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The Work of Byron Katie Could Accidentally Cause Problems In Psychologically Vulnerable People

Table of Contents

by Heidi Hanson

artist, writer, trauma survivor

This is my first “guru analytics” blog post. In this series of posts I am attempting to do a kind of meta-analyses of guru personalities, capturing the entire picture including all the good and all the bad. Guru personalities are so complicated. While they do have legitimately helpful offerings, since they many times do not have training in psychology it’s good to approach them with as much critical thinking as possible, especially if you have PTSD or other mental health issues. Please note that these are my opinions from personal experiences.

I began doing The Work of Byron Katie in 2001. I went to some events, had some nice experiences, joined a practice group for a little while in Berkeley, California and after a couple years of inquiry took a long sabbatical from The Work. In 2007 I developed PTSD after two accidents. A friend and I began studying the Work again in 2008 and in some ways this was a good thing, but at a certain point I began to realize that some parts of The Work could be problematic for people with PTSD.

This article is this first of 4 about Byron Katie. In this article I attempt to clearly define the mechanisms of potential harm specifically in relation to people with trauma history or other mental illnesses. If you have PTSD or another mental illness, it’s important to be aware of these mechanisms when going to any guru or therapist. Even if you are relatively “normal,” it’s still good to be aware of these possible pitfalls to The Work, and of guru type personalities in general.

Note that the reason there are plus and minus signs throughout this article is I am tallying all the pluses and minuses of The Work in the first 3 articles for the last article that compiles them all into a list.

1. Loving What Is – The Enemy of Personal Power? (-)

I remember going to a Byron Katie presentation once with a friend who suffered from depression. This was when I had entered the “disillusioned” stage of my journey with The Work. One of Byron Katie’s messages is to “love what is.” My friend and I both just basically laughed off this idea, and the strange thing is, I have a suspicion that deflecting that message might have been the healthiest response we could have had at the time. This is because, if one has PTSD, or in the case of my friend, depression, “loving what is” may not be the lesson most targeted to one’s greatest needs for psychological health. The message “love what is” could be interpreted in such a way as to make people already suffering from unhealthy levels of passivity even more passive. It could undermine the development of one’s will.

The question here is – how does the healthy development of the personal will remain intact even as one studies the spiritual teaching of loving what is?

Trauma and The Will. There are many ways the personal will may be impaired. If one did not pass through the developmental stage of learning autonomy at age 2, one may still have struggles with saying “No!” If one suffers from Learned Helplessness (Seligman), one’s will may be in a very bad state, it can be almost completely shut down or inaccessible. For example, my friend who was depressed needed to regain his own healthy will again and not to feel so helpless about creating positive life circumstances for himself. For those of us suffering from PTSD, the will can also be very impaired; one can be completely apathetic to everything, not even knowing if one is dead or alive and not being in touch with one’s will at all.

Saying NO Heals. To heal one’s will, one’s personal power, it’s important to feel that one can influence their life in positive ways again. It’s important to find a way to unravel all the learned helplessness and untangle all the twisted messages impairing healthy autonomy. This is a process we all go through in our human development, and it involves saying NO to a lot of what is, not loving it.

For example:

– It is healthy to want to find a way to reconnect to one’s strong, powerful will as a healing force in one’s life, and not try to love or just accept the extreme passivity of being lost forever in immobility.

– It is healthy to find and declare one’s self worth, truth and opinions and not try to love being labeled incorrectly or discounted, belittled, and silenced. It is healthy to tell one’s story as it happened, and not try to love or just accept the story as told by someone who is trying to invalidate one’s truth. It is healthy to reject the twisted and crazy-making assertions of an abuser.

– It is healthy to reject being helpless, reject being hurt, reject being taken advantage of.

Possible Negative Consequences for PTSD. If someone with PTSD is told they should love what is, they may not understand what is being recommended and rather take it to mean they should accept whatever is happening to them. This may turn their learned helplessness into an even worse state of passiveness, or their confusion into even more confusion, or their inability to assert themselves into an even more paralyzed will.

Human Developmental Stage Not Yet Passed Through. I am thinking that probably the idea to “love what is” really only applies to those who already have a strong personal will. The problem is there exists a threshold: To love what is before the developmental stage of autonomy is complete is to be, basically, an infant or baby. Someone who is developmentally pre-two years of age. This person is helpless and “loves what is” because they have no will yet to influence anything. When one passes over the threshold of the development of personal autonomy, to love what is can be something else entirely.

