Sin and Injury: When Sorry Is Not Enough

With the recent spate of revelations about sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual assault being reported in the media, many people of conscience wonder exactly what the aggressors owe the people who were the targets of their hurtful behavior. There are a lot of components to the hurt that people may have suffered, but the most devastating effects are the destruction of their sense of self-confidence and safety, the shame, the guilt (always undeserved), and the damage to their reputation and social support systems. Simply keeping a secret like a sexual assault is destructive, but when added to shame, guilt, fear, and traumatic disruption of a life, it can be crippling.

Too often the offenders in our society (particularly those who are lawyered up well and/or are celebrities, or people with wealth and power) offer little or no apology at all. They deny, attack their accusers (in the media and in court), and issue non-apologies that diminish the experiences of their victims. But even when they recognize the need to take responsibility for their actions, their apologies ring hollow, because they focus on their own pain, or the betrayal felt by their wives or families, or their offending their fans, clients, employers, or the public. But their victims may only get the generic “I’m sorry” that everyone else hears, and receive no restorative efforts.

We can enable harm or facilitate healing

This is simply another form of violence against the personal integrity of people who have already been hurt and victimized unjustly. It is a further injustice. And if we accept those apologies – as employers, as families, as fans, or as the general public – we are participating in further injustice and harm to those people who have been harmed.

We have a responsibility to reject any “apology” that does not include a direct opportunity for the victim to confront the perpetrator (should he or she choose to do so), a safe opportunity for the victim to explain exactly what the perpetrator has done to them and how their lives have been affected, and the opportunity to receive an honest and non-defensive acknowledgment of the hurt the offender has caused and the offender’s responsibility for its effects in perpetuity. There is no “asking for forgiveness” and “hoping they will get past it.”

The religious angle

Much of our response as a society to assaults on people in the United States is influenced by our religious tradition as a majority-Christian country. We have conflated “sin” with injury and harm, and so we confuse “forgiveness” with justice. And, to make things worse, we take the power for forgiveness away from victims and reserve it for God, however we may conceive of God. And, to make things still worse, this is especially the case when sexual abuse and assault takes place under the auspices of religious organizations. This reduces the victim, and elevates the perpetrator, to the same level …that of wayward children who need “God’s love” to attain “healing.” It robs the victim of any hope of justice, of the ability to hold the perpetrator (and the church, in many cases) accountable.

I heard a radio interview today with Jennifer Johnson of the University of Washington Department of Gender Studies, in which she presented the case of Andy Savage, a minister at a large evangelical Christian church in Memphis, and his handling of revelations from a former youth ministry member who was raped by him while on a church event as a teenager. The victim, Jules Woodson, kept silent for many years but finally publicly asked him to meet and personally apologize to her. Instead, he had his current pastor orchestrate and lead a sort of public ceremony of confession, which drew sympathy and applause, but insulted and degraded Ms. Woodson by ignoring her request and minimizing his violent approach to her as a person. Indeed, the usual victim-blaming was evident throughout the process and the term “flirtatious environment” was used to try to transfer blame from him to her and the situation.

I would encourage you to read Jennifer Johnson’s article on the situation. She uses some arguments about biblical rightness and wrongness that may be lost on a non-theologian, but are nevertheless very valid points. We, as a human community, are entitled to worship and believe whatever we wish. But as a human community, we must hold ourselves and each other accountable for any and all violations of each other’s rights to live safely, with dignity and respect, and free from hurt, shame, and sexual trauma of all kinds. This is not necessarily just a legal mandate, though we do need laws (and enforcement) that helps keep people safe as much as possible.

Justice as a part of the social contract

Beyond our legal protections and recourses, as a society, we must put the protection (and, when needed, the restoration) of rights, dignity, and respect as our highest priority. This must be a human priority of a civilized society – above religious propriety, above the reputations of the well-off, well-known, and well-connected, and above the beliefs of any group about judgment and forgiveness being reserved for God.

The area of sexuality, with its heavy cultural baggage of male power and privilege, is perhaps the most challenging area in which we need to hold ourselves to high standards. Many of use were raised to think that rape can be made light-hearted, funny, or easily brushed off as guy stuff or locker-room talk. The point is that no one should ever have to suffer what any victim of sexual violence of any sort suffers – whether the offense is as mild as catcalls or as brutal as rape at gunpoint.

