Steve K. Dubrow-Eichel
This article summarizes some preliminary observations on psychotherapy clients involved in “New Age” groups. New Age clients present unique challenges. They tend to overvalue subjective experience and seek intense experiences and sensations. They seem to confuse the process of altering consciousness with the state of higher consciousness. While claiming special capacities for love and caring, they may have difficulty making deep emotional commitments. In therapy, New Age clients tend to be highly ambivalent, may test traditional client-therapist boundaries, and may be especially resistant. Historically, New Age clients have often been “pushed” toward New Age solutions by a major disappointment or trauma., Most New Agers we have worked with tend to be “dabblers,” “hoppers,” or “cultists.” Preliminary guidelines for working with New Age clients are offered.
Like many psychotherapists familiar with what Singer (1982) has termed the “systematic manipulation of psychological and social influence” (SMPSI), we have become increasingly concerned with the impact of manipulative aspects of the New Age movement on the psychological well-being of our clients.
What follows are impressions based on our experiences, those of Roberta Cobrin Eisenberg M.S.W., and other colleagues associated with RETIRN, the Re-Entry Therapy, Information & Referral Network. RETIRN is a group mental health practice that since 1983 has specialized in treating the victims of SMPSI. These observations were originally discussed at a symposium we chaired at the 1988 annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Psychological Association (Dubrow-Eichel, Dubrow-Eichel, Garvey, Greenberg, & Ryan, 1988). We gratefully acknowledge our co-presenters for the contributions they made to our thinking.
Defining the New Age
The “New Age” movement is a collection of widely varying groups and individuals, united in principle if not in action by the idea that Western civilization is in the midst of a major “paradigm shift” that will radically change standard beliefs and behaviors, presumably in a very positive direction. This paradigm shift purports to integrate experience with experimentation, and spirituality with science, claiming that this integration leads to a radically new understanding of the nature of the universe and the awakening of untapped human potential (leading in turn to fruitful advances for all mankind). For psychology (and we admit to overgeneralization here), this paradigm shift involves an appreciation of supposedly hidden or latent extrasensory, spiritual, and paranormal mental abilities along with a radical reconstruction of physics that permits these psychic “energies” to have parity with established forces like electricity or gravity. Those of us who recall the counterculture of the mid-to-late “Sixties might liken the “New Age” to the “Age of Aquarius,” a term that inspired Marilyn Ferguson to title her auspicious review of the New Age movement, The Aquarian Conspiracy.
When the vanguard of the hippie/new left movement marched on the Pentagon in 1967, they brashly proclaimed that their combined positive energy would cause the Pentagon to levitate into the air. Of course, most activists in the anti-war movement understood that “levitating” the Pentagon was street theater, a fantasy to grab media attention. New Age inheritors of the counterculture, however, are not always so realistic. When advanced practitioners of TM (Transcendental Meditation) report that they can fly, they are not talking metaphorically. Many, if not most, of the followers of “Ramtha,” a supposed spirit entity from the “lost continent of Atlantis,” accept as indisputable fact the “channeling” of J.Z. Knight, the medium for Ramtha’s messages. And members of some New Age transformational groups have been known to drive around Manhattan trying to “create” parking spaces with their minds.
Although the New Age movement seems exotic, there is little in it that is truly new. PHosophic-ally, parts of it are a retrogression to 19th century spiritualism, while other parts can be traced back to pro-Christian druidism, pantheism, and belief in magic. Much of New Age psychology recalls the emotional irrationalism of the romantic period. Other New Age psychologies are clearly rooted in “spiritual technologies,” such as Scientology, and/or in eastern religion. Despite its claims to be “new” or progressive,” the New Age movement appears to be regressive and curiously old-fashioned.”
Some Observations on the “New Age Personality”
We do not intend here to propose a new diagnostic category. Indeed, a “New Ager” is perhaps primarily a self-described grouping or social status. With that caveat in mind, we present some of our clinical and social-psychological observations about our New Age clients and contacts.
Subjective Experience Is Highly Valued
New Agers generally place unusually great value on subjective experience. As Kevin Garvey stated during our symposium, the New Age movement .produces individuals who elevate spiritual fable higher than verifiable reality.” In the more difficult cases, the New Ager “will have a hard time facing unwanted deductions and inconvenient facts” (Garvey, 1988). Among our less serious cases, we often find an inordinate comfort with the ability to maintain two contradictory thoughts in awareness without one displacing the other, something that is generally considered characteristic of childhood ropition and hypnotic states. As a hypnotized subject can be aware that an onion is really an onion even though it tastes like a pear, the New Ager can acknowledge that thoughts cannot be transmuted into matter and yet still believe that a Buddhist chant or a psychic with strong PK (psychokinesis) can materialize objects out of thin air (Note 1).