Benefits of The Work for Those Who are Whole Inside. While my friend and I were jaded and dismissive at that Byron Katie event, and got nothing out of it, I believe that some people there benefited from it. This is because for them, the lesson was appropriate. Let’s assume these people had gone through the stages of human development successfully and were “healthy adults.” It is therefore likely they were approaching this presentation purely at the level of spiritual development. When they heard the teaching, they may have gone into an experience of the current moment. While embracing the presence of the moment, “what is” can become something profound and beautiful, without any negative impact on the use of will in the person’s life. (+) (The plus is for the potential of The Work to help some people be present in the moment). I would guess that a person could even become closer and more understanding of their will, while focusing on loving it as it turns up in the moment. These people may have been able to make a clear distinction between loving what is as a spiritual practice and passively accepting whatever is happening to them in terms of their physical life, relationships, etc.

A spiritual practice of “loving what is” should be considered a pathway to potentially becoming more powerful in terms of making changes in life and skillfully implementing free will, not less powerful.

Prerequisite of Wholeness. The key here is to have already built an internal locus of control and a secure internal working model inside oneself. This internal security is a base to explore these spiritual teachings without confusion or compromise. This is a fullness of autonomy that allows one to use the teaching in one’s own way. From this place, loving what is can be more of a mental experiment into understanding and changing one’s filters or ways of perceiving reality. This experiment can be freeing and even empowering, opening one to a new relationship with the world that breaks one out of old habits of perception (+) like judgment, black and white thinking and self-centeredness. This can be done while maintaining one’s healthy will, good boundaries and a balanced perspective that this teaching is not the only valid teaching, does not apply to everything in life and should not be taken literally.

My lesson is to not love what is. Even while understanding the potential benefits of doing the Work while conscious of all that I just mentioned, because of the fact that I have PTSD, it would be very unlikely I personally would end up using that teaching in the correct way after going to a BK event. If you tell me to “love what is” right now, I may take it to literally mean passively accept everything, not as a suggestion to engage in a mental experiment with my perceptions. Being that I have completely lost touch with my will at this point and feel like I am floating in a stagnant pool of apathy, loving what is could leave me so passive I might never awaken my will from its slumber, and ultimately never find a way out of helplessness and immobility.

What is appropriate for me right now is to prioritize my will development. I need to face the fact that I have PTSD, stop being distracted and quit trying to escape facing it, and see if I can successfully retrieve the lost parts of who I am, the untold stories that need voice, the things broken that need to become whole, and in this process, piece together the shattered will to live, to assert, to expand, to create. My lesson is to figure out how to build my secure internal working model inside myself and life, and to help my little inner two-year-old learn how to say “NO! I do NOT love what is right now!” at the top of her lungs.

2. Why Inquiry Could Invalidate Personal Truth (-)

Another part of the Work of Byron Katie is to ask “Is it True?” Someone will make a statement about their life or experience, and Katie will ask, “Is it True?” The expected answer is “No.” My understanding is that the purpose of this is to challenge one’s beliefs. Many of our beliefs, such as “I am fat,” “I failed,” “I should have done this and that already,” are pretty painful. They are like albatrosses hanging heavily around our necks, causing us to feel sad, ashamed, angry, defeated, and drained. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be relieved of these burdens, to break through these fixed ideas and see that there are many ways to frame our experiences and our beliefs about ourselves and our lives? In that application, The Work is a wonderful practice, but there are some statements and some situations where it might be best to refrain from challenging a person’s truth.

What someone with a trauma history needs MORE than inquiry: So let’s use as an example someone who has been through trauma, and they have their trauma story buried deep within. Say they go to a therapist and finally, after years, the truth of their experience begins to surface. The telling of THIS story should be held within a safe space. The person already is dissociated from their truth. If the therapist were to simply keep repeating, “Is it True?, Is it True?” this might cause the person to become even more dissociated, especially if they were expected to answer “No,” each time. If someone who has experienced so much trauma that they do not have a definition of self anymore goes to a therapist who tells them they are just telling a story that is false, this damages the process of rebuilding their sense of identity.

The person with a trauma history needs to speak whatever they have to say and be received by someone who is compassionate, emotionally conscious, caring and safe, someone who will hold them in a space of deep presence and heartfelt warmth so that they can finally, after years, speak aloud their stories, speak their truth and be truly and completely heard and understood.

The Work Confuses harmful belief and liberating story. (-)I think that the distinction needs to be made here between harmful belief and liberating story. I believe that problems arise when every story, every statement, a person provides is challenged with, “Is It True?” In the next article I compare The Work to REBT, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy which is also about deconstructing harmful beliefs. But in REBT the irrational belief, (aka harmful belief or demand) is clearly differentiated from other kinds of stories. One is taught to find the demand within their statement by looking for the “must.” “I am fat” has within it the belief “I must be thin;” “I have failed” has “I must succeed.” Once the “must” is pinpointed as the element causing the emotional distress the statement is deconstructed from there.

