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(New Age) psychotherapies

"It is possible that the most important decision in the history of therapy was the idea that it should be paid for by the hour."Jay Haley

"To society's loss, there is an alarming laxity within the mental health professions when it comes to monitoring, commenting on, and educating the public about what is good therapy, what is negligent behavior by trained professionals, and what is or borders on quackery."  –Singer and Lalich, "Crazy" Therapies

A psychotherapy is a treatment technique for mental or emotional disorders. There are many types of psychotherapy. Some have been empirically tested and are known to be very effective, such as cognitive therapy. Many New Age therapies, however, are little more than a mixture of metaphysics, religion and pseudoscientific "insights." There may be reasonable disagreements over what constitutes successful therapy, but successful therapy should not require one to believe in a god, reincarnation, alien abductions, possession by entities, inner children, Primal Pains, channeling, miracles, or any other metaphysical, religious or pseudoscientific notion.

For in-depth descriptions of some of the latest New Age therapies one should read "Crazy" Therapies by Margaret Thaler Singer and Janja Lalich, or view Ofra Bikel's "Divided Memories," first aired on Frontline on April 4, 1994, and available on video tape for $133.50 ($155 abroad) from:

Journal Graphics, Inc
1535 Grant Street
Denver CO 80203

Bikel's documentary of therapists allows the practitioners to confidently display their arrogance and incompetence. The therapists are oblivious to the fact that they are being used to demonstrate the monstrosity of their pseudoscientific and self-deceptive work. Therapist after therapist talks freely about how uninterested they are in the truth and how indifferent they are to the families they help destroy. They are uniform in their dismissal of critics as being "in denial". Patient after patient is paraded forth by the therapists as evidence of their good work, yet none of the patients seem better for the therapy and many seem hopelessly ill.

Trying to find a meaningful common thread in the therapies is not too difficult, but its meaningfulness does not enhance the position of those who think these therapies are scientific. One common thread is the belief that a person having problems is not likely to be responsible for those problems. Another thread is the belief that the cause of a problem is some traumatic past event, such as being stabbed in the stomach in a previous lifetime or being sexually abused as a child, the latter being the repressed memory therapists’ one-size-fits-all explanation of every emotional disorder. Childhood sexual abuse is not only the cause of most problems, according to these  therapists, it is the cause around which their lives revolve. The repressed memory therapists are not bothered that most of their patients do not remember being abused. Repressed memory therapy will help them recall the trauma. Several therapists in "Divided Memories" claim to have been abused themselves; one discovers her abuse while treating a patient who is remembering her abuse. That a therapist would inject his or her own problems into treatment and consider the beliefs about a past life of a patient  to be relevant to the patient’s illness makes these New Age therapies look more like cults than science.

Another common thread is the belief that the patient must discover the cause of his or her problem to be helped. This "insight" approach to psychotherapy is very old, but has never been scientifically tested or validated. Nor does there seem to be any clear idea as to what it means to be helped by psychotherapy. The only common thread regarding cure seems to be that the patient believes she knows what caused her problems. Believing you know who or what harmed you in the past is the cure. The quality of the patient's life, the interaction of the patient in significant social settings--such as with one's family, friends, and co-workers--is irrelevant. Having the patient trust the therapist is all-important. To gain this trust one of the common tactics of the therapists is to turn the patient against the patient's family. This is done by leading the patient to believe that the cause of the patient's problems is a family member or several family members. The family cannot help the patient because the family is the cause of the patient's problems. One or more family members abused the patient and is now either a liar or in denial; the other family members are deluded or in conspiracy to protect the evil family member. Of course, this demand that the therapist be trusted by the patient has its corollary: the patient puts all her faith in the therapist in return. The patient has been persecuted; the therapist is her savior.

lack of interest in truth or accuracy

The most appalling thread holding these therapies together is the profound lack of interest in truth or accuracy. Neither patient nor therapist is to be concerned with facts or tangible evidence that the "believed cause" actually happened. In fact, whether the "believed cause" is the real cause is irrelevant to the therapy. The patient creates truth and it is as real to the patient as facts are to the skeptic. That's all that matters. We all live in a delusion, proclaims one therapist. So, it is of no concern to him that his patient's "believed cause" is pure delusion. Any first-year psychology student recognizes the projection in that claim. The viewer, however, needs no training to see that this therapist is clearly deluded when he claims that he did not induce his patient's bizarre tale of ritual abuse by her satanic cult parents and grandparents. His total lack of interest in corroborating evidence to his patient's story, his lack of concern for the family he was helping to destroy, his disingenuous claims about needing to accept on faith everything his patient tells him, his apparent obliviousness to the absurdity and cruelty of inducing his patient to file a $20 million lawsuit against her family, his deluded claim that he can tell in the first session with a patient whether she has been abused as a child, all add up to the self-labeled therapeutic package: delusion.

