality of choices becomes as much of a problem as the ones that caused them to enter therapy in the first place.

Last fall a woman, a young, social work student, attended the Ericksonian Institute’s Evolution of Psychotherapy conference in Southern California, which brought together the leading proponents of most of the dominant therapeutic schools. Afterward, she said, “The Titans dazzled us with technical and theoretical brilliance, but they left the most interesting and scary issue untouched. If all these approaches are so different, and all of them are supposed to be “true,’ how can I believe in any of them?” Her question may seem a bit naïve, but it is one the modern era never managed to answer. How does the profession of therapy maintain its claim to scientific legitimacy in the face of the growing recognition that all knowledge is relative?

One way is exemplified by the various guilds that serve as the profession’s gatekeepers, inventing, refining and enforcing an array of procedures that give therapy the status of modern-style objective knowledge. All the licensing laws, accreditation of training programs, legitimizing bodies like the National Register standardized testing and treatment procedures approved by medical insurance companies, the utilization of psychologists as expert witnesses in trials, the profession-wide agreement to use the categories described in DSM-III-R as diagnoses and so on, serve to create the illusion of objective discourse. They delineate what is inside and what is outside the boundaries of psychological truth. They lend credibility to practitioners and to the profession itself, presumably making room for multiple approaches and fencing out the weirdos. At the same time, these gatekeepers are never able to state their criteria objectively and are continually fighting skirmishes at the boundaries of legitimacy.

The reaction to this ideological disarray has been expressed for decades by mavericks like Thomas Szasz, who recently summed up his case by calling the mental health systems “a house of cards, held up nothing more, or less, than popular as well as professional belief in the truth of its principles and the goodness of its practices.” Szasz and others charge that this system, however shaky, is also a power structure representing the interests and moral standards of the elites who maintain it. Such a critique is stated by various groups including scientific skeptics and libertarians, New Age practitioners, feminists, minorities and political radicals. Many point out that several European countries, no less civilized than our own, get by without the huge legitimizing bureaucracy we seem to require; England, for example, has no licensing of psychologists.

Most seasoned psychotherapists spend their lives somewhere in the uncomfortable gap between the establishment and the mavericks, suspicious of the scientific claims of positivist biological or behavioral medicine, yet unwilling to throw all the legitimation procedures out the window and let anyone who feels like it hang out a shingle. They are likely to stay, “You’ve got to have some standards,” and to believe that the system, however flawed, protects the client against unscrupulous and/or incompetent practitioners. Therapists are particularly likely to believe this, of course, if they are viewing the system from the inside.

As one grows older it becomes easier to put postmodern (and ironic) “quotation marks” around the truths of therapy and definitions of mental health and sanity, and to accept them as socially constructed realities. But the therapist who attains to this level of sophistication, the closet ironist, may be reluctant to share his or her wisdom with patients, students, grant-making agencies, insurance company representatives or lawyers looking for an expert witness.

Many therapists describe moments of absolute terror when the knowledge fails, when they are confronted with situations that they simply to not understand nor know what to do about. The patient can confess, in the midst of therapy, to be utterly uncertain about anything, but the therapist (especially the young therapist who has not yet grown skeptical of what he or she was taught in school) often believes he or she has to know what to do.

For some, dealing with a therapeutic belief system that happens to conflict with their own simply becomes a matter of telling lies. Consider the experience of Mara, a postdoctoral intern who works in a battered women’s shelter serving a largely Latino population. In a woman’s psychology supervision group, she admitted that she was routinely lying to her supervisor—a person she describe as “a kick-ass existentialist who thinks support by the therapist is ‘enabling’ or ‘codependent hand-holding.’” Although the supervisor was pleased with Mara’s work on the basis of positive reports from clients and the agency, Mara was deeply distressed and was thinking about leaving the field even though her licensing examination was just four months away. She had her own rationale, as a feminist and a Mexican-American, for the way she worked with clients, but didn’t know how to make it sound like a legitimate approach to therapy. She said, “I’m afraid that if I tell the truth about what I do I won’t get my license, but if I do what they say I just can’t live with myself. So I lie. But then what’s the truth anyway? How do I know that I’m not enabling? Maybe it’s all just meaningless bullshit.”