You can work with someone with PTSD to heal both harmful beliefs and liberating stories. If someone with PTSD is telling you a liberating story, you can actually work with the person on the level of somatic therapy, in order to help open up the past and allow the body to process the pent up energy from trauma and then, LATER, after all the trauma-related issues have been processed to a level such that the person is able to reach and maintain inner stability reliably, (-) ferret out any beliefs that are causing emotional distress and help work with them using REBT without invalidating their personal story in the least.

Problems due to Katie’s lack of Training in Psychology (-) The issue I have with Byron Katie is that, at least when I went to her events, she did not seem to acknowledge the reality of someone who is very traumatized. Traumatized people’s process is delicate, they need to be received with care and stabilized on many levels of their being, they can be highly dissociative and bombarding them with “Is it true?” is like an attack:

“Is it true you were raped?”

Yes, of course!

“Can you absolutely know that it’s true?”

Yes… (she works on you until you say No)

“Is it true you were treated with cruelty when 10 years old?”

Yes!! Yes! Maybe No? No.

She puts the liberating stories through inquiry rather than holding them in her arms like the precious offerings they are and then later, in a safe way, discovering and gently deconstructing any harmful beliefs that may be somewhere inside the stories. For example, in a story about being treated with cruelty, after processing the trauma, a therapist could question the harmful beliefs such as, “I should not have been treated that way,” or “yes I should have been punished,” providing emotional relief.

Note About Labels: In addition to demands, labels can be put through inquiry (as they also constitute a kind of harmful belief). For example, again only after processing the emotions related to the liberating story, if the person says “I was an abused child” one could ask that they make a specific observation of something that happened rather than use a label in order to open their mind to new perceptions of themselves. The Work does do this if a label happens to be the statement that arises, without pointing out that it is a “label.”

Crazy-Making. The invalidation of everything coming out of the person’s mouth with no distinction at all being made between liberating stories and harmful beliefs is not that different from crazy-making people out there (parents, cops, lawyers, judges, social workers, psychiatrists, husbands etc.) who discount a trauma sufferer’s actual experiences. (I know some people lie but many more are telling the truth). Discounting an experienced truth is one of the most harmful things anyone can do to someone who has suffered trauma. Byron Katie is unknowingly pulling the person apart and away from the truth of their experience when what they really need is to be taught how go deeper inside and “be” completely present, as their own resource, with the truth of their experience. This approach could increase dissociative tendencies (-), increase self-doubt (-), reduce their ability to be their own resource (-), and make it harder for them to build inner strength (-).


3. Never Addressing the Practical Problem Could be Disempowering (-)

OK, so we have gone over how to “Love What Is” can create passivity, and asking “Is It True?” in any case but a harmful belief could be invalidating and destructive to one’s grasp of their Truth. There is another problem that comes from only focusing on changing one’s own mind and emotions – one might focus so much on feeling at peace with the problem that they may never fix the problem.

Solving the Practical Problems of Life. In REBT there is a distinction made between fixing an emotional and a practical problem. If you are feeling extremely distressed about life, you may be generating a huge amount of stress due to a habit of musterbating (making demands or “musts” about your self, others and reality). To fix this, you question the irrational beliefs. But, there is another whole area called the Practical Problems of life. These are just as important to address, but Byron Katie seems to never address them.

In NVC (Nonviolent Communication) This is Called Strategies to Meet Needs. Say a woman sits up next to Katie and wants to do the work on the statement, “He criticizes me.” This is actually true, her boyfriend is frequently criticizing her. I would say this qualifies as a liberating story and she needs to be empowered around this experience. If using NVC, she would be prompted to get more deeply in touch with the truth of her feelings and needs. She may reply, “I feel upset and my need is for respect.” This kind of questioning brings the woman closer to her self, her truth – the feelings and needs that are alive in her body, mind and soul. But Byron Katie is pulling her away from her self, truth and power. And what is the result? Because her needs are not defined, there is NEVER a STRATEGY formed to meet her needs for respect, emotional safety, growth, compassion, love etc.

