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FAMILY LIFE

Beware That Pop Gobble-Gobbledygook

November 30, 1989|MIKE SPENCER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pop psychologists remind me of a herd of turkeys.

If you've ever been around a herd of turkeys, you will understand the analogy. All is quiet, then off in the distance one turkey will let out with a "gobble-gobble!" that will be picked up by another, then another. Like a wave, the noise sweeps across the whole herd until the clamor is deafening.

Then, just as suddenly, all is quiet, leaving you to wonder what in heaven's name that was all about. The turkey that first hollered may have had a reason; his backside may have been caught on the fence. Then, again, he may just have been clearing his gullet.

It's the same with the waves of diagnoses and treatment in pop psychology. New illnesses or approaches to them pop up with regularity, sweep across the land, then disappear. (You may remember primal screaming, Rolfing and curling up into a fetal position.)

Before all of this gobbledygook disappears, however, a lot of minds have been messed with and a lot of bucks made off books, lectures, workshops, therapy sessions, etc.

The latest buzzword is codependency, which I think is more related to the turkey with the backside caught in the fence than the one clearing his gullet. This hollering has a solid origin.

The term was first used to describe people who have sick relationships with sick people: wives or husbands who stay with violent alcoholics or drug abusers, for example.

Studies show an astronomical divorce rate after the offending mate cleans up his or her act. Quite obviously, then, the non-abuser in the relationship has some need for the other to be totally out of control and for themselves to live what a therapist friend of mine terms "vicarious lives."

But that narrow (and sensible) definition has now been expanded--it seems to me--so that we all qualify.

"If you can answer 'yes' to three of these questions, you need these books," was the headline in an ad I saw recently pushing about a dozen volumes on the subject (average price, $29.95).

I would defy anyone not to answer "yes" to at least three of the 10 questions. As a matter of fact, I would be disappointed (although not surprised in these times) in someone who answered "no" to couple of them.

Take this one: "Do you find it easier to be concerned about others than yourself?" Most religions, I would point out, preach just that. People who answer "yes" might be better defined as compassionate or selfless than as codependent.

Or, "Do you feel inadequate or guilty when you cannot help someone for whom you feel responsible?" I for one feel pretty inadequate when my children are ill or hurt, don't you?

Or how about, "Do you have trouble accepting personal criticism?" I know a lot of people, including any number of therapists, who would play hell answering "no" to that one.

The new definition of "codependency," I gather from the press releases and calls I get, now envelops not only extreme cases of sick reliance on a loved one's own sickness, but extends to any number of lesser problems that have all been lumped together to create what the poppers call "dysfunctional families."

Now, I know there are disturbed families out there, people who physically or emotionally abuse each other and anyone else who lives in the same house. And I would very much like for those people to get help.

What bothers me, however, rests on another definition. What is dysfunctional?

Maybe we all are to a certain extent, but where do we draw the line between normal family problems and crises and the need to pack up the family and head for the nearest therapist or bookshop?

In the broadest terms, we are all dependent on others--as they are on us--for many things, including an emotionally healthy life.

For example, our children, husbands and wives are dependent on us for love and understanding, and we depend on them for the same in return. And don't forget everyday relationships with employers, doctors or grocers. Are they also not codependencies?

The problem is that these waves of pop psychology, no matter how well grounded initially, are invariably turned into marketing tools for private therapists and hospitals.

Not that there are not altruistic people in the profession, mind you. It's just that my observation is, frankly, that most people have all the altruism they can afford.

I can remember some years ago attending a lecture by a pop psychologist in San Diego. "How many of you consider yourselves happy?" he asked the audience. About 80% of the people raised their hands.

"I mean really happy," he went on. "Gut-wrenching happy. Ecstatic everyday happy. Get-up-in-the-morning-God-I-love-life happy, every day of your life."

Only the village idiot could raise his hand at that.

The message was clear. For a few bucks, this guy could put you on the road to bliss.

He had The Answer.

They all do.

So, I think for now I'll just skip the question, thank you.

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