Byron Katie’s Domination Technique: a Case Study

Enough people have asked me my thoughts about Byron Katie and “The Work” that I’ll give a few here in relation to the following video.

In it, Katie “helps” a woman understand that her fears of the Trump administration are unwise, with an undercurrent of “deluded”. Katie does this using several techniques of charismatic dominance. This is ironic, to say the least.

A few caveats:

1) No, I’ve never attended a $5000 intensive with Katie. No, I’ve not made an exhaustive study of her books or video catalogue. But these thresholds are not necessary for pointing out mechanisms of domination at play in her popularity. In fact, the retreat price tag and endless repetitive content are features of that domination. The sunk-cost fallacy means that the higher the buy-in in terms of money and attention, the less likely one is to see a thing independently of one’s investment. (This is true for any costly spirituality or personal development experience, btw.)

2) Not knowing everything about Katie means that I can’t say that this video is completely representative of what she does. But this doesn’t mean she isn’t responsible for what happens in it.

3) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – of which Katie’s material is totally derivative – is a well-established therapeutic mode. However, evidence that the effectiveness of CBT has been declining has bolstered the growing opinion in clinical psychology that no particular intervention is better than any other, and that the most important predictor of therapeutic success is the quality of the therapeutic relationship. Katie, by contrast, markets her product — “The Work” — as a magic bullet. This helps to conceal the important dynamic of her relational technique. She can always say that it’s about “The Work”, as a way of covering over the fact that the technique’s theatre depends on her domination.

4) I have no idea how Katie treats people in private, what her intentions are, or what her internal landscape is like. These items are irrelevant to the presentation, on YouTube, of her brand and product. My comments here are not about her personhood or personality, but about what she does in this video.

5) This critique can’t discount the fact that many people feel Katie’s technique is helpful. Why it’s helpful and whether the help is sustainable, or whether it retrenches disempowerment – these are separate questions.

Now, two main points about the video:

  1. Katie subtly bullies the woman into restating her fear in such a way that she can be made to look and feel ridiculous, on a stage, in front of her peers, in deference to authority.
  2. The cognitive technique is an effective mask for the theatre of a somatic domination that can feel like love.

#1: The dialogue of the technique has to begin with a reframing of the participant’s fear.

Here’s the transcript:

Subject: I am frightened of Donald Trump, because he could start concentration camps, because he could —
Katie: You’re not afraid of him because he could — when you’re writing these worksheets, that doesn’t, it’s not could — “I’m afraid he WILL.”
Subject: [Gets quieter, more deferent] “Yeah, I’m afraid he will…”

It seems innocuous, but Katie’s rephrasing/reframing is crucial. It allows her to override the voice of the subject, to whom she feeds the proper line. The subject speaks Katie’s words, not her own. Without this opening gambit, which co-opts the subject’s emotion to Katie’s interpretive power, the encounter is over.

Any notion that this is therapeutic is completely backward. The encounter begins with a fundamental act of disempowerment that establishes Katie as the expert of the subject’s thoughts and problems, as someone who can say: your assertions about the future are irrational – even though the subject isn’t asserting anything about the future. The subject’s stated fear hinges on uncertainty. Ironically, the technique presents uncertainty as a doorway to divine inevitability. And that’s where the technique moves out of CBT territory and becomes reliant on faith in Katie, which is generated in part by the somatics.

#2: Somatic theatre.

Because Katie is not doing any trained CBT here (which presents itself as a technique, not a pathway to mystical truth brokered by an awakened being), the impact of the scene as a scene must be considered.

Note the benevolent aggression of Katie’s body language. She leans forward, makes intrusive eye contact, smiles in an alpha way that demands a defensive smile – easily confused with relaxation – in response.

Consider the performance pressure on the subject, on a dais in a room filled with a hundred people or more, with whom she must socialize on breaks, to whom she might be looking for relief from social isolation, who might constitute for her the idealized friend group for which she’s longed for years. Imagine the stakes involved in her talking back, refusing the advice, reasserting her original thought, wresting back her agency from Katie.

Note signs of Katie’s somatic control: talking to the subject but really to the crowd, nodding as though she’s heard it all before and nothing could possibly surprise her (grandiosity), the implicit agreement that she can interrupt anyone at any time (because she’s not there to listen but to tell). Even the magical appearance of the subject’s words on the iPad in front of her (keyed in by an invisible assistant?) gives the impression of wizardry in maternal garb.

The basic psychopolitics of the scene are conservative:

  • Someone is in charge,
  • you are wrong to worry,
  • everything is as it should be (and as it was when you were a child), and,
  • if you agree you will be socially rewarded.

The overt messaging here is that you are happiest when you surrender to rather than resist conditions. Aggression and violation are not as real as your fear of them.

The gendered aspect of this conservatism (and its regressive reliance on patriarchy) is clearly on display than in this classic post from 2012:

Back in the video, Katie encourages the room to come to similar “give him a chance” conclusions about Trump.

The racist aspect of this conservatism is visible 30 minutes in, where Katie shuts down a WOC who raises the point that 53% of white women voted for Trump, and implies that Katie’s technique is helping them feel better about it.

Katie interrupts her to assert that the expectations of WOC for justice are actually the problem. She conflates the woman’s statistic with “belief”, and even throws in a “sweetheart”. The woman smiles, apparently disarmed.

A concrete reality of oppression is absorbed and neutralized by the technique.

Are sexism and racism values of CBT? No: they’re values of patriarchal control.

If you are in Yogaland, or any field of embodied service work, and you’ve missed all this somatic theatre of dominance stuff, please take a closer look. Think about what it means to people’s bodies to “relax” into the power of someone who doesn’t listen, and who shows in their own bodies and words that their ideas and self-presentation are more important than the experience of anyone else.

_____

Note: I’ve covered similar themes in this analysis of the Tony Robbins documercial “I Am Not Your Guru”.

19 Comments

  • Sorry, I’m balancing my infant, toddler and two dogs at the moment so I haven’t completely read your post here. I want to chime in though, for what it’s worth, ‘The Work’ worked for me! I accessed it through a conversation with my Auntie over the phone, wrote down the four questions with a pencil and away I went.

    I did all this without really learning a thing about Byron Katie; I was simply in need and motivated to get some healing underway. The immediate effectiveness of ‘The Work’ blew me away and some… three journals later, I was recommending the four questions to friends whenever it seemed appropriate. I’ve since learned that my tool for healing isn’t necessarily anyone else’s. How did it work for me? Whatever the ingredients of my particular upbringing and experiences were, they left me ripe for this type of CBT. I won’t bore you with the details but this is my general assessment of ‘what happens’ for me: 1) I write down a belief (this has seriously got to be written down… not even typed but written) 2) I identify if it’s absolutely true (kind of taking the wind out of the sails of the belief) 3) I call out all of the feeling associated with it (I even get into somatic feelings in my body) 4) I flip it for some perspective 5) I guess I kind of micro-meditate on my state without the belief and then Wham-o! I got some new perspective and 100% of the time I’m inching toward healing and integration vs. isolation and contraction.

    It’s possible I’m a total crack-pot but I’m not acutely aware of that quality as of yet. Just a human doing my best.

    P.S.
    No way in hell would I ever drop $5K to attend anything like this. Mostly because I don’t have $5K to drop. I’m sure there is something that feels incredible in any scene like this; surrounded by like-minded folks looking for ‘the’ answer. I’m not knocking it – to each their own but this ‘work’ of loving what is – is in me, and of me (ya know… like the greater me) and I don’t believe I need hand-holding to find it. But I do dig her audiobooks 🙂

    P.P.S
    This shit is complicated, healing that is.