There are three AREAS:

1 Sorrow Due to Unmet Need ——2 Happy Due to Met Need ——-3 Upset due to “Must” around Need

So let’s say the woman was in AREA 3, the Must. If Byron Katie recognized this and identified ONLY the harmful belief – “He must not criticize me” – things might turn out well. Katie could ask, “Is it true – he should not criticize you?” And maybe the woman may say “Wow – I can see that there is no reason he should not criticize me, he is free to do what he wants. I cannot say he should not criticize me.” By doing inquiry on the must, the woman is taught to relax and let go of the attachments such as He MUST treat me right. He MUST stop. He MUST not speak like that. She might calm down, gain perspective. Stop doing addictive things to mask and hide all the pain. Start to balance her emotional state. Nobody is required to do anything for her in any particular way. This woman might feel more able to think clearly when she is not using MUST or SHOULD about the situation.

But she is STILL in a situation where her human needs are not being met. She is still experiencing AREA 1 – sorrow or some other negative emotions simply because one of her universal human needs is not being met in her life. No matter how much inquiry she does, her need for respect is still not being met in THAT situation. That is reality.

What happens if she wants to create a strategy that would meet her universal human needs more effectively? In my experience I have not seen Byron Katie address this. The problem with never focusing on solving practical problems is it puts us too much into ourselves and not enough into the world. It may ball us up so much in our heads we never take ACTION. Taking action is extremely important! If you never take action you never progress or learn.

Blame the Victim. (-)Not only does this process perhaps bollix up one from taking action to support or protect themselves, it could also somehow increase the chance for blaming the victim. I want to point out a comment from a Youtube video of Byron Katie doing the work on “He criticizes me”:

“My question is: if we are in a verbally abusive relationship, our we suppose to stay? For example: my husband constantly says to me, “you are dumb, you are stupid, you know nothing and you are worthless.” I have done the work and on this. He doesn’t hit me but as mentioned, constantly says those things (listed above). I get the feeling that If I want to leave, I am taking the easy way out, I am giving up on the relationship, I am the bad one and I am failing him. Please help. Thank you. ” (this comment appeared under this Youtube video)

It appears the woman thinks she could be considered bad for leaving a relationship when her partner’s behavior is actually a pretty big negative variable in the equation, if you look at it rationally. She appears to be shifting blame from both of them (what he does he is blamed for and what she does she is blamed for) over solely to her. Actually, for her to leave may actually mean she is good not bad – good for standing up for herself and creating strategies to meet more of her universal human needs, rather than bad for not pacifying all her emotional reactions to being harshly criticized.

And another comment…

“I’ve been in counseling ever since I got out of that mess, and I’m happy to report that I no longer wake up doing the work. I no longer blame myself for everything that happens to me, and force myself to pretend that I’m happy and peaceful about it. I no longer claim that I don’t understand it, but I only know that it helped me… it totally messed my life up… and I didn’t even realize how badly until I’d been free of it for several months. I finally “woke up”… and realized… I’d been sleep walking through that weird world of Byron Katie for too long.” (article where this comment was found)

In this case the woman was blaming herself for everything when doing the Work. Why? Why would doing inquiry lead to this “blame the victim” problem? I remember reading about a research study that showed that depressed women have a tendency to blame negative occurrences on themselves, and positive occurrences on outside forces such as “luck” or another person and this attitude contributes to learned helplessness and depression. What do you think someone with even mild depression will do if you tell them that everything they feel is of their own doing? That everything they think is not true? That it is up to them to become free of all of this by changing their thoughts? And on top of it do turn-arounds with them that come out like, “I raped myself,” or “I criticized myself”? They might take all that in in a way that says – all that happens that is negative is my fault. Why not? That’s pretty much what they are being told.

The Turn-around could re-victimize if taken literally in cases of trauma victims. (-) I just mentioned the use of the turn-around (“I raped myself”) possibly causing some issues. Actually, there is a pretty intelligent caution I came across online regarding this:

“I think that (turn around) part is designed to get people to take responsibility for their experience, which can be a useful exploration and can be empowering. However, it can also induce shame and guilt if it is forced on someone. In the case of trauma, as I mentioned, it can be a repeat victimization.” (link)

The reason it can be repeat victimization in cases of trauma is because saying “I raped myself,” or “I raped him,” for example in a case of rape, is blaming the victim. It’s not supposed to be taken literally; it’s supposed to open one up to explore if one has any responsibility for what happened. Looking for one’s own responsibility in trauma is only applicable after significant healing has been done, and should be done in a way that does not blame the victim at all, but simply shines light on possible areas of self-sabotage and wounding that made the person vulnerable to becoming traumatized and that, if healed now, could prevent further trauma. Usually these are not even the person’s fault as they arose from earlier traumas. Certainly this is a touchy area and should be done with expert care, but Byron Katie seems not to use that much care with this technique.