Impatient Sensation Seekers
New Agers tend to be impatient sensation seekers. “Meaning” to most of us implies a lifelong proem, not an end or a goal.” -The notion that enlightenment is something one can maintain,” like an income tax bracket, is troubling. New Agers typically mistake the process of altering awareness for a state of higher consciousness, and they erroneously assume that almost any experience connected with emotional intensity is inherently integrative and productive. Not surprisingly, Altered States has become a cult movie for many New Agers. They seek to create and maintain altered states in a great variety of ways, and are willing to pay high prices for these experiences, which may range from spending time in a sensory deprivation tank to colonics and (mislabeled) “cleansing” fasts. In their desire to “attain” enlightenment, they become hypnosis and catharsis “junkies,” measuring the validity of a workshop or guru by the degree of emotional intensity they experience (or “discharge”), and by how “expanded” their consciousness feels.
Difficulty Making Commitments
While claiming to have special capacities for love and caring, New Agers we have worked with appear to have unusual difficulty making long-term emotional commitments or the sacrifices common to relationships (e.g., marital fidelity), despite their ideology’s emphasis on “surrender.” The New Age notion of “personal responsibility” usually translates behaviorally to rationalized and often uncaring narcissism. Rather than facilitating love and respect, these beliefs seem to frustrate or even infuriate significant others. Our critical impression is that the gap between belief (“I am full of love”) and behavior (“I am fed up with you”) is larger for the New Ager than it is for the typical adult or late adolescent having relationship difficulties. New Agers also seem to have more difficulty making and keeping therapy commitments than do other clients.
Difficulty Coping with Therapist-Client Boundaries
New Agers frequently protest therapist-client boundaries. They win often equivocate when the therapist stipulates that regular appointments should be kept, or that the therapeutic hour should be respected. They may demand to meet outside the office, and will often resist free associating or examining projections. They will want the therapist to be “real.” They will make covert, or even overt, demands that the therapist maintain a guru-like stature, and yet will attack him whenever he sounds like an expert.” Such demands are often highly ambivalent and conflicted, and hidden-hidden. They can be obscured by the therapist’s unconscious need for self-aggrandizement or by the client’s discomfort with the prolonged anxiety that often accompanies the examination of real as opposed to manufactured, therapeutic transference issues.
These difficulties may manifest in regard to payment of psychotherapy fees. Ironically, we have observed a resistance to standard psychotherapy fees in persons who were subtly coerced into spending large sums of money for New Age seminars, under conditions of strong peer pressure, manipulation of guilt, or intense confrontation about one’s “hang-ups” and “issues” with money or commitment. During an intake session, for example, one client complained that her therapist was asking many of the same questions asked during her initiation into a New Age psychotherapy cult, “only that time [she] was not charged.” The client was denying the outrageous money obligations that followed her initiation into the cult.
It is our impression that a disproportionate number of adult children will only agree to psychotherapy if it is paid for by their parents, and will resist looking at the dependency and entitlement issues this demand implies. In fact, many of these clients also manipulated their parents into subsidizing their New Age activities, and, in some cases, even successfully recruited them into attending certain activities.
In such situations, the therapist-client boundary issues appear to be reenactments of more archaic parent-child boundary issues. Some clients naively believe in the idealism professed by the leader(s) of their movement, disassociating their leaders’ verbal messages from the group’s fund-raising and recruiting activities. They may then expect the therapist to provide services for reduced or even no fee, often out of their sense of what constitutes dedication to the “anti-cult movement.” Some New Agers are ultimately grateful for their family’s efforts in the exit counseling process, yet even then tend not to offer to compensate (even partially) their families for the often substantial financial costs of exit counseling.
There often appears to have been one alienating event, or even trauma, that moved the client toward an acceptance of New Age beliefs and techniques. For example: a trauma-induced perceptual distortion (e.g., seeing an aura around a recently deceased loved one); a stress-related hallucination; a major disappointment in relation to traditional religion, medicine, science, or psychology (e.g., the client was misdiagnosed or poorly treated by a trusted psychotherapist, was sexually abused by a priest, or became disillusioned after learning about her rabbi’s financial misconduct); commonplace family-related developmental crises. As with traditional cultists, the potential New Ager displays a streak of idealistic naiveté. Once involved in a New Age group, the now alienated or disillusioned recruit receives considerable support from similarly disaffected persons in the group.