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Let’s Try Saying “Americans” Instead of “America” – A Lesson from Canadians

On the fourth of my trips to Adler’s Vancouver campus last fall, I came before the Canadian border officer, as I had each time before. I was ready for the questions about why I was coming to Canada, and gave the same explanation as previously – that I had been asked to teach a class at our Vancouver campus which was being done primarily by videoconference but required a certain number of in-person sessions to be taught. This time, the officer looked at me with a look of slightly injured pride and asked, “Couldn’t they get a Canadian to do that?”

I have been reminded of that question in the past week as I have read about the response of Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, to the sudden restrictions on travel and immigration imposed by the Trump administration, and in response to the horrific killings of six people at a mosque in Quebec. Each time, he has referred to “Canadians” rather than to “Canada,” in his responses:

To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength…

Diversity is our strength, and religious tolerance is a value that we, as Canadians, hold dear. Muslim-Canadians are an important part of our national fabric, and these senseless acts have no place in our communities, cities and country.

While Trudeau has garnered praise as an individual leader for his responses, they struck me as very Canadian responses nonetheless. They are also very Adlerian responses, because Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs emphasized people working together and feeling a part of a community, rather than people trusting to a nationalistic, ethnic, religious, or cultural identity. As Eva Dreikurs Ferguson put it:

Because Adler considered that each human is part of a social community, our sense of self is a function of our social identity. The primary need of all human beings is to feel belonging, to have a place, in the social community. In the infant, that community is the family. As the person moves into an increasingly larger sphere, the social community to which he or she seeks to feel belonging is increasingly broad. The ultimate social community to which an adult seeks to belong is the human species as a whole, as part of an enlarged sense of one’s own humanness. (Dreikurs  Ferguson, 1984, p.4).

My experience with Canadians has supported the notion that they take responsibility as people for the society they create, and for its values. They are pragmatic – like when they decided that using pennies was inefficient, and decided to round each cash transaction to the nearest nickel; or when they decided that people can use whatever language they like to conduct business but that they won’t require anyone else to learn that language. They do what works, while respecting people in the process. These are the characteristics they have in mind when they proudly refer to themselves as Canadians.

The attitude carries over even into provincial identity, as in the case of one 94-year old woman riding the SeaBus ferry when I rode it – who introduced herself as “a proud British Columbian!”

Americans, by contrast, look to the entity they have created as “America” to define their values, and to measure and judge the values of others. We talk about “Liberty” and other “American ideals,” but we easily level the charge of being “Un-American” or “Un-patriotic” against those with whom we may disagree. I don’t often hear people describing themselves as “a proud American,” much less “a proud Illinoisan.” We spend a great deal of mental energy and public discourse deciding what “America” means and how we shall treat those who disrespect this nation and its symbols. That is what gives us the peculiar recent scene of an American physically assaulting other Americans who were burning the American flag in constitutionally-protected protest, and being hailed as a “hero” for doing so. This is reminiscent of the story of Barbara Frietchie in Whittier’s poem: “’Shoot, if you must, this old gray head / But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.” We tend as a nation to treat our symbols as being more valuable than our people. That may well be part of what people have in mind when they use the term “ugly American.” We tend to believe that we are “exceptional” just because we were born in the USA. And that makes us exceptionally conceited, in the eyes of many others in the world.

This focus on “America,” at the expense of a focus on “Americans,” is what gives us intolerance masquerading as pride, cruelty masquerading as strength, and slogans masquerading as policy. “Make America great again” and “America first” reflect nothing of our values, actions, or beliefs as Americans. They reflect a poorly defined nationalistic identity (often a white Christian heterosexual national identity) that is seen as the be-all and the end-all – as the source, rather than the goal, of our pride and our efforts. And which, incidentally, is quite vulnerable to being hijacked to serve purposes of power, exclusion, and spite. The hashtag “#MAGA” is too often appended to online expressions of hate, resentment, distrust, disparagement, and distortion.

I think we need to spend more time thinking about what we, as Americans, stand for and believe, and less time talking about what is “good for America” or “true to America.” Those ways of thinking have given us the McCarthy inquisitions and blacklists, wars, suffering, and death. And now those ways of thinking threaten to give the rest of the world a very negative image of our people as a nationalistic, jingoistic, judging, selfish, superiority-seeking group of human beings.

We should not need a giant green statue – weeping or not – to define our attitude toward newcomers to our land. America is what Americans believe, say, and do. “America First” and “America Strong” are meaningless without considering what Americans believe, do and say. We need to look within ourselves, and examine our values toward other human beings – toward our neighbors – whether down the street or across the globe.


Dreikurs Ferguson, E. (1984). Adlerian theory: An introduction. Chicago: Adler University.