In all fairness, the Work does not intend for a “blame the victim” re-traumatizing effect. Just as a comparison, if you do REBT, the inquiry process in this cognitive therapy is similar to BK but actually relieves depression. In the year that I practiced REBT on a regular basis my mid-level depression definitely reduced by at least 50%. Obviously, parts of The Work, when a “must” statement or label is addressed, would be just as beneficial as REBT. Unfortunately The Work might also increase depression because learned helplessness and blame the victim can probably increase depression. But that is the problem, The Work is doing many problematic things that REBT avoids.

Buddhism may focus too much attention inward and disempower taking action too. In a way, the problem of becoming ineffective in the world is not unique to The Work, it actually might happen in Buddhism as well as other spiritual teachings. There is such an inward focus to be at peace with everything, to have no attachment to any outcome, to simply “be” in bliss or at one or in some state of beauty, people could lose the power to act. After all, if you are supposed to love and accept what is in every moment, it makes no sense to act to change it. It makes sense to change yourself only.

The Work Doesn’t Address us Where We Are. The blame the victim problem arises because the teachings are distorted. They are distorted because they want us to be more evolved than we are, in a sense they are trying to pull us beyond the average human level of evolution. But we are at this human level. And because we are at this human level we are SUPPOSED to have feelings in relation to what other humans are doing, and we are SUPPOSED to take action to change our lives for the better, because that is how humans grow and learn. Humans are social beings, we are connected to each other, we have impact on each other, energetically, emotionally and physically. That is the nature of our level of evolution RIGHT NOW. If we were not supposed to act, why would we have a body designed so superbly to take actions in life? If we were just supposed to be in bliss all the time, we could have stayed up in heaven and never had anything to do with being here on the physical planet.

NVC is nice because it acknowledges how humans affect each other, and honors our human needs in life. NVC helps us explore and express how we feel in response to others actions or non-actions. Eventually, gradually, NVC may help us to arrive at an understanding of being the generator of our own emotions. But even then, we still all have universal human needs and we need to navigate getting them met in life.

Possible…Not Realistic. Let’s say we are in a situation in which our partner is paying attention to the TV and not us, not listening, not hearing or seeing us, not meeting our needs for emotional safety and to be seen and loved. Yes we are the ones who can change our internal response to whatever we want. Technically we could be 100% at peace in all situations. For example, one can sit in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany and reach a state of complete inner serenity. But is this life? Is being in a relationship in which one is hit every week, one has bruises all over, one’s children are being yelled at – and throughout all this, one is maintaining a state of complete peace inside – is this something most humans are capable of? Saying that because we are each responsible for our own emotions, I will go ahead and stay in this situation and just cultivate peace inside, as the dishes go flying past my head – Is this human? This is technically POSSIBLE, but this is not healthy or ideal for our growth and for most people it is completely unrealistic.

We may choose to stay because we weighed all our options and this strategy meets more needs than leaving, and we are conscious about this. But to just stay because – well, I should be OK even in this situation because I should make my thoughts about it different – that’s not an empowered choice based on a well-thought-out strategy to meet our universal human needs. (I’m giving some minuses here for (-) the work not being realistic, (-) the work not addressing us where we are at and not being healthy (-) because of this)

My concern is that The Work might not address some very important things for people in real danger. Take a situation in which a woman is legitimately being harmed in her home. Does The Work acknowledge that:

– This woman is not enlightened, and does not need to be. She needs to be safe. At her evolutionary level what is appropriate for her right now is to be empowered to create a well-thought-out strategy to meet her needs. If she consciously weighs all her needs and decides it’s best for her to stay, she can, in an empowered way, decide to stay. But if it is endangering her, she might demonstrate emotional and psychological maturity when she decides to leave. She is human and she is having a human experience, she is not supposed to be a God at this time. She is not ready to even understand why she might want to be in a constant state of bliss. In fact, she came into a human life to have human experiences and learn from them!

– It is typically extremely difficult for women to leave challenging partners for many reasons – inertia and momentum of relationship patterns, lack of support, isolation, money and material security issues, social pressure and expectations, feeling like they cannot bear going through the emotions of loss or they cannot bear to cause another pain. To teach some confusing mental exercises that she can use to keep herself forever in a harmful situation, forever distracted, confused and forever blaming herself, until one day she is hurt so badly something intervenes to remove her, like the state, is really irresponsible. It is adding one more barrier to the huge pile of barriers to her taking positive steps in her life. ((-) for being irresponsible to people in trouble)

– Relentless criticism or other forms of abuse can really, truly harm people – it can lower self-esteem, can influence them to have greater learned helplessness, believe lies about themselves and it can twist around reality until they lose themselves/ their sense of self entirely in the relationship. A context of an intimate relationship definitely affects us on many levels because we are completely bonded with the other person. To not care at all about this is pretty sad.

