Unengaging employment and schooling require all kinds of coercions for participation, and human beings pay a psychological price for this. In nearly three decades of clinical practice, I have found that coercion is often the source of suffering.
Here’s one situation that I’ve seen hundreds of times. An intelligent
young child or teenager has been underachieving in standard school, and
has begun to have emotional and/or behavioral problems. Such a child
often feels coerced by standard schooling to pay attention to that which
is boring for them, to do homework for which they see no value, and to
stay inside a building that feels sterile and suffocating. Depending on
the child’s temperament, this coercion results in different
outcomes—none of them good.
Some of these kids get depressed and anxious. They worry that their
lack of attention and interest will result in dire life consequences.
They believe authorities’ admonitions that if they do poorly in school,
they will be “flipping burgers for the rest of their lives.” It is
increasingly routine for doctors to medicate these anxious and depressed
kids with antidepressants and other psychiatric drugs.
Other inattentive kids are unworried. They don’t take seriously
either their schooling or admonitions from authorities, and they feel
justified in resisting coercion. Their rebellion is routinely labeled by
mental health professionals as “acting out,” and they are diagnosed
with oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder. Their parents
often attempt punishments, which rarely work to break these kids’
resistance. Parents become frustrated and resentful that their child is
causing them stress. Their child feels this parental frustration and
resentment, and often experiences it as their parents not liking them.
And so these kids stop liking their parents, stop caring about their
parents’ feelings, and seek peers whom they believe do like them, even
if these peers are engaged in criminal behaviors.
In all societies, there are coercions to behave in culturally agreed
upon ways. For example, in many indigenous cultures, there is peer
pressure to be courageous and honest. However, in modernity, we have
institutional coercions that compel us to behave in ways that we do not
respect or value. Parents, afraid their children will lack credentials
necessary for employment, routinely coerce their children to comply with
coercive schooling that was unpleasant for these parents as children.
And though 70% of us hate or are disengaged from our jobs, we are
coerced by the fear of poverty and homelessness to seek and maintain
In our society, we are taught that accepting institutional coercion
is required for survival. We discover a variety of ways—including drugs
and alcohol—to deny resentment. We spend much energy denying the lethal
effects of coercion on relationships. And, unlike many indigenous
cultures, we spend little energy creating a society with minimal amount
Accepting coercion as “a fact of life,” we often have little
restraint in coercing others when given the opportunity. This
opportunity can present itself when we find ourselves above others in an
employment hierarchy and feel the safety of power; or after we have
seduced our mate by being as noncoercive as possible and feel the safety
of marriage. Marriages and other relationships go south in a hurry when
one person becomes a coercive control freak; resentment quickly occurs
in the other person, who then uses counter-coercive measures.
In the 1970s, prior to the domination of the biopsychiatry-Big Pharma
partnership, many mental health professionals took seriously the impact
of coercion and resentful relationships on mental health. And in a
cultural climate more favorable than our current one for critical
reflection of society, authors such as Erich Fromm, who addressed the
relationship between society and mental health, were taken seriously
even within popular culture. But then psychiatry went to bed with Big
Pharma and its Big Money, and their partnership has helped bury the
commonsense reality that an extremely coercive society creates enormous
fear and resentment, which results in miserable marriages, unhappy
families, and severe emotional and behavioral problems.