Western medicine is based on an allopathic paradigm that includes three fundamental assumptions. First, deviations from the norm are manifestations of an underlying pathology. Second, treatment should eliminate or reduce the symptoms and the underlying pathology. And third, health is the restoration of the prior norm. For example, when we donʼt feel well, we go to our doctor, who takes our temperature, orders blood tests, listens to our heart and lungs, and compares the resulting information to a norm based on thousands of other people. If our measurements fall within a certain range of that norm, we are considered normal, healthy. But if our measurements deviate too far from the norm, we are deemed abnormal, unhealthy, and the doctor suggests a course of treatment designed to bring our measurements back to normal and restore our health.
Mainstream psychology also follows this allopathic model. If peopleʼs behavior or experiences are too far from the norm, they are considered deviant or “sick.” Subsequently, a course of treatment is recommended to modify their behavior, normalizing them and making them healthy. I call diagnosing deviations from the norm as manifestations of an underlying illness or pathology to be eliminated “allopathic thinking.”
However, with regard to psychology allopathic thinking is often fallacious thinking. This fallacious thinking results in labeling and treating “disturbing” people or groups as sick in order to relegate them to the margins of society, dismiss their protests, constrain their individual development, or coerce them to feel and act in ways that are more acceptable. I call this dynamic “pathologizing” people. This is the kind of thinking that Dr. Phil engaged in as he set out to counsel a woman about her relationship with her husband. In so doing, he taught her and his millions of viewers to diagnose and treat themselves and others similarly.
By contrast, process-oriented psychology resists assuming people whose behavior departs from the norm have an underlying illness. It teaches us to see such behavior as having meaning that can enlighten us about its motivation and help us view our process of development and individuation with respect and trust. It further teaches us to treat the unknown with curiosity, to nurture seeds of change, and to appreciate diversity inside and all around us. While equating health with the norm can be helpful in making diagnoses and maintaining harmony, it can also turn psychology into the practice of norm enforcement, pathologizing ourselves and others to serve these ends. In short, psychology can “make us sick.”