Personally, I like to advocate on behalf of the empowerment of women, and men. I would like a world in which people who are in challenging circumstances have more options, more support, more education, so they can find more strategies to meet their needs for emotional safety, external peace (in the contexts of their life), respect, love, care, and nurturing. And I think that this is probably one of the greatest dangers of the Work – if it is used on someone in a dire circumstance, this person could try to pick apart their beliefs forever without ever becoming empowered to find strategies to leave and find a better context where they can have a happy and healthy life.

4. Lack of Humanness and Empathy

And this brings me to the third issue. The Work of Byron Katie seems to lack humanness. It seems to lack natural feelings of empathy and compassion (-) for a person who is not getting a universal human need met. Empathy connects us to each other. Part of our humanity is the ability to feel what another is feeling and to empathize with them. In fact, I would say that the development of empathy is pretty important for our growth and evolution. If one leaves with more empathy than they came in with, I would count that life as a successful human journey.

In August of 2010 I was exploring Family Constellations. Exploring the powerful bonds between family members and how they influence our choices led me wake up about how Byron Katie does not seem to address our human interconnection. I wrote,

“The Work of Byron Katie seems to address alien life forms – or yogis that live in caves in the mountains – instead of human beings. It’s important to note that inner peace is actually not everyone’s goal. And Byron Katie is in a position within a system (like a family), but I don’t think she acknowledges the gifts of those around her that helped her become wealthy? – her volunteers – so then it seems a bit strange.

“She is more god than human and that is part of a sick, possibly abuse-related pattern. Actually Byron Katie might have been so abused she broke with reality in some way, and won’t acknowledge she is human anymore. She is “in love with reality” and completely in the present moment, and seems like a nurturing personality, but her omnipotence and non-humanness are irritating. I wonder if the people who are drawn to her are accustomed to sacrificing something about their core humanness to maintain connection with an all-powerful mother figure that never truly sees them.

“And she always tells people their truth is a lie, which is something that can be disorienting and dissociating for people, even though the reward is supposedly the state of peace that she demonstrates – I would assume people are more peaceful after having half their brain removed as well…Spiritual people seem to have a tendency to go towards spirituality without first fully integrating their experiences of being human and it creates a lot of loonies.”

Even if there are some labels and judgments in there (oops – this was before I knew about NVC), the above statement includes a bunch of real concerns around a lack of humanity:

– Lacking Respect for Normal Human Interconnection, Cause and Effect (-) Could The Work be alienating by not acknowledging our human interconnectivity, in other words, how we actually effect one another? Does it unrealistically expect each person to be an island, totally unaffected by the world around them? This is not realistic because we are all influencing each other all the time.

– Lack of Empathy – Could doing the Work discourage the development of empathy? For example, feeling the sorrow another person feels when losing a parent is very human, does The Work have a message that we should not feel that person’s sorrow, but instead try to change how they are thinking?

Inequality Does Katie fully see and acknowledge her volunteers and students as her equals, appreciating their unique gifts, contributions, and the things they know that she does not know? Or does she think she is above them, like a guru? (I don’t know the answer)

– One Way Street (-) does Katie learn from those around her as much as they learn from her?

– Not Part of Human Family Does she know she is just another one of the human family? (I don’t know the answer)

– Not Seeing Others Fully/ Dysfunctional and Unavailable Mother Figure (-) Do people who follow her have some part of themselves that needs to not be seen, perhaps due to past wounding from parents who did not fully see them (and totally appreciate, hear, understand and empathize with them)?

– Ignoring Human Development/Developmental Psychology (-) Do problems arise when attempting spiritual development without going through all the stages of human development successfully first? What kind of problems could arise from not being a “healthy adult” yet or not fully honoring and integrating “the experience of being human” before doing such things as seeking nonattachment? Does this lead to a lack of addressing the concerns being human, pertaining to human developmental tasks, challenges, milestones?

– Lack of Scientific Approach (-)Science is a great equalizer in that it just deals with proven evidence and everything is equally possibly true or false, depending on research. Does Byron Katie approach everything she does from a neutral, scientific perspective? Does she see herself as equal in the face of science, and show an interest in understanding what she is doing in a scientific way? I am mentioning this here because science may make a lot of mistakes along its path, but it sees everything as fair game – nothing is above being disproven. Ideally, this creates an equal playing ground for humans to explore truth. I think Byron Katie is possibly not interested in scientific research on what she is doing and this immediately makes me suspect that she thinks she is somehow above the laws of science or different than the rest of humanity in some way.