Familiarity with Dissociative States
New Agers often have become familiar, and even comfortable, with dissociative states. Many have certainly experienced hallucinogenic drugs (as have many cultists). But we have also seen New Agers with developmental histories of nonorganic attention deficits (e.g., “daydreaming”), experiences with prolonged and intense social alienation and withdrawal, and a broad range of dissociative phenomena not necessarily related to religious experiences (e.g., fugue states).
The Systematic Manipulation of Experience (SME)
Unlike the rapid and radical belief and behavior change of “traditional” cult conversion, which Singer’s construct of SMPSI illuminates, New Age. conversions seem to be more related to a direct (and at times overt) manipulation of thoughts, perceptions, and attributions. Compared to cultists, New Agers seem to be more “willing,” if naive, participants in the change process, and often do not need to be subjected to milieu and information control in order to be steered toward a “snapping” point. Nonetheless, although New Agers may have agreed to be subjects, they have not given truly “informed consent.” Like first-time LSD users, New Agers often agree to ” something without really understanding what they are getting into: a well-orchestrated, direct assault upon not only their basic belief systems, but upon the heart of experience and of perception itself (cf. Ofshe & Singer, 1986). With our acknowledgments to Dr. Singer, we have tentatively labeled this process the “systematic manipulation of experience,” or SME.
Psychotherapy with the New Ager
For the psychotherapist – and especially for the psychotherapist in agreement with New Age concepts – certain psychological situations may pose interesting challenges. For example, how will psychologists who accept that “your reality is as real as my reality,” interpret a Rorschach test, with its homothetic notions of “good form” and “adequate reality testing”? How do New Age notions affect therapists dealing with domestic violence or rape? Does one contend that the battered wife or rape victim “wanted” it, or was at least “responsible for that potentially violent space”? Along this vein, we are currently working with a woman who was sexually abused by one New Age psychologist and told by another New Age psychologist that she “created that abusive space.” It will take many months to undo the damage caused by the sexual abuse and by the second therapist, whose comments appear to have contributed to a major depressive episode in our client.
New Agers will often rationalize such disturbing events by failing back on the erroneous and vapid notion of “many equally valid realities,” even as they typically cherish being told what is spiritually true and false. Of course, their capacity to advocate contradictory thoughts simultaneously helps them “keep the faith.”
In working with New Agers, we have found it helpful to keep in mind the following three categories, representing increasing severity of the problem and increasing need for specialized skills: dabblers, hoppers, and cultists.
Almost all psychotherapists have dealt with dabblers. Dabblers are typically bright, white, middle class, and the kind of persons who believe in UFOs and are convinced that they have had at least one incident involving ESP or an out-of-body experience (OBE). Dabblers, during the year before the therapeutic contact, have usually participated in two or three fight (i.e., inexpensive or of low time commitment) New Age activities and have read several New Age books or magazine articles.
Dabblers seek psychotherapy for the usual reasons, and New Age beliefs and experiences probably play a small role in their lives. There are two dangers, however. First, clients’ New Age experiences may make them more comfortable with and vulnerable to the stronger techniques used by the more noxious New Age groups. Second, clients (and/or a conducing therapist) may downplay New Age attachments so much that they never come out in therapy. In either case, therapists may be surprised to find that clients suddenly quit therapy bemuse they have “found it,” or whatever, and believe they no longer need traditional therapy.
When working with dabblers, therapists should a) point out how looking for a “quick fix” fits into an overall personality style or behavioral pattern which might sidetrack the client from more important therapeutic issues, and b) educate the client about how suggestibility and hypnosis apply to New Age experiences. BibUotherapy, such as Randi’s (1982) entertaining Flim-flam or Gardner’s (1988) collection of essays on the New Age might be useful.
Dabblers tend to continue to dabble in whatever is fashionable in New Age circles (UFOs one year, channeling the next), unless their attempts to cope with a source of stress (e.g., a shaky relationship, a new business venture) draws them away from their light involvement with the New Age movement. Sometimes, their New Age shopping qualifies them for what we call the hopper phase; sometimes, often through the influence of a new and suddenly intense love affair, they bypass the hopper stage and graduate immediately to the status of New Age cultist.
Hoppers often search for quick and easy answers and meanings, and always seek (although not necessarily consciously) for heightened sensation and new experiences. They are typically sincere and caring (and somewhat on the histrionic side), although often either in between relationships, in a disappointing relationship, or, ironically, because they often talk a great deal about commitment, unable to sustain a long-term relationship. Hoppers have sampled a wide range of New Age groups and techniques on a much more serious level than dabblers. They typically stay with one primary New Age group, leader, or technique for several months before moving on. Often, they combine these various experiences into an eclectic, self-styled philosophy that just seems to be missing something which impels their continued searching. Hoppers, if
they continue within the New Age movement, tend to become New Age cultists or leaders of some sort, often conducting self-styled workshops for the next crop of dabblers and hoppers. Though they often become quickly and deeply involved in a New Age group or movement, hoppers tend not to graduate to cultist status when the group(s) “With which they are affiliated are not (at least yet) cults or when they hesitate to ,.surrender totally to the group.
