Branding Therapists

This article is reprinted from the winter, 2013, Illinois Psychologist, the newsletter of the Illinois Psychological Association.

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine focused on “branding” as the solution for underfilled therapy practices.  Posted online as “What Brand Is Your Therapist?” therapist Lori Gottlieb described her problem establishing her practice after completing her training, and the role of “branding consultants” in advising therapists on how gain traction in the marketplace (12-24-12 edition).   The article produced online reactions both at the Times website and also on the IPA listserve (where I’m always glad to see substantial dialog!).

I suppose that “branding,” understood in this case as putting a superficial tag on something much more complex in order to make it recognizable in a marketplace that devalues complexity, is a very old problem.

The Sufi teacher Idries Shah tells a modern version of an old story about a spiritual teacher who teaches mainly through stories, the meaning of which unfold over time, partly through the effort of each student and of the group of students as a whole, partly through receptive absorption, and partly through interaction with the teacher through conversations and experiences.  One particularly superficial student was unable to learn.  He tried to torture a meaning from the stories, and when he couldn’t he tried to trick the teacher into giving the key to unlock them; as if there was one.  Finally the teacher sent the hopeless student away.  Several years later, the former student returned to visit.  He had become successful in the world, arriving in a lavish new car, upholstered in priceless carpets, with a uniformed driver, wearing a bespoke suit and gold jewelry.  “I am glad to see that you’ve become successful in the world,” said the teacher.  “And have you given up trying to torture a meaning from the stories?”  “Oh yes,” said the student, “I teach them now.”

So the student was better at branding himself than the teacher was, although branding may not have been the teacher’s priority.

Psychologically, it makes sense to look at branding from a neurocognitive perspective. Our brains operate perceptually as pattern-matching stimulus recognizers and information organizers.  This both makes us very efficient at recognizing things once we’ve learned to, and also gives rise to the problems of stereotyping and prejudice, cognitive-affective functions that underlie much of brand-perception.

The Times article focuses on therapists branding themselves in order to be perceptible to potential clients, as if the problem is entirely on the consumer side.  But the culture of professional mental health itself is by no means immune from branding.  The DSM, with its division of mental illnesses into categories which are often artificially distinct–you can have an affective disorder or a personality disorder–acts as a kind of compendium of “brands” of mental illness.  The diagnostic job is done when the label is conferred, even if little or nothing is understood about the client’s personality, cognitive style, history, social network, or existence within the larger culture.

Psychotherapy, too, is permeated by “brand” thinking.  “What kind of therapist are you?”  “I’m CBT.”  “I’m psychodynamic.”  etc.  Yet we know that relational, interpersonal, dynamic, and cognitive factors are present in virtually all therapeutic work, and that the personality, personal history and personal style of the  therapist make a huge contribution to how each therapist actually goes about doing therapy.

So, to be human is to be susceptible to “brand” thinking.  And if America has evolved a particularly brand-conscious culture, that is the culture in which therapists who work here have to succeed, while maintaining our integrity and without letting the more complex and nuanced perception of the nature and treatment of psychological problems, which good psychotherapy depends on, be lost in the process.