– Mentally Ill? And the last issue I will bring up in this article is this concern that Katie may still suffer from some kind of mental illness. I do not have enough information to form an opinion, but one thing I know is that to not exhibit any real, deep empathy for fellow human beings is – well, it’s a symptom of a number of mental illnesses. People who love The Work may protest that Katie shows empathy all the time, and spends countless hours trying to relieve people’s suffering. But is it a true, deeply felt empathy? Does she feel empathy for the person who begins to doubt their thoughts and truth so much after doing The Work that they become dissociative and confused? Does she feel empathy for people who are being treated with cruelty and don’t have enough willpower to leave the situation? Does she take action from a feeling of empathy or is her empathy void of any real action? For example, if a friend was in an accident, would Byron Katie be the one to buy them food every couple days? I don’t have the answers on these questions, I don’t know enough about Byron Katie, I’m just asking questions. I’ll leave you with this great quote about a narcissistic person:

She had “intellectual” empathy: almost as if she knew she should react that way. She didn’t feel it at the soul/being level. She knew the words, but couldn’t hear the emotional music of our relationship. ” (link )

In conclusion…

People who suffer from PTSD or another mental illness are vulnerable and don’t have well developed inner mechanisms of self-protection, or psychological boundaries, to protect them from questionable approaches to their psychological health. Today, when I look at videos on Youtube of The Work, immediately a lot of red flags go up for me. Because of my experience doing Somatic Experiencing, which is incredibly good at preventing re-traumatization of clients, I have more knowledge and instincts for self-protection built in than I used to, and my body can sense when it is going into dysregulation and when it is being more regulated as well. It’s a shame that the very people who should steer clear the most (as they would be most harmed) are many times the people who don’t have any filters or instincts to avoid these kinds of things.

For anyone with PTSD – please be careful when it comes to spiritual gurus and teachers. They may not have any training whatsoever in psychology. They could be re-traumatizing you but have absolutely no idea they are causing you harm. In other words, being a guru makes them LESS knowledgeable about you, even though they might ACT like they are very knowledgeable about you. People all around you may be legitimately benefitting from their work. This may be because those other people are not suffering from PTSD and may be experiencing the teaching in an entirely different way than you are. Please find a psychologist who is trained in PTSD treatment techniques to help you.


Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

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12 Responses

  1. Thank you for this! Byron Katie’s work has landed in my life many times over the last few decades, and every time I try to step towards it, I am met with internal resistance. There is a part of me that has always felt and known the many flaws and limitations of this work. Are some of these questions interesting to ponder, in some circumstances about beliefs I (we) hold? Sure. But, in the same way, eastern spirituality (I have taught yoga now for 20 years) leaves me feeling like it is incomplete, it does not honor that many of us (even those of us spiritually inclined) feel we are here to be both soul and body, human and spirit… I can’t ever wrap my head around the idea that I came here to embody on earth to spend my life trying to detach, become enlightened, and basically transcend what it is to experience life. Anyway, that is all to say Thank you, for reaffirming my own knowing. Like many things, I will take the bits that work, apply them when and where appropriate, and leave the rest behind. Also, I have never heard the term MUSTERBATION… and it is amazing. I am adding it to my everyday vocabulary.

  2. Thank you for this article!
    I had been recommended the work by a therapist & after watching the video she sent me I was so angry. My immediate thoughts were this is not a trauma based or informed process!
    All I could see was a huge place for retraumatisation for anyone dealing with childhood trauma, PTSD, abuse, neglect etc.
    While I can see the wisdom in questioning thoughts, this process is maddening & has the potential to cause more harm than heal.
    It also gives a huge ticket to anyone who is being abusive to use it against the person they are hurting.
    In some cases where someone is generally catastrophising I can see a use for it, even this still doesn’t lead to the need, thats a part of the ‘problem’ thought/catastrophic thought being met.
    When our basic needs aren’t met it leads to us having ‘negative/problem’ beliefs, we see this in trauma literature all the time. A child will internalize why they think the parent won’t meet the need. Yes often it’s a ‘problem’ thought that they internalize, that’s how young human brains work in stressful situations they have no hope of leaving. To not address this is bypassing basic human needs of empathy, connection, authenticity & belonging & feelings/emotions.
    In order to heal through talk therapy humans needs to feel there emotions & have there experiences validated, as well as, challengimg & changing the beliefs that are causing them harm.
    ‘The work’ as far as I can see, bypasses all of that.