Hoppers present the same issues in therapy as dabblers, but exhibit greater resistances, often in the guise of-, 1) systematized irrationality (e.g., multiple “realities” exist and are all equally valid), 2) comfort with, and even insistence upon, the therapist’s employing New Age hypnotic or “therapeutic” techniques (e.g., past-life regression), 3) great difficulty differentiating between true emotion and manipulated emotion, and 4) an easy rejection of standard therapist-client contracts and boundaries.
In working with hoppers, therapists must wrestle with the diagnostic issue of deciding whether the client’s histrionic-sounding affective expressiveness is the result of New Age involvement or is symptomatic of an underlying personality disorder. The client’s belief that intense (externally manipulated) emotional experience is the only “valid” therapy complicates the diagnostic issue and inclines him to reject therapists who will not offer “deep emotional discharge” or some form of pseudocatharsis.
New Agers also tend to demand that therapists have some extranormal power in which they can share. The concept of “sharing the power” is important. As noted earlier, New Age clients are ambivalent about therapists having power “over” them. Thus, we have often observed that New Agers will participate in training courses with their therapists. One client (a businesswoman) in treatment with a New Age therapist who practiced neurolinguistic programming (NILP) eventually went on to become a certified NLP practitioner herself. Her training included attending workshops along with her therapist. We see here a resemblance to the dynamic of “participating in power” one often finds in occultists and satanists. In treatment, therapists must be able to confront clients meaningfully without “enating them, and without seeming to have some “special” knowledge that elevates the therapist to guru status. Such confrontations become less personal in a way, because clients’ problems are often more determined by here-and-now manipulation than by personal background factors.
Hoppers can be chronic and unabashed boundary benders. In addition to eschewing regular session hours, places, and fees, they may insist on being hugged or touched. Many are vulnerable to and even solicitous of unethical therapist-client sexual contacts. In session, it is important to be patient and to gently confront the need for sensation and manufactured peak experiences. Clients’ anxiety, although often associated with boredom and monotony, may also be due to an underlying narcissistic disorder. The normal cycles and flows experienced by long-term intimates (who are sometimes close and passionate, sometimes distant and cool) are often intolerable. As a paradigm for treatment, we have often found the self psychology of Heinz Kohut to be useful with these clients. Refusing to violate therapist-client boundaries, for example, tends to be experienced as a narcissistic injury.
Underlying the hopper’s need to understand and struggle with manufactured pseudointerdependence, we have often found a more pressing concern with development issues of independence, dependence, and the narcissistic fear of devouring/being devoured. Hypnotic methods (e.g., NLP) should be carefully avoided. Indeed, the therapist should eventually educate clients about hypnosis and manipulated experience, while watching and waiting for opportunities to support clients’ growing skepticism of the various “gurus” and other leaders they will inevitably continue to encounter. These leaders Will typically seem to “have it all together” and to be “so spiritual,” until the clients get to know them better, when they discover that the guru is at best merely another lost or confused soul, or at worst a sociopath. Therapists can use these disappointments to teach the client about the dangers of believing in a spiritual elite (but therapists should be careful not to elevate themselves to a similar lofty and precarious height).
Because a cult is defined by group structure (totalitarian hierarchy with “god-like” leader) and practices (deception, coercive persuasion, ego destruction), its philosophies and belief systems are of secondary importance (Dole & Dubrow-Eichel, 1985). Hence, cults can arise in New Age groups, as well as in Christian, Jewish, political, commercial, and psychotherapeutic groups.
Members of New Age cults resemble “traditional” cultists more than they resemble New Age dabblers and hoppers. Our observations suggest that the majority of New Age cultists do not initially benefit from traditional psychotherapy while they remain cult-involved. New Age cultists, even if sufficiently distressed to be willing to talk with traditional therapists, usually employ New Age trance techniques or other practices the group uses to induce members to stifle “negativity” and to deny and denigrate their pre-cult selves and other “nonenlightened entities.” These clients need specialized interventions, typically with an exit counselor familiar with the intricate group persona of their particular cult. Relatives tend to make the first therapeutic contact once the person is entrenched in a cult.
In our opinion, therapists should initially act as consultants to the family and exit counselor(s). If the person decides to leave the group, therapists can then take over as the primary resource for re-entry assistance. (See Hassan, 1988; Langone, 1985; Ross & Langone, 1988; and Singer, 1987 for detailed advice on counseling cultists.) Well-planned and thoughtfully executed e3dt counseling is the single most effective intervention for a cultist, and in general reduces the amount of time needed in subsequent re-entry therapy (cf. Conway & Sidgelman, 1982).
Lastly, therapists should also remember that former New Agers, like cultists, often have a special distrust of group treatment modalities. This should be respected.
We have discussed some observations of how the New Age movement has influenced the fives of many clients and families who have sought help from RETIRN. The psychology of New Age involvement resembles that of satanism/occultism in that both entail much self-selection and a desire to “participate in power.” Although satanic/occult involvements are frequently on the dabbler or cultic level, they rarely resemble the New Age hopper. New Age hoppers most closely resemble cult hoppers or, as some have termed them, “seekers.” Some New Age groups closely resemble, or in fact may be, traditional destructive cults. These groups rely on blatant deception; have a more clear-cut hierarchy with a god-like leader, and utiun milieu control and SMPSI. Figure 1 illustrates the relative similarities between these categories and traditional cultists. Not surprisingly, then, therapeutic work with New Agers can at times closely resemble the exit-counseling and psychotherapy that has been effective with cultists, while at other times it resembles the strategy employed with satanists and occultists, i.e., first work with the underlying psychological issues, then carefully deal with the consequences and implications of the belief system.
The New Age movement is a complex phenomenon, in some ways even more complex than the continuing debate on cultism. Hence, this article should be considered exploratory and tentative. We welcome comments and criticisms.
As another example of the New Ager’s Went for maintaining cognitive illusions, we are reminded of a television appearance the senior author made in February 1988, along with Bob Fellows, a mentalist (i.e., a “mind reader” who admits he cheats). Bob conducts critical thinking workshops in which he uses his mentalist tricks to teach awareness of mind manipulation. As the senior author waited in the green room along with the acknowledged leader of the Philadelphia New Age community, Fellows went on first and explained that the “mind reading” demonstrations he performs appear very psychic but are in fact tricks and illusions based on well-understood facts about human perception and cognition. Fellows then performed a trick in which he “reads” the mind of an audience volunteer who has picked a word at random from a thick paperback book. When Fellows unknowingly picked out one of the New Age leader’s closest compatriots for his first demonstration, the leader gleefully declared that this woman was a powerful psychic and would blast Fellows with “negativity” that would throw him off. And sure enough, both the woman on camera and the swami behind the green door chuckled when Fellows’ first attempt to “read minds” seemed headed for failure. When Fellows then correctly verbalized the word the woman picked, however, the bewildered New Age leader exclaimed, “How did he do that?” Where does he get his power?” Thus, rather than consider that .psychic powers’ may be less than supernatural, the leader offered an explanation that protected his belief system: that Fellows, perhaps even unbeknownst to himself, was a very powerful psychic who could overpower “negativity.”
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Garvey, K. (1988, May 1). Quoted in Bordewich, F. Colorado’s thriving cults, The New York 7-imes Magazine, p. 43.
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Ofshe, R., & Singer, M. (1986). Attacks on peripheral versus central elements of self and the impact of thought reforming techniques. Cultic Studies Journal, 3, 3-24.
Ross, J.C., & Langone, M.D. (1988). Cults: What parents should know. Weston, MA: American Family Foundation.
Singer, M. T. (1982, October). The systematic manipulation of psychological and social influence. Paper presented at the annual national meeting of the Cult Awareness Network/Citizens Freedom Foundation, Washington, D.C.
Singer, M. T. (1986). Consultation with families of cultists. In L. C. Wynne, S.H. McDaniel, & T.T. Weber, The family therapist as systems consultant. Now York: Guilford Press.
Steve K. Dubrow-Eichel, M.S. is a Pennsylvania-licensed psychologist and co-founder of RETIRN. His work with cultists earned him two counseling awards, and in 1986 he was elected to the American Academy of Psychotherapists. In addition to his work with RETIRN, Mr. Dubrow-Eichel is the psychologist for Family Court of Camden County, New Jersey.
Linda Dubrow-Eichel, M.A. is a Pennsylvania-licensed psychologist and co-founder of RETIRN. Her special interests include New Age psycho- therapy-oriented cults, and clients who have been sexually and psychologically exploited by professionals. Ms. Dubrow-Eichel is in full-time private practice with RETIRN and the Verree Psychology Group.