Many people, both therapists and patients, encounter such dilemmas in their personal and professional lives. Some, perhaps most, avoid them as best they can, fearing that a hard look at their own uncertainty may turn into a glimpse of unimaginable psychic chaos. Some survive by fuzzing up the issues. Some survive by becoming True Believers in one system or another and arranging their lives in ways that protect them from too much exposure to other people’s realities. But many are working toward another way of being.

They may not state their problems in the arcane language of postmodern intellectualism, but they often manage to be quite explicit about the problems. Some, like Alec, the counterfeit Adult Child of Alcoholics, can even explain how they come to terms with life in a world of multiple realities. “I just try not to take the belief system, the 12-steps and all that, too seriously,” he says. “Does it matter if it’s not true in some absolute sense as long as it helps? Can’t it be true for them and not true for me as long as it works anyway? Another closet ironist.

One therapy client, Nelli, has struggled desperately to create a coherent image of herself as a woman. She has been hospitalized four times after disastrous collapses of her self-image—two failed marriages, two severe crises in her professional career. She achieved a breakthrough of sorts in therapy recently, when she said she had always imagined that, to be acceptable, her Self should have the balance and proportion of a Greek vase. Instead, she said with a slight smile and something approaching self-appreciation, “I’m more like a David Hockney photo-collage. If my glue doesn’t hold, with creativity and a little help from my friends I can always stick myself together into some arrangement that feels right most of the time.” In this she was not only saying something about who and what she is, but something about what a self is.

More often than not the ventures into postmodernism thinking—Alec’s way of dealing with the ACOA ideology, Nelli’s way of dealing with the idea of self-are expressed a bit apologetically. People are aware of having let go of something but not aware of having found something with which to replace it. Neither they nor the culture nor therapy has a language for naming such small discoveries as explorations and triumphs. Such people present to their therapists, and to the profession itself, the challenge of learning how to live in a world that is not quite the same as the world in which therapy originated.


Taking on the challenge certainly doesn’t mean discarding all believe systems because they are only social constructions, nor does it mean suspending all value judgements and regarding all beliefs as equal for the same reason. We don’t have to do that because we can’t do that. There is no such thing as a human mind without beliefs and values; we are reality-constructing, valuing creatures. We may come to regard various belief systems-Christian, Marxist, Freudian-as stories, but they are stories constructed out of the human need to understand the cosmos and to provide order to what otherwise would be the chaos of our lives. The stories area all we have; in a sense, they are all we are.

The bad news about postmodern life is the serious despair, emptiness and social disintegration that sometimes follow the disappearance of all certainties. The good news is the freedom it offers, the great wealth of opportunities to explore life. The weakness of many of the texts of postmodern thought is that, for all their analytical brilliance, they tend to be rather abstract about the human experience involved. They are long on phrases such as Michel Foucault’s advice to “prefer what is positive and multiple, differences over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems,” but short on practical ideas about how this is to be done. The task of therapists is to turn some of postmodernism’s vague celebrations of multiplicity and change into lived experience.

Postmodernism poses us with the challenge of bringing forth a new and vastly more spaciouss idea of what the self is, of what human beings are. We need to understand human life in our time in a way that does not lead people to believe that they have to trim themselves down to the primitive innocence of the premodern self of the well-adjusted conformity of the modern self. We are beginning to see that people can be not only multicultural but multiepistemological-able to find truth and meaning in many ways. If people are to learn how to be at home in the radically pluralistic, radically changing contemporary world, it will be because we have come to an understanding of what the self is that includes the ideas of the past and goes beyond them. If this is postmodernism, let us make the most of it.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 1991 issue of Psychotherapy Networker.

Maureen O’Hara, Ph.D., is president of the Association for Humanistic Psychology, teaches women’s studies and maintains a private practice in marriage and family counseling in Encinitas, CA. Address: Encinitas Center for Family and Person Development, 1012 Second St, #200, Encinitas, CA 92024.

Walter T. Anderson, Ph.D., is the author of numerous books including Reality Isn’t What it Used to Be (Harper & Row: San Francisco)

Read 4848 times
Comments - (existing users please login first)
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *