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.

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”.

6 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.

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