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Is It Really Possible to “Do No Harm?”

All healthcare workers are aware of the ethical principle, “First, do no harm.” This popular saying derives from the Latin phrase, “primum non nocere.” The term is particularly popular among those involved in the field of medicine or bioethics since it is a basic principle taught in medical schools. The saying is the basis of the Hippocratic Oath used by Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician. He wrote many books, including the Hippocratic Oath. The text was written circa 500 B.C.E. and led to an oath that was taken by physicians to swear by the gods to conduct practice by specified ethical standards. In modern times, a modified version of the oath is often sworn by doctors upon graduation as a sort of rite of passage.

However, those in the psychological profession are also trained to “do no harm,” and in psychoanalysis this involves getting in touch with your unconscious. However, it might be beneficial if this oath were also required of parents. It is parents who most need to be diligent, for it is they who can do the most damage, since they are in charge of the upbringing of children. The most severe psychological damage happens at the youngest age, even in the womb. Therefore, an ethical principle such as “do no harm,” would seem to be needed most of all by parents and others who take care of and educate the young.

Is it really possible to do no harm? The fact is that parents can do harm to their children without knowing they are doing harm. Parents (as well as all humans) would rather not know if they are doing harm, since everybody wants to believe they are doing what’s right. In fact, however, the parents who are most convinced they are doing the right thing are often the very ones who are doing the most harm. The more a parent does not want to look objectively at how they are raising their children, the more likely they are doing harm.

Most parents mean well, but as the old saying notes, “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.” Because of the fact that parents are often unconscious of the harm they do to their children, some have suggested that parents be licensed. However, there is a great resistance to that idea. So, for the time being, we will have to use persuasion to steer people towards this notion. Parents can do harm to their children in many ways, but the most severe cases tend to be emotional abuse, since this is hard to detect. The cases below all involve some kind of emotional abuse.

Many parents have parental narcissism, and rarely, if at all, question how they are treating their children. They clearly have rationalizations for what they are doing, or they are so caught up in their modes of operation that they live in a bubble that can’t be pierced. When Sigmund Freud discovered the unconscious, this was what he meant.

The unconscious is not just a part of the mind (the major part of the mind, according to Freud), but also a part of the mind that causes all the damage to self and others. The bigger our unconscious is, the less we are in control of what we do. A schizophrenic is almost entirely unconscious. A father who happens to be a schizophrenic will be completely out of touch with reality. His delusions and hallucinations are his reality and his reality is unconscious of true reality. Such a father (and there are many that are never reported) will undoubtedly do the most harm to his children. A mother who is a schizophrenic will relate to her infant and toddler in a way that only she and the toddler will understand. She will harm the toddler without giving it another thought.

A schizophrenic parent will be at one extreme of harmfulness, and the range may cover parents suffering from major depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, antisocial disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Each of these parents will do harm to their children while maintaining their innocence and justifying what they do. Healthy parent are parents that have the smallest unconscious and are therefore the most in touch with themselves. They will therefore be least likely to do harm to their children, or to anybody for that matter.

Young children can’t tell if harm is being done to them. An overprotective parent, for example, can hover near her child and make sure nothing bad ever happens. The child feels loved and the mother feel loving. But by overprotecting the child, the mother is doing harm, for the child does not develop self-confidence. Such children don’t learn that they can take care of themselves, don’t individuate and become independent.

Freud first discovered the unconscious, around 1900, when he published his book, The Interpretation of Dreams. He later introduced the defense mechanisms by which people hide from themselves the truths they don’t want to know about. Each defense mechanism, whether it be projection, reaction formation or denial, allows a parent to be unconscious of their harm. If there is any one thing we don’t want to know about, it is how harmful we are. We begin hiding our harmfulness behind defense mechanisms when we are very young. By the time we are adults, our defense mechanisms have become our very personalities.

The unconscious is not written about much anymore, but it should be. Unless parents (and humankind) understand the unconscious, they will continue to do harm to their children and their children will do harm to their world.

Is It Really Possible to “Do No Harm?”

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2018). Is It Really Possible to “Do No Harm?”. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 8 Jul 2018
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