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The Alienation of Emotion

Shaun Kerry, M.D.
Diplomate, American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology

I'd like to tell you a story from my psychiatric training.  I learned that most people in our culture have significant psychiatric problems, which they usually handle with denial.

After four years of medical school, I took a one-year general internship, and then started a three-year psychiatric residency-training program.

We had treatment responsibilities in the psychiatric unit of a large general hospital.  In addition, there were classes and seminars, but no exams.  There was no forced memorization; there were no examinations or grades.

For the first time in my training, the focus shifted from the memorization of facts to an examination of emotions, both in ourselves and in others.  In the first year, we had 26 residents in our class.

We were offered the option of attending a therapy group, which was called 'sensitivity training'.  It was held for one ninety-minute session per week.  In the first meeting, all 26 residents were present.  The leader was a staff psychiatrist who began the meeting with a fairly low-key, neutral introduction.

One by one, the residents began to make comments and the focus of attention shifted to one resident in particular.  The group began to criticize his manner rather severely, and this was the theme of the first group.

The following week, that member did not attend therapy group, and the remaining 25 members focused on and severely criticized another individual.  We weren't told to do this; the group was entirely unstructured, and this is just what occurred.

The following week that individual was not present, and we were down to 24 members.  This process continued week after week until the group was down to six members.  At that point someone remarked, "You know, I don't think we have really gotten to know each other very well."  At that point, the attacking stopped, and the group gradually took on a more mature and civil feel.

The group leader made the interpretation that everyone in the group was having difficulty with their own feelings.  He told a personal story about his experience with individual psychotherapy.  When he started, his attitude was that he was doing it 'for the experience'.  Later, he said tenderly, "I realized that I was sick too."
 
Almost all of the staff psychiatrists that taught in the residency program had been in psychoanalysis, consisting of four sessions a week for between three to ten years.  There was a common theme: a disconnection with the emotional self.  We had all been raised in a competitive, left-brain, performance-driven educational system.  Then, when we were asked to use our emotional brains in our work, we were left struggling like fish out of water.

The most remarkable thing that I learned from my training is that there is an extremely high presence of mental illness in people who we would ordinarily consider normal.  Although the cause of such illness is complicated and multifaceted, the most productive way to deal with this problem is to expose the erroneous beliefs of our society that govern our educational system.

During the ensuing twenty years of my clinical practice, that and similar themes arose repeatedly.  It was not until many years later that I was able to assemble the many pieces of the puzzle of the root causes of social dysfunction.