  • well considered and written Matthew
    sure there are many paths, yet it sure is difficult to watch a person be shamed, and told they are wrong to be afraid
    it seems a ‘great’ path for fixing
    if it leads to ignoring suffering nothing good will come from this

  • Hi Matthew,

    sorry, but I don’t see it. What’s interesting to me is – as Heather already pointed out – the work does not require working with Byron Katie, but each individual can do her/his own work. The directive style she uses is common with therapists from CBT/REBT. You can like it or dislike it, but to me it’s one approach to the therapeutic relationship and I know I would prefer this style any time over a, for example, more Rogerian approach. However, I do believe both have their own value.

    Just to clarify my understanding of the conversation at the end (because I do find it interesting how we can hear different things). When the girl at the end talks about her experience, it’s not about race, but about the girl’s personal expectation and disappointment. I think Mrs. Byron does not conflate the statistics with belief instead she even affirms the statistics as facts („These women succeeded in the election.“). However, she highlights that just because we expect someone to behave a certain way (i.e. “white women/feminists must vote for Hillary”) they may not. She says: “People are not who we believe them to be just because we believe it.” I don’t see how this is a statement specifically about expectations of WOC for justice? It’s true for all of us.

    In regards to the session: it’s a group presentation setting and the subject does not strike me as having been forced into this situation. I find she actually seems confident, relaxed and ready to challenge her own thinking. Group presentations are not uncommon in therapy trainings and group sessions. As long as the context and rules have been made clear for everyone, I don’t see anything wrong with this format.

    Finally – you seem to be employing the very patterns, that you disapprove of… “If (…) you’ve missed all this somatic theatre of dominance stuff, please take a closer look.” This sounds pretty patriachial and dominating to me. Essentially you are discrediting any disagreement in advance. I did take a close look and I can see your point. However, it feels to me as if the interpretation of the conversation depends on whether one feels threatened by this style of interviewing or not.

    I am not sure how I feel about Byron Katie and “the Work” – would have to put more research and thought into it, but this video resonated with me fairly positively.

    Well, all that said – thanks for sharing your thoughts and appologies for challening them like this. My intention is merely to offer another perspective.

    • Thanks for commenting, Clemens. I don’t mind the challenge at all, but have to say it seems to miss my two core points: 1) Katie changed the woman’s initial statement to fit her model, and 2) engaged a theatre of dominance.

      To be clear: I’m not writing about the method. I’m writing about the interpersonal exchange in the video.

      That you compare what Katie does to therapy, whether privately or in group format, is highly problematic. Her own literature is explicit that she is not offering therapy. So what is she doing, exactly? What is the scope of practice, and to whom is she responsible?

      You’re completely missing the racism of the last interaction. The woman (not a “girl”) explicitly refers to the cohort of white women Trump voters in relation to the whiteness of the gathering. Katie interrupts her and obscures the issue.

      Finally, conflating a written critical analysis of a video with what Katie is doing — providing unlicensed therapy that she says isn’t therapy to people from whom she is charging big money — is off. You’ve just compared the readers of this article to the subject of the video. It’s inaccurate, but a good way of closing out a comment that misses key points. The truth is that teaching in the yoga world runs on unacknowledged somatic dominance. I spotlight Katie and Robbins because they make it so easy to see. Thanks again for commenting.

  • While I’ve attended Byron Katie seminars, I also realize that the basis for her ‘work’ is based on common shifting perspectives therapy styles. The distinction (whether dominant or not) is that her ‘work’ helps someone see a new perspective quickly and takes the edge of uncertainty and fear away.

    Personally, I have tweaked her questions quite a bit, but the basis is realistic. If we have a ‘belief’ it CAN’T be THE truth! Period. It’s something that we believe to be true but not everyone on the planet believes it, it isn’t ‘the’ truth. That said, if the ‘belief’ keeps someone fearful or unhappy, then helping a person gain a new perspective is valuable.

    It seems that the objection is more to her style and methodology than it is to the outcome/results she achieves. BTW, in person I have found her to be rude and egotistical. Yet, after tweaking her questions, and never using them as a formula per se, there is a definite positive result.

    • Thanks for commenting. Leaving aside the problem of whether cognitive fixes to emotional states are effective, how do we know anything about the results she achieves? Is there data? Thanks again.

