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:
- 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.
- 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”.