Medical Examiner

Jordan Peterson Seems Like a Terrible Therapist

Therapists are supposed to empower their clients, not use them to support their own worldview.

Jordan Peterson.
Jordan Peterson. Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Before Jordan Peterson became infamous as the favorite intellectual of the men’s rights movement, he was a psychology professor at the University of Toronto with a thriving private practice. Peterson closed down his private practice last year and is on sabbatical from the University of Toronto, but he continues to draw upon his background in psychology, particularly the work of Carl Jung, to defend the patriarchy and prop up his reputation.

Until recently, those who contributed $200 or more monthly to his Patreon account could also receive a 45-minute Skype session with him. These sessions are not explicitly referred to as therapy, though a structured 45-minute conversation with a mental health professional from someone seeking assistance seems very much like therapy. Nellie Bowles recounts one such session in her recent New York Times profile of Peterson—Peterson acolyte Trevor Alexander Nestor, a young unemployed white man, posted the audio of his session online. This example suggests that if these sessions are anything like Peterson’s clinical practice, what he’s providing is far from therapeutic.

Nestor starts the session by discussing his research on low sperm counts and socio-culturally enforced impotence while Peterson mostly stays silent. It’s when Nestor begins to complain about women who find marriage oppressive that Peterson commences a long rant about Betty Friedan:

So I don’t know who these people think marriages are oppressing. I read Betty Friedan’s book because I was very curious about it, and it’s so whiny, it’s just enough to drive a modern person mad to listen to these suburban housewives from the late ’50s ensconced in their comfortable secure lives complaining about the fact that they’re bored because they don’t have enough opportunity. It’s like, Jesus, get a hobby.

The two continue to volley, expressing exasperation at the presence of liberal dogma at universities and a certainty that women would gladly be homemakers if only they were allowed to admit that preference.

Like Peterson, I make my living by thinking and writing about therapy and psychology. I have a caseload of about 50 people at an outpatient clinic in Chicago, so I’m familiar with the rhythms of a therapy session. I was deeply troubled by what I saw in Peterson’s session with Nestor. First, and perhaps most obviously, Peterson makes no attempt at remaining neutral throughout the conversation; he broadcasts his beliefs about gender and liberalism. Neutrality has always been a somewhat fraught subject area for mental health experts. Beginning with Freud, classical psychoanalysts cautioned therapists to strive for neutrality in their dealings with patients. The goal of this was not to come across as cold but rather to be a blank screen upon which patients could enact their prior relational patterns, the hope being that this would then lead them to increased insight and possibly healing. This is easy to say but difficult to practice; Freud himself did not follow this rule, though some who shared his ideology tried to. Later, more relationally oriented therapists would contend that this was an impossible goal.

But how Peterson intervenes in his discussion with Nestor is unlike anything either camp would recommend. Neutrality may not always be possible, but boundaries are essential for therapists to maintain regardless of their theoretical orientation, and Peterson has no interest in them. This is in contrast to traditional therapy—for example, if I bring too much of my personal identity into my work, that vastly narrows the scope of whom I can effectively treat. Beyond that, the goal of therapy is not to get your patients to think like you but to empower people to become the best version of themselves. Only seeing people who adhere to your narrowly confined ideology, and then using the time in session to justify this ideology, isn’t therapeutic.

It’s unclear to me what a session with Peterson really offers, other than confirmation of that of which the participant is already aware. Nestor doesn’t seem to grow in his self-knowledge nor experience any insight during the course of his conversation with Peterson. When Nestor mentions feeling anxious, Peterson tells him that his anxiety is warranted. “You don’t have a future and you don’t have a job and no bloody wonder you’re anxious,” he says. “That just means you’re sane.” Therapy should never fill a patient with false hope, but neither should it make you feel as if the future is foreclosed against you. In this exchange, it seems like Peterson is attempting to use Nestor as support for his ideological view, rather than to help Nestor grow.

Most troublingly, Nestor is experiencing real distress: He’s aimless, unemployed, overeducated, and functionally homeless. He could use a real therapist, but that’s not what he gets. Instead of letting him fill the hour with ramblings, a good therapist would redirect him to the concerns that caused him to seek help in the first place. We would all rather talk about pointless musings than confront our anxieties and fears. But by letting Nestor focus his time on sperm counts and submissive wives rather than his more immediate concerns, Peterson does him a great disservice. When he finally does intervene, Peterson refocuses the session on himself and his own thoughts. The great British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once said, “I interpret mainly to let the patient know the limits of my understanding.” Peterson interprets in an attempt to show off his.

There’s also the issue of the payment. As noted, this was not an official therapy session. But it’s important to note that therapists have an ethical responsibility to charge a reasonable rate for services and to refer a patient elsewhere if they cannot be seen in a timely manner. It’s unclear how much Nestor paid in total—it could have been scheduled after he subscribed to Peterson’s Patreon for one month, making it a fairly typical rate. But posts on the Jordan Peterson subreddit indicate that it could take several months to schedule a Skype session with Peterson. I don’t know the state of Nestor’s finances, but based upon his unemployment and lack of stable housing, he most likely spent money he didn’t have to support Peterson (who reportedly makes $80,000 a month from his Patreon account). I don’t blame Nestor for being desperate for help. I do blame Peterson for bilking him out of his hard-earned money.

There are myriad legitimate critiques to be made against Jordan Peterson: his overreliance on a widely discredited Jungian theory of archetypes, his misunderstanding and misrepresentation (willful or no) of those archetypes, his deep-seated pessimism verging upon nihilism. In the face of such substantive issues, criticizing his methods and ethical lapses as a therapist may seem like nitpicking. But his experiences in clinical practice are worth considering—when asked to explain how he arrived at his political positions, he referred not to theory but to the lived experiences of some of his former patients, who were, as he put it, besieged by liberalism run amok as he sees it. Given his lack of boundaries, poor listening skills, and questionable ethics, though, I find it hard to believe that Peterson was genuinely moved by what his patients told him. If his conversation with Nestor is any indication of his working methods, it seems far more likely that he found confirmation of what he was already looking for in his sessions. After all, he’s far too in love with the sound of his own voice to hear anyone else.