November 26, 2018

Are Emotional Disorders Really Disorders of Love?

We now know enough about human biological evolution to understand that our social nature is built into our instinctual biological core. We are not loosely connected separate entities; we are by our very nature shaped and motivated by mutuality, cooperativeness and love.

Unlike most creatures, we humans are born with an essentially fetal brain, which leaves us totally dependent upon others and which doubles in size during our first year of life. This enormously rapid growth in the size and complexity insures that our brain develops outside our mother’s body as a social organ, an organ whose very structure and function is formed by the nurturing influences which surround it.

We humans are literally made of each other, physically, psychologically and socially. Nurturing in the first few years of life guides the development and expression of our social nature and our power as a species to survive and to thrive; and lack of that nurturing leads to psychological and social impairments. But we are not helpless beings at the mercy of nature and nurture; we can make choices and learn to overcome whatever negative legacy emotions we bring from our biological evolution and childhood socialization.1

Love and empathy are key to our social nature. Across the psychological, spiritual and political spectrums, many thoughtful people have concluded that love and its expression as empathy are the central principles of living a good and productive life.

Historically, the importance of love and empathy had its initial and perhaps still fullest expression in the teaching of Christ: to love God, to love one another, and to follow the Golden Rule—to treat others as we would want them to treat us. The Old Testament, Buddhism and many other religious documents have also expressed variations on the Golden Rule.2

The Surprising Truth about Charles Darwin and Adam Smith

Contrary to common belief, the great evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin did not place emphasis on the survival of the fittest but instead on mutual aid and love as the key to human success as individuals and as a species. Darwin described the concept of a loving God and the Golden Rule as the highest achievement of human history, emanating in part from our embedded social instincts but ultimately requiring conscious reasoning:

To do good in return for evil, to love your enemy, is a height of morality to which it may be doubted whether the social instincts would, by themselves, have ever led us. It is necessary that these instincts, together with sympathy, should have been highly cultivated and extended by the aid of reason, instruction, and the love or fear of God, before any such golden rule would ever be thought of and obeyed.3

Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations and the great 18th century advocate of economic liberty, wanted more than a dog-eat-dog free market. In his great work on the Theory of Moral Sentiments, he saw empathy and love as social sentiments required to temper greed. He praised human “fellow-feeling” and the “principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.” He wrote, “it is the first precept to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our strength, so it is the second to love our neighbor as we love ourselves…”4

Despite the importance which Charles Darwin and Adam Smith placed upon love and cooperation in individual and societal success, these themes receive little emphasis in most discussions of their work. Most of us have been misled by our education and by contemporary writers into believing that the Darwin and Smith advocated competition and survival of the fittest. People are surprised to learn that their respective theories of evolution and economics emphasized love, empathy and cooperation.

Love and Empathy in Psychology and Psychiatry

Emphasis on love and empathy abounds in sources seemingly divergent from the themes of Judaism and Christianity in which Darwin and Smith were immersed. One of the richest analyses of the role of love in human life is found Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving. Fromm, a psychologist and secular humanist with Marxist leanings, was seemingly as far away as one could get in his thinking from men like Charles Darwin and Adam Smith; but this was not so in respect to the centrality of love.

Fromm described love as “the answer to the problem of human existence.” He declared:

The awareness of human separation, without reunion by love—is the source of shame. It is at the same time the source of guilt and anxiety. The deepest need of man, then, is the need to overcome his separateness to leave his prison of aloneness. The absolute failure to achieve this aim means insanity…5

R. D. Laing, the most widely read critical psychiatrist in the 1960s and a continuing inspiration to psychiatric reform, placed love at the center of the therapist’s healing qualities. Laing was addressing the therapist’s role in reintegrating the “divided self,” an aspect of psychosis and so-called schizophrenia, when he wrote:

The main agent in uniting the patient, in allowing the pieces to come together and cohere, is the physician’s love, a love that recognizes the patient’s total being, and accepts it, with no strings attached.6

What if this were true?

