Reflection 5: Radical Decency Guideposts for Healers

Radical Decency challenges us to continuously consider three realms – our selves, others, and the world – in everything we do.  We need to identify processes that are problematic in each of these areas, understand their impact, and craft effective strategies for dealing with them.

Here is the reasoning behind this approach.

The overriding problem we face in crafting better, more generative lives is that we live in a culture that, through a myriad of norms, cues, incentives and sanctions, habituates us to a fundamentally inhumane set of values – compete and win, dominate and control. As I explain in Reflection 27, these values have created a culture that fails to support us in being decent to ourselves – or to others – or to the world; in other words, a failed culture.

The sensible response, then, is to place a new, more humane set of values at the center of our lives. But complicating this task is the fact that, as the best theorists’ point out, we are biologically wired to be creatures of habit. Thus, we begin this work with deeply engrained habits of living that are at odds with our goal. In the words of Vikki Reynolds, “we are all in the dirty bathtub.”

Because we have to wean ourselves from our pre-existing “compete and win” habits, we need to practice our new habits of living – decency to self, others, and the world – at all times and in every context. If we temporize and make exceptions, the enormous pull of the predominant culture will defeat our purposes.

Overcoming the virulent cultural disease that permeates our lives requires strong medicine.


For psychotherapists and other healers, the implications of this approach to living are profound. Most healing focuses on the individual or on the individual in the context of his most immediate environments: His romantic partner, family, friends, and work. The culture’s enormous influence in our lives is either ignored or treated as a given, something to which we have to adjust.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Family therapy, for example, views the family as a system in which any member’s changed behaviors necessarily affects the overall system and each participant in it. This emphasis on the client’s ability to effect his environment is itself empowering and healing. Equally healing is the recognition that new behaviors, wisely conceived and executed, can provoke changes in the system that, in turn, support and magnify the healing and growth of both the client and the family system in which he operates.

The culture is, of course, a lot more complicated than a family. But since it too is a system, these same principles apply. And since the values that predominate in our culture have such a pervasive, debilitating effect on our lives, the application of systems based healing techniques, in this larger context, would seem to be an urgent concern if we are serious about being the best healers we can be.


The systematic de-emphasis of cultural factors in psychotherapy and other systems of healing is no accident. Systems tend to perpetuate themselves and the predominant culture’s self-perpetuation mechanisms are truly brilliant. Not surprisingly, then, while mainstream healers are supported in doing useful work, they are guided away from approaches that would meaningfully challenge the prevailing power structure or the belief systems that support it.

Thus, for example, we use the DSM to diagnose conditions “in the client” but are given no categories – none – to account for his or her culturally caused conditions. Then we are paid to fix the problems that the DSM defines; that is, to help clients fit more comfortably into the culture, as it currently exists.

And what is it that is ignored in the process? Any sustained attention to the problematic values that permeate our culture and play such a formative role in causing the clients’ emotional distress in the first place.

This dismal truth is confirmed by the mainstream literature. When I was in professional school, our clinical textbook advised us to avoid cultural factors because we were not “trained to deal with them.” Similarly, the “Wheel of Life” – a standard tool of life coaches – provides a comprehensive list of categories for assessing clients’ lives (work, family, leisure, etc) but fails to include their engagements in the public/cultural spheres (communal involvements, social movements, politics). And the current, standard definition of “holistic” healing – mind, body and spirit – similarly makes no reference to these larger, cultural factors; what I call the “practical” and the “radical” (see Reflection 24 Holistic Healing – Embracing the Practical and the Radical).


In making this point I am not suggesting that fitting in and getting by are bad things.  Since we will, inevitably, be crafting our lives within the existing culture, we need to creatively support clients’ efforts in this area. But if that is all we do as healers, our offerings are limited and compromised.

We also need to lay bare the unstated assumptions that flow from the mainstream culture, and so badly punish so many of us, including these messages:

  • That we are failures if we don’t make “enough” money;
  • That perfection is the goal and anything short of that – in ourselves or others – is an occasion for self-judgment and shame;
  • That confusion and vulnerability are weaknesses to be hidden;
  • That you can accomplish anything if you just try hard enough.

We also need to define with greater insight and precision the cultural disease that ails us.  This would include a clear-headed accounting, in our work with clients, of cultural realities such as these:

  • That, with rare exceptions, businesses are authoritarian places that (often despite their nice words) work against efforts to create more humane lives;
  • That we bring the culture’s problematic “win/lose” ways of interacting into our most intimate relationships.
  • That while football, movies, and popular books are entertaining and seductive, they promote the values of the predominant culture and, immersed in these entertainments, we are distracted from our efforts to create more nourishing habits of living.

Finally, in partnership with our clients, we need to develop specific techniques for molding the environments in which we live – and within which we are so deeply embedded and defined – in ways that are more just, equitable, and humane; a theme to which I frequently return. See, for example, Reflection 35 Salaried Workers – Realities and Possibilities; Reflection 43 Radical Decency in Business – A Fairy Tale; Reflection 45 Re-visioning Social Change Work; and Reflection 66 Doing Better at Work, In Authoritarian Relationships.


Seeking to confront these realities, Radical Decency is my healing technique of choice. It provides a vivid roadmap that, by orienting my day-by-day, moment-by-moment choices, effectively counteracts my tendency toward discouragement, cynicism, inaction – and, therefore, complicity – when faced with the culture’s “compete and win” values.

Striving to be radically decent I might, in a given situation:

  • Offer an intimate word of support (or, refrain, if it seems intrusive);
  • Make an uncomfortable phone call;
  • Chose a visit to a friend over a run in the park (or vice versa);
  • Invest my energy in one professional project over another; or
  • Recognizing my inability to constructively influence outcomes, more comfortably do nothing.

Because the cultural disease that ails us is everywhere, virtually every choice is an opportunity to be more decent: To others – to the world – and, very importantly, to myself as well. Steadily focusing on these goals has, I have found, brought with it an increasing sense of compassion (and self-compassion), curiosity, and zest; states of mind that have nurtured a deepening sense of gratitude for the life I am leading.


To fully realize our potential as healers, we need to forthrightly deal with the realities of the culture in which we live; creating techniques, such as those described above, to be used in our work with clients. The goals of our noble professions demand nothing less.