The overwhelming impression left by Bikel’s documentary is that there are a number of New Age therapists who are mixing metaphysics, religion and quackery. They have no interest in facts or truth, and, because they are pseudoscientific, have no way of testing whether they are valid or not.*

Singer and Lalich’s "Crazy" Therapies documents the wide range of pseudoscientific therapies popular among New Age therapists. The authors attribute part of the popularity of bizarre therapies to the rise in irrationality and the demand for such items on talk shows and the book circuit. Some therapists, like Sondra Ray, an advocate of "rebirthing therapy," consider themselves to be spiritual guides, not scientists. They are proud of their lack of scientific support. Reparenting and rebirthing theories are based on the notion that adults have problems because their parents were inadequate. There is no proof of this notion, despite its popularity since the time of Cain and Abel. "During the course of the therapy, clients regress, become dependent, have their self-esteem and sense of self attacked and diminished, and to some degree lose touch with their previous everyday reality orientation" (Singer and Lalich: p. 130). In May 2000, therapists Brita St. Clair, Jack McDaniel, Connell Watkins and Julie Ponder were arrested for "child abuse resulting in death," according to Reuters. They smothered a ten-year-old girl to death during "rebirthing" in Evergreen, Colorado. In her mother's presence, the child was smothered in a blanket representing the womb because she could not or would not pretend to push her way out of the "birth canal" so she could be "reborn." Watkins, 54, and Ponder, 40, were found guilty of "reckless child abuse resulting in death." The pair were sentenced to 16 years in prison. Jefferson County Judge Jane Tidball did not sentence the pair to the maximum of 48 years because "there was no evidence that the therapists intended to harm the child."

Some claim that mental illness is caused by possession by spirit entities which must be placated. Others use past-life regression to find the cause of  the problem. Some treat alien abduction claims as non-delusional. There are several cathartic therapies that involve primal screaming, rebirthing, or reparenting. None of these therapies has any scientific validity. Others, such as facilitated communication (FC)and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) appear scientific but FC is not generally accepted as effective in the scientific community and EMDR seems to be just another variant of cognitive-behavioral therapy.

It is difficult to select the most egregious New Age therapy, but Neural Organization Technique (NOT) developed by chiropractor Carl Ferreri, is hard to top. Ferreri decided, without the slightest hint of scientific evidence, that all mental and physical problems are due to misaligned skulls. Ferreri believes that as you breathe, the bones in your skull move, causing misalignments that can be corrected by manipulation. This theory was put into practice without the slightest proof that cranial bones move or that there is any sense to the notion of "standard alignment" of the cranial bones. Ferreri was not stopped by logic, however, but by lawsuits and criminal charges.

long list of "crazy" therapies

The list of "crazy" therapies is too long to reproduce here, but Singer and Lalich describe the following:

Leonard Orr developed energy breathing and rebirthing theory. According to Orr, if you learn how to breathe energy well, you can breathe away diseases and physical or emotional pain.

Marguerite Sechehaye and John Rosen practice the theory of regression and reparenting.  The therapist becomes the patient’s  surrogate parent to make up for the terrible job her real parents did.

Jacqui Shiff's theory is that the patient must wear diapers, suck his thumb and drink from a baby bottle to be cured.

Sondra Ray and Bob Mandel believe that your problems are due to the way you were born. They will help "rebirth" you, properly this time.

John Fuller, Bruce Goldberg, Brian Weiss, Edith Fiore, Richard Boylan, David Jacobs, Budd Hopkins and  John Mack use hypnosis to discover the patient’s past or future lives as an alien abductee, in an effort to "help" them.

John Bradshaw's theory is that you have an "inner child" you must nurture and be good to, if you are to be healthy.

Arthur Janov practices Primal Therapy. According to Janov, the patient must rid herself of Primal Pain which can be eradicated only by learning the Proper Way to Scream and Capitalize.

Daniel Casriel's New Identity Process (NIP) involves screaming which allegedly unblocks what's blocked. Casriel’s scream is apparently a better kind of scream than Janov's.

Nolan Saltzman practices  Bio Scream Psychotherapy. His screaming is apparently better than both Casriel's and Janov's because it has more Love in it.

Finally, there is hypnotherapy. Hypnotherapy is extremely popular and is practiced by thousands of therapists who got their training in a weekend seminar. Singer and Lalich note that

There are no licensing requirements, no prerequisites for training, and no professional organization to which those who hypnotize others are accountable. You can be a real estate agent, a graphic artist, an English teacher, or a hairdresser and also call yourself a hypnotherapist by hanging a certificate on your wall that states you took as few as eighteen hours of courses in hypnosis. (p. 53)

This lack of oversight leads to all sorts of abuses and malpractice.


Many hypnotherapists seem unaware that they are priming their patients. The dangers of this practice are stated by Martin Orne: "The cues as to what is expected may be unwittingly communicated before or during the hypnotic procedure, either by the hypnotist or by someone else, for example, a previous subject, a story, a movie, a stage show, etc. Further, the nature of these cues may be quite obscure to the hypnotist, to the subject, and even to the trained observer" (cited in Quen 181). Yet, many hypnotherapists seem oblivious to the dangers and pitfalls of using hypnosis in a therapeutic session.