What if the teachings of so many wise observers provide a straightforward holistic concept for personal, emotional or psychological success and failure? Could it be that human psychological and spiritual well-being lies in becoming an increasing source of love and in accepting love more deeply, while psychological and spiritual unwellness lies in varying degrees of being unable to love and to be loved?

Could the whole array of psychiatric diagnostic categories, to the extent that they have any validity at all, be expressions of the failure to love and to accept love? Could the wide range of successful psychotherapies really work by means of the therapist’s ability to encourage people to experience love through how positively he or she relates to them?

Focusing More on Love

I first began thinking about and trying to implement these concepts as a college student (1954-1958) volunteering in a state mental hospital. I explored them in two of my early books, Toxic Psychiatry: Why Therapy, Empathy and Love Must Replace the Drugs, Electroshock and Biochemical Theories of the “New Psychiatry” (1991) and Beyond Conflict: From Self-Help and Psychotherapy to Peacemaking (1992).

I now want to boil down the role of love in our lives into a simple observation: Nearly all human personal or emotional success depends upon being able to give and to accept love, and nearly all human personal failure reflects an inability to do so.

My own working definition of love is “joyful awareness”—the experience of happiness over the existence of something or someone, including whatever or whomever inspires us, from family and friends to nature and God. From experiencing romantic love to admiring heroes who lift our ideals; from enjoying the birds that flit about us in our backyard to watching children or animals play—love is an enthusiastic engagement in life. When we love people and pets, as well as God, we became able not only to give love but also to receive it.

What if we focused therapy on helping our clients and patients to give and to accept love more fully? Could we help them see the importance of love and how they can overcome their entrenched fears and doubts about giving and receiving it? Suppose we did this ourselves in our everyday lives, trying when possible to give and to receive love, along with whatever other activity we were sharing?

As family members, therapists or doctors, what if we never again promoted or prescribed drugs as a “treatment” because they ultimately impair our frontal lobes and hence our ability to love? Could we jettison all our ugly, cookie cutter, unloving diagnoses—ADHD, conduct disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and PTSD? Could we instead help others to discover where their loving engagement with life was discouraged or lost and how to revive it or even to experience it for the first time?

In my life and my clinical practice, these questions are not abstract conjectures. From my earliest days as a college volunteer in a state mental hospital to this day, I have tried to guide people toward more loving engagement with the primary people in their lives and with life itself. I have also tried to guide myself in the same way, often with faltering and even failing steps.

Here is the formulation of what has become increasingly clear to me:

Nearly all emotional disorders are disorders of love, and we heal from these disorders to the degree that we learn to give and to accept love.

This is an initial formulation of what I hope to share with you in more detail and with greater clarity in the coming months and years through my writing, courses, conferences, radio shows, videos and films.


  1. My most detailed discussion of the social brain and human biological and social evolution is found in Breggin, Peter. (2014). Guilt, Shame and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions. Amherst, New York.
  2. Varied religious expressions of the Golden Rule are cited in Breggin, Peter (1992). Beyond Conflict: From Self-Help and Psychotherapy to Peacemaking. New York: St. Martin’s Press, e.g., p. 20
  3. Darwin, Charles (1981) (November 1859, 1st ed.) “On the Descent of Man.” In The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. P. 32. In his seminal book, Darwin uses the word “love” 80 times and “sympathy” 52 times. He mentions “survival of the fittest” only three times, once to discuss its limitations. I derived these numbers with the aid of Barrett, Paul; Weinshank, Donald; Ruhlen, Paul; and Ozminsk, Stephen. (1987). A Concordance to Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  4. Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Sixth Edition (1790). This edition was retrieved on November 25, 2018 from The site allows searching for words and for counting them (using Control F). Smith uses the term fellow-feeling 39 times and the word love 224 times.
  5. Fromm, Erich. (1956). The Art of Loving. New York: Harper & Row, p. 9. Italics in original.
  6. Laing, R.D. The Divided Self. (2010) (1965). London: Penguin Classics, p. 165.