      • Dear Matthew,
        if I understand correctly, you see Byron Katie’s ‘the work’ as a CBT method, which it is not. You really can’t know ‘the work’ without questioning your own thoughts by filling ‘judge your neighbour worksheet’ and meditating on the four simple questions (it’s all free without charge). The thoughts and questions work only, if you write down your straight belief, without leaving any doors open for the mind to play or escape. That is why Byron Katie guides the people with their statements and answers. ‘The work’ stops working, if you let your mind to speculate and if you go through the questions with superficial mind without getting still and letting the answers arise from your heart. First you meditate on the thoughts as objects. You feel your emotions in the body. By answering the questions you end up as awareness, in the is-ness of reality. It is deep work, sometimes you sit days with one worksheet.
        I respect your concern and I can see your empathy. It would be hilarious though to hear your comments after putting all your judgements of Byron Katie on ‘the judge your neighbour worksheet’ and working it through with turnarounds. What a gift it would be for you and for us!
        Much love,
        Hilkka

  • Thanks for posting this. I have done The Work and found it very helpful. However, I signed up for a Spirit Rock workshop on The Work led by Byron Katie and was truly taken aback by the degree of egotism she exhibited. I often found her condescending to people who raised questions, and she seemed more focused on maintaining a sense of spiritual superiority than on actually helping the people asking the questions. Where direct, caring responses could have facilitated actual learning, she repeatedly responded in ways that subtly belittled the question being asked (and the questioner) and conveyed the message that although they could not currently even ask their question correctly, with time they might attain some of her wisdom and then be susceptible to being helped. I found the degree and frequency of her egotism and passive-aggressive condescension shocking. I think The Work itself can be a very useful tool for identifying and loosening unhelpful unconscious beliefs, but I also believe it is fairly straightforward. In the end, I was left feeling that Katie was intent on generating an aura of her own spiritual wisdom and that on some unconscious level she knew that providing straight-forward teaching would undercut that (physician heal thyself). Again, I found the degree of egotism she exhibited appalling.

    • The comments you made about Byron Katie being conceited etc are hilarious thank you. I read it, judged you for it and then made the same judgment and am doing a worksheet on it. It is all so funny. It fills me with Joy to realise how it is impossible for that to be true. I invite you to do a Judge your neighbor Worksheet on those judgements and join me in rapturous laughter in returning to truth and sanity. Much love

      • Claire, your comment made me smile as I was thinking the same thing! I discovered The Work in the mid-90s when Katie was traveling to small venues/churches and sharing The Work for a donation. Initially, I found her/The Work to be upsetting, even mean, but then I saw how calm people were afterwards, and I could feel a real shift had taken place. For me, Katie’s work is like medicine on a wound. It may sting at first, but eventually you see that it actually makes you feel better, calmer, more peaceful. To me it’s like opening all the windows and doors and breathing fresh air. I have so much gratitude to Katie. And, FYI, everything you need to do The Work is available on her website for free. I’ve never attended an expensive retreat either. 😉 Be well, Matthew.

  • Hi Matthew,

    Thanks for this article.
    You make a reference to “somatic domination” here and it sounds an interesting term, but I can’t find any reference to it anywhere else. Could you elaborate on what you mean by this?

