Erich Fromm - a sane person in an insane society

Posted on 14th June, 2023

Erich Fromm saw from first hand experience in Germany before WWII what authoritarianism and state-condoned oppression looked like. He asked the question of what it means to be 'sane' when the norms around you are 'insane' - oppressive, prejudiced and cruel. See his book The Sane Society, 1955

He felt that too often the individual or the minority group is labelled as dysfunctional.

It has certainly been my experience as a therapist that people frequently come to me regarding themselves as having a problem, when quite often the problem has been socially created or constructed. We need only think of all the people who have been treated, and even sought 'treatment', for their sexuality to see how this can work, and how forms of difference can be pathologized.

So many people have come to me, for instance, with feelings of alienation or dissatisfaction with their lives and, yes, there is an individual component to this, but it always occurs in a particular social context - this might be the workplace or within a particular social group or situation. So, before we can understand what is going on we need to be willing to look not only at the individual but the pressures and demands of the overall situation.

Our tendency, too often, is to blame the individual and to require them to become more resilient or better adapted.

I have nothing against resilience or being able to adapt to the demands that we face, but, along with Fromm, I do not see it as always being the case that the individual needs to change when the social demands upon them are unnecessarily repressive or restrictive.

It has certainly been a theme in my work with clients that we are faced with the question of how we finding a balance in our lives that involves choosing when and where we may need to adapt and when and where we may wish to find ways of honouring and expressing ourselves in our difference and particularness.

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