Many New Age therapists seem oblivious to facts with which any competent therapist should be concerned. For example, all these therapists develop theories which exclude the possibility that a patient might either have a physical problem or a character flaw. No patient is physically ill. No mental disorder is biochemical. No patient is responsible for his or her problems. It is always someone else or something else which has the faults. Patients apparently never lie, manipulate, deceive, cheat, distort, rationalize, err, etc. If a patient has a "fault," it is that he or she is not completely trusting of the therapist. Patients have "mental diseases", "emotional problems", or "syndromes", not character flaws. It would be an astounding fact to discover that emotionally disturbed or mentally troubled persons are completely without flaws in their moral character. Yet, these advocates of "crazy" therapies seem to treat all patients as if they were innocent children, incapable of the slightest peccadillo.

Most of the therapists discussed by Bikel, Singer and Lalich seem oblivious or indifferent to their role in priming and prompting their patients. They condition their patients, prompt them, and in some cases, clearly plant notions in their patient's minds. They give their patients books to read or videos to watch, not to help the patient understand a problem but to prime the patient for belief in some crazy therapy. They plant notions during hypnosis, group sessions, etc., and then these planted notions are "recovered" and offered as validation of their therapeutic techniques and theories. Rather than provide real therapy, these "crazy" therapists indoctrinate patients into their own worldviews. Perhaps most disturbing of all is that this surreal pseudoscience goes nearly unchallenged by professional mental health associations and the mass media.

note: In 1998, Jill Christman posted an article in which she challenged Bikel's work as "biased" because she did not include Christman's story. Christman claims she has evidence of a recovered memory of childhood sexual abuse that has been corroborated by an independent observer. In 2002, Christman had her story published by the University of Georgia Press (Darkroom: A Family Exposure). She became an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at the University of Alabama. Her story is listed as case no. 2 of 33 corroborated cases of  recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse that are listed on Professor Ross E. Cheit's "Recovered Memory Project" page at Brown University.

Christman's article raises some severe credibility issues. After six years of bulimia and a few days of therapy and Prozac she starts having dreams of sexual abuse. She writes: "Strangely, the story that I pieced together included memories of sometimes being abused (fondled, raped, sodomized) with another child present--a boy, a couple years older than I was, with whom I still had contact as an adult." The accuracy of these memories, initiated in dreams, is highly questionable. Her "corroboration" consists of contacting this man to "tell him what I remembered, and ask him if he remembered anything." Any competent investigator would have to stop right here and point out that the corroborator's testimony has been corrupted by the method of inquiry. A competent investigator doesn't tell the witness what you remember and then ask him to verify it. You have led the witness by telling him what you remember. I don't blame Christman for what she did. She was only 19 and was not doing an investigation per se. But her outrage at Bikel for not taking her story seriously is seriously misguided. The fact that the man told her that what she remembered is what he also remembers cannot now be considered corroboration. To be corroboration, we needed to get his testimony independently of hers and the two would have to harmonize in essential ways.

This does not mean that her story is not true or that the man's story would not have been the same as hers had it been obtained properly. All it means is that she is wrong to think her story has been corroborated and that Bikel lied when she said she hadn't found a single case of corroborated recovered memory of childhood sexual abuse.

See also astrotherapycodependency, communal reinforcement, false memory, hypnosis, Carl Jung, Hellinger & family constellations, past life regression therapy, psychoanalysispsychology, repressed memory, repressed memory therapy, substance abuse treatment, and unconscious mind. See also my review of "How to Control the Pain," by Earl Ubell. 

further reading

books and articles

Dawes, Robyn M. House of Cards - Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth, (New York: The Free Press, 1994).

Beyerstein, Barry L. Ph.D. Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work.

Gold, Mark. The Good News About Depression: Cures and Treatments in the New Age of Psychiatry (Bantam, 1995).

Haley, Jay. "Therapy—A New Phenomenon" in The Power Tactics of Jesus Christ and Other Essays (Rockville, Md.: The Triangle Press, 1986.)

Kandel, Eric R. & James H. Schwartz, eds. Principles of Neural Science 4th ed. (McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing, 2000).

Quen, Jacques M. ed. 1994. The Psychiatrist in the Courtroom: Selected Papers of Bernard L. Diamond, M.D. Routledge.

Singer, Margaret Thaler and Janja Lalich. "Crazy" Therapies (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1996).

Watters, Ethan and Richard Ofshe. Therapy's Delusions: The Myth of the Unconscious and the Exploitation of Today's Walking Worried (Simon and Schuster, 1999).


Fringe Psychotherapies: the Public at Risk by Barry L. Beyerstein

Review of "Crazy" Therapies by Singer and Lalich

Innocence Lost - Frontline

Twelve Myths about False Memories

Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy

The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice

Last updated 24-Nov-2015

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