  • Hello,
    I have spent a lot of time doing ‘the work’. It has been incredible! I could not possibly put into words how much it has assisted my liberation from different issues I was suffering. It is incredibly transformative if understood and applied to yourself as is taught by Byron Katie. It cannot be understood unless experienced. I want to thank you for your article as it gave me another opportunity to complete a worksheet when I felt resistance to your words which was very illuminating. In my eyes Byron Katie is a wonderful human being, compassionate, clear and understanding. When cutting through the illusions your mind can present it is helpful to have the assistance of someone clear and direct… sometimes polite according to some social expectations just doesn’t wake you up in the moment when you are fearful and believing a very convincing mental construct. Compassion and kindness can take on many expressions, if you take the time to look deeply you can see it in the moment and understand what is going on in the video. Unless you have done the work it is likely very difficult to understand what is actually occurring. It is helpful to understand that you are witnessing other people’s business (as Byron Katie puts it) and stay in your own business while witnessing by focusing on “ what is my response, judgment, fear in this moment “ ? As Katie says “whatever I think you are, as soon as I believe it I am that”. I have found this to be so true after doing the work on countless judgements I have made in the past. We are all human, common humanity is an important key in cultivating compassion. Can we witness each other with understanding and honour each of our rights to live and experience freely? If we can do it inside with ourselves we can then do it when facing the world… which is also facing ourselves because that is all we are truly every doing. I wished to share this with whom ever happens to read the above article so you can consider that perhaps Byron Katie is actually a caring human being compassionately helping people and that ‘the work’ is an incredible tool that could ease your suffering or even lead you into the depths of yourself and awaken you. It has done this for me over and over every time I have used it. I am grateful to Byron Katie more than words could express.
    Claire

    • Thank you Claire for your comment! I’m happy you shared your experience, which would help anyone who happens to read the above article to be open to ‘the work’ and try it out. I have also found it amazing. ‘The work’ is free and you can do it by yourself. Answering the questions awaken you beyond the personal psychological entity. Cognitive behavioral therapy is far cry of finding who you truly are. That is awareness where ‘the work’ leaves you. Over and over again, when you just put your stressful thought in the paper and answer the questions. I’m willing to do that for the rest of my life.
      Hilkka

  • Thank you for this excellent and very well articulated piece. I have more than one friend who believe that they have been helped by Byron Katie and “The Work.” I also can see through the techniques that Byron Katie uses and fully see how dangerous she is, and especially to people who are deeply hurting and vulnerable. Tragically, this “Work” is incredibly disempowering and shaming, pulling people further away from their their own healing process and inherent truth, discernment, compassion, tenderness, empathy, and wisdom. I am deeply disturbed by the lack of compassion demonstrated repeatedly by Byron Katie. You nailed the many concerns and I am very grateful. And especially as someone who 20 years ago was very vulnerable and pulled in by a very charismatic therapist who ended up doing me great harm. Many lessons hard learned. I hope more and more will awaken to the truths you present here. Thank you again.

  • Incredible how you fall into your own mind traps!
    You’re exactly doing what you pretend her to do…
    So do all of the other aggressive, judging comments. If I would have doubts about her integrity they would rather shift to the comments, especially those who go like “very interesting but very dangerous ”
    Just try a worksheet, rarely saw anything cheaper and more effective than those!

  • I watched this video online awhile ago when a friend was raving about Byron Katie. It’s almost unbearable for me to watch again. (The laughter of the audience is unsettling). Matthew’s evaluation is insightful and focused on this particular interaction – so why all of the defensive comments about The Work? My favourite response in these comments, by Matthew Remski, is “So what is she doing, exactly? What is the scope of practice, and to whom is she responsible?” This is THE question that everyone should be asking when they purchase a book, watch a video, choose a therapist, attend a yoga class, go on a meditation retreat, etc. My lingering question is about these worksheets everyone is talking about. What sort of skillfulness is developed in The Work if every time something butts up against your ego, story of self or belief system you have to pull out a worksheet in order to noodle out of your reactivity? It smacks of distraction and maybe even dissociation. Oh, and if any authoritative facilitator uses the term “sweetie”, “sweetheart”, “my darling”, “my friend”, “dear” or “dear one” to you to end their argument, that’s your cue to run.

  • I find the polarity of readers interesting and relevant. Not that I try to have a middle way but as I have been using “the work” for self inquiry with satisfying results, I understand Katy Byron’s dialogue from a different perspective. And yet I agree with your point of view as Katy, like most of guru entrepreneur don’t invite people to first use/understand their emotions/opinions. We can’t spend our life taming our emotions or thoughts, trying to find a spiritual path, middle way or enlightenment or at least not placing ourselves under someone’s control (here mise en scène). But as long as people think they need a book that says don’t harm your brother or compassion/love is the secret to life, religions and guru will thrive. Thank you for your insight Matthew.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.