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Ethics, Truth, and Our Political World of 2016

It’s hard to say anything calming or therapeutic since the election in November. Many people are feeling vindicated and many others are feeling betrayed, fearful, and even traumatized. But a major factor in the anxiety many of us are feeling is the sense that we cannot believe what we hear any longer. We’re subjected to outright lies and conspiracy theories (for example, everything said by websites like that of Alex Jones) and to seriously biased and self-serving interpretations of real events that are used to spin a weaponized narrative (for example, things said by Mitch McConnell on the right and Noam Chomsky on the left).

But a more insidious form of distortion comes when our news sources treat all these things as simply points of controversy, without commenting on their credibility. This finally boiled over when the New York Times finally began putting the word “falsely” in its headlines about some of Donald Trump’s statements.

This essay by a therapist on John Grohol’s PsychCentral blog makes some excellent points about truth from a human relations point of view.

It’s disheartening for me to be teaching future counselors about the ethical principles on which all helping professions are based, and seeing those principles trashed and trampled in the public and political arenas.

Those principles include fidelity (taking your responsibilities to others seriously), integrity (always trying to be honest and true), and nonmalificence (thinking in advance about how your actions might harm people). Shouldn’t people who want the public’s trust as political leaders be as concerned about these principles as doctors and therapists are? After all, a therapist or physician can only harm one person at a time, while reckless political leaders can cause the deaths of thousands or millions of innocent people.

But ethics has lost all meaning in the political sphere, except perhaps as a weapon to harm your opponent when you can catch them in a violation of a rule. This is not ethics; it’s the exercise of authority. And those of us who are familiar with Kohlberg’s stages of moral development will realize that ethics by investigation and punishment, while it may be necessary, only calls for the immature form of moral reasoning that depends on fear of consequences, and never reaches the mature concern for the welfare of others that should mark adult moral reasoning.

The essay also makes me think of my Adlerian orientation, because being truthful with each other is a cornerstone of Alfred Adler’s “ironclad logic of social living.” And one that we ignore at our peril as a civilization (and indeed, as a species).

In addition to the purposes of lying spelled out in the essay, Rudolf Dreikurs said that children lie in order to gain power over others. If I can mislead others, I have an advantage over them. And that seems to me to be the central goal of political falsehoods… It lets power-hungry people manipulate the rest of us to gain power and control. That, in itself, is an antisocial goal. We need to get a handle on this, and make a commitment as a society to share a consensual reality even when we disagree on the best course of action. But even our disagreements (for example, whether to lower or raise taxes, and on whom, and in what ways) should be judged and resolved by looking at evidence, data, and historical results, not by hammering away at our favored ideological points (such as the “feeling” that taxes, or the parties who favor action on them, are good or bad per se).

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Encouragement, Pain, and Survival

In May, I presented at the North American Society of Adlerian Psychology’s annual conference in Minnesota, along with colleagues from Adler University’s Chicago Campus. Our panel discussion was on encouragement, and we spoke about the different ways we have experienced encouragement in our lives and tried to pass it along to others.

In my discussion, I used the metaphor of a “big switch” that I consciously imagined as a way to “switch off” self-doubt. I credited my teachers and mentors (including the late Dr. Bina Rosenberg, who was my personal therapist as well as a beloved colleague and a noted Adlerian who worked with Rudolf Dreikurs) with providing the encouragement that I had needed to overcome self-doubt.

An audience member remarked at the end of our panel discussion that the “big self-doubt switch” was an appealing metaphor that she planned to keep in mind as she goes about her work as a therapist. I joked that I pictured it as one of those big, steampunk-looking knife switches like you would see in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, and pantomimed throwing that kind of switch.

Also in the audience was Debbie Joffe Ellis, a notable psychotherapist whose late husband was Dr. Albert Ellis, the originator of Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy. I hoped that she had taken something from our discussion, as well, and felt a bit special to have her as an attendee for our little presentation.

Today I saw that Debbie had posted a blog entry on the Psychology Today blog, with the title, “Reducing the Pain: Focusing on What Is Good, Including and Despite Tragic Events.” In it, she described three events that had shaken her significantly – witnessing the aftermath of a plane crashing into the Hudson River on May 27, receiving an abusive e-mail message from someone over a business matter, and spending the holiday weekend alone while thinking of those who have passed away. In each case, she emphasized the choice that she had – whether to feel crushed and beaten down, or to remind herself of what she does have and appreciate those things. On the holiday weekend, that included the friends she has to whom she could reach out.