    1. Thank you, RM, for your comment. I’m glad you were able to immediately recognize the red flags! You know, they say that there is a kind of epidemic of narcissism going on right now. I would imagine that if someone was raised by a narcissist, going to someone like BK would actually feel “right.” BK demonstrates some narc traits – the complete lack of attachment bonding (not even insecure attachment but just no attachment at all), the lack of empathy, the lack of object constancy that narcissists have (their memories get erased regularly – hence the living only in the moment thing), the utter lack of care about harming people and total lack of self-perception when it comes to harming others… these all would feel like “home” to someone whose parents were narcs. And other narcs would also feel at home there, AND they would be getting fuel for their narcissism as well. The teachings of BK could be used by narcs to abuse others. Narcs take teachings like these and use them to fuel the gaslighting – like, they will add everything BK says into their gaslighting arsenal. Then they gaslight their poor partners with the teachings. Now that I know so much more about narcissism, I can see a lot more red flags. BK is always power-over – that is a narc thing. BK is not empathetic. Narc thing. She has no human bonding… that is not spiritual, that is a characteristic of narcissism. I would say that she gaslights. And narcs also generate delusions. She could be said to actually create delusions by telling people what is true is false. I’m glad you didn’t go.

  3. I appreciate your point of view. However, I do think that important pieces are left out. Everything is ying/yang. The important thing is to resonate with the therapy. For example, CBT, for me, is the most worthless type of therapy, and EMDR is minimally effective. For others, they are the cat’s meow.
    All therapy had the potential of “hurting” the client. Unfortunately, many therapists have not done their own integration and are extremely dangerous and do an immense amount of harm from their unhealed injuries.
    It is all about resonance – and if the shoe doesn’t fit, it is best not to force it.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, V. I agree with you, we always need to find what truly resonates with us and always be very careful not to engage with therapies or therapists who don’t fit. The more inner work we do, the more we can refine our understanding of what doesn’t work for us, even noticing very subtle areas of non-resonance, so as to avoid them. <3

  4. Have you ever done the work with Byron Katie?

    From my experience the work leaves you real freedom the ability to go inside yourself for all the answers.

    I have been a Gestalt Therapist, A hypnotherapist, MFCC in Ca., Have a MS in Counseling and Guidance. I have found this most profound form of working with people.

  5. Dear Heidi,

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
    i am well-versed in The Work, and because of it, I have settled for non-relationship with an unavailable man, and reinforced the idea that there is something inherently defective about me.

    Recently, I returned to The Work and found myself enraged. I sensed t that there was an emotional integration that was missing, and that I was suppressing the wounded parts of myself. I know I have very damaged and abandoned parts (pre-verbal and very young). What I didn’t realize was that I was re-traumatizing those parts by prematurely silencing them. I know now that I have to gently “grow up” first. I have to transcend the pain by going through it with compassion and inclusion, and that I cannot go over, around, or above it.

    A quick Google search brought up your blog. I’m very grateful. I feel heard and seen through your words.

    1. Same here. I only watched the episode with BK and the German gentleman who had a broken relationship with his mum. At the end of it I was absolutely furious. If I had been there idk what I would have done cos I felt for him being so so invalidated.
      A friend of mine advices me again to go back to The work and I as well did Google search and got in this article. Definitely I won’t fo back to The Work.
      One of the above commenters wrote that DBT and other therapies don’t work or not as wishes. Well this may be true for several reasons – one of them being misdiagnosis !!

  6. Dear Heidi, thank you so much for writing this article! It has been very helpful to read and helps me name those gut feelings I was having, but one hardly dares criticise such a famous, successful guru. I also find it great that you don’t completely trash Katie’s work as some insights are helpful. My viewpoint is that we are all just human and need to help one another fill in our missing gaps, and Katie is also just human and can offer some puzzle pieces. When people get to the “guru” status they are often assumed to be all-knowing or perfect, which is where we can end up going astray.

  7. Interesting article. I can see that Mindfullness generally could be curbing people’s ability or willingness to ‘act’ in their lives. Particularly against injustice.
    My partner has been really helped by Byron Katie’s work, but does not view her as a guru, and is not spiritual. I believe Byron Katie is, but from what I can you could still use her work without being so.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jason! I think probably a lot of people have been helped by Byron Katie’s work. That’s wonderful your partner has been. Hopefully we can all learn, over time, how to take what works for us and leave the rest, or change course if something is affecting us badly. 🙂

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