That last part resonated with me, because I had used the trip to Minneapolis to visit a dear friend and his wife, whom I had not seen in many years. Although we had many valid reasons for not seeing each other, I realized that a big one I had never acknowledged was that same self-doubt. Maybe he would think I wasn’t as good a friend as I’d thought. Maybe our lives had been split for too long. Maybe … Well, may be it was just more of that self-doubt. Rudolf Dreikurs always spoke of “the courage to be imperfect.” So maybe I needed the courage to say I still wanted to reconnect and feel close to my friend (and his wife, whom I’d never met). Even though I’d done a much less than perfect job of keeping up the friendship.

So overall, I hope that my thoughts at the conference, and Debbie Ellis’s thoughts afterward, share a common thread. We need to make the choice to accept the events in life in positive ways. We need to be conscious of our strengths and positives, and we need to choose to focus on those -rather than on the frightening, discouraging, or disappointing things that happen.It’s advice I’ve always tried to give others, but as Debbie and the other audience members helped me see, we all need to make the choice to do the same thing ourselves in our daily lives.

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Adlerians Gather in Minnesota This Week!

This week will be the annual conference of the North American Society of Adlerian Psychology, held this year in Bloomington, Minnesota. This is the largest show of support on the continent for Alfred Adler’s Individual Psychology tradition.

I will be joining a number of my colleagues from Adler University’s Chicago Campus, and our students, as we participate in the conference and network with each other and with other Adlerian institutions (such as the Adler Graduate School of Minnesota).

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Obamacare and Mental Health: Good News and Bad News

An article was published by US News and World Report yesterday, and it has mixed news about the Affordable Care Act and mental health treatment: the number of people with mental health conditions who are uninsured decreased in 2015, but the number of people who received mental health services using insurance plans obtained on the exchanges also decreased, when it should have increased. That’s very concerning, since it’s been shown consistently over time that “talk therapy” is the most cost-effective way to help people with disorders like depression and anxiety to improve their well-being and functioning.

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Dear Politicians: Counselors Serve All Who Seek Their Services

The American Counseling Association has published a Code of Ethics for years, and it was recently updated in 2014 (

On the subject of providing services to clients, and when it is ethical to terminate with a client, the Code has been clear that the rights and needs of the client, not the values or attitudes of the counselor, must be paramount. The only situation in which it is ethically appropriate to terminate services, or decline to provide services to a client, is when the counselor does not have the necessary experience or training to address the client’s situation or issue. The Code states:

A.11.b. Values Within Termination and Referral

Counselors refrain from referring prospective and current clients based solely on the counselor’s personally held values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Counselors respect the diversity of clients and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature.Continue Reading Dear Politicians: Counselors Serve All Who Seek Their Services

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Paid Sick Leave – Making a Moral Case and a Business Case

The boosters of the free market have long tried to argue that market forces will lead to socially responsible behavior…

Posted by Fitzgerald Counseling – Chicago and Hinsdale, IL on Sunday, February 21, 2016

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Happy Twenty Sixteen!

For the new year, I thought I’d try a new theme for my website… and it’s called, appropriately enough, “Twenty-Sixteen.” Yes, I know it’s a standard theme that WordPress puts out there and revises every year, but sometimes simple is best. I’ve been experimenting with some others and didn’t like them too much.

So what’s everyone thinking about the new year? Judging by the TV commercials yesterday, it was all the sad animals that need your help, if you just pick up the phone and call the toll-free number on your screen. And starting today, it will be about all that weight you can lose in the new year, if you just pick up the phone and call the toll-free number on your screen.

Me, I like Johnny Cash’s list of resolutions:

Johnny Cash Resolutions

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Comfort and Joy, Peace and Good Will

At this time of year, I and my family want to wish all of you reading this – my clients (past, present, and future), my students, and my colleagues – much “Comfort and joy” and true peace. This is a time of year when we all realize the need to address one of life’s main tasks – the task of spirituality and meaning.

Alfred Adler described three main areas in which we are called upon to rise up and meet life’s challenges: Occupation, love and relationships, and friendship and affiliation. But one of my teachers, Harold Mosak, along with Adler’s colleague Rudolf Dreikurs, spoke of two more areas of life in which we are challenged: The task of the self (or identity), and the task of spirituality and meaning. Many humanistic psychologists have considered the need for meaning in our lives, including Viktor Frankl, Carl Jung, R.D. Laing, and Irvin Yalom. We need to consider how we fit in among other people, certainly, as Adler stressed. But we also need to consider our place in life, and what life should be for us. We also need to consider our own mortality and what lies outside of our brief time on Earth.

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