The Culture of Therapy: Or, Men will literally write a whole long blog post instead of going to therapy

I have only been to therapy one time. But I know a lot about therapy, because we all know a lot about therapy. Our culture is absolutely saturated with the tropes and techniques of therapy — in fact, there’s a case to be made that “therapy” is the only narrative structure with broad legibility in American culture. Whether in the extreme form of recovering from trauma or the more workaday experience of becoming a slightly better person, seemingly every story traces the arc of therapy.

And I hate it. I hate it when the writers of a sitcom clearly go to therapy. Even Bigmouth — the gross-out cartoon about junior high sexuality — had a “therapy season” where all the masturbation addicts talked about their actions and desires in that tell-tale way. I hate it when some wannabe prestige drama demands that we piece together a story from non-chronological fragments because — shocker! — the character experienced trauma. And part of the reason that I hate it is because going through therapy is like discovering libertarianism as a teenager — you assume that no one around you has ever heard of it because the answers are so great and so elegant that surely they would have rushed to embrace it if only they knew….

I know — the fact that I would talk this way, the fact that I would let myself get riled up like this, shows that I need therapy. And admittedly, I do feel somewhat interpellated by therapy culture, for harmful reasons. The thing that most messed me up emotionally, my intense childhood involvement in evangelical Christianity, was centered on constant self-examination and self-narration. And like real therapy, for every person who needed and was helped by that — and I admit, even as someone deeply alienated from evangelical culture, that there were some people for whom no other realistic option would have worked — there were many others who used it to construct self-serving and even self-aggrandizing narratives and as a cover for selfishness and cruelty.

The fact that some people abuse it does change the fact that many people need and benefit from therapy, etc., etc. But not everyone needs therapy, and every viewer of the Sopranos knows that there’s a danger that therapy just helps bad people rationalize their badness more effectively. We’ve all met people who use therapized language to construct very self-serving or at least one-sided narratives about their life and whose therapists apparently encourage this activity.

And what else would we expect to happen in a neoliberal society constructed around endless competition? The goal is to transform every area of social life on the model of market competition, so why would we expect mental health to be any exception? The model that exhorts everyone to “go to therapy” proposes a one-size-fits-all individualistic and moralistic solution to what are often social and political problems.

Do I think everyone should have access to therapy if they need or want it? Yes, absolutely. But a society that could do that would be a society that wouldn’t generate so much felt need for therapy in the first place, because it would be a less grudging and judgmental society. In the meantime, I suspect that many people who believe they need therapy now would benefit more from an ancient technology called “having supportive friends.” Easier said than done in a hyper-competitive oveworked society, of course, and also not something you can just individually will into existence — hence presumably why it never comes up.

Beyond all that, though, I have to loop back around to the aesthetic objection that I started with: therapy culture is boring. And here I think — with all due trigger warnings — of Infinite Jest. The core struggle of Infinite Jest is that David Foster Wallace, a hyper-intellectual person, is trying to confront the fact that 12-step culture is boring. They exchange empty slogans like they’re profound truth. The conversation rarely gets beyond the level of a motivational poster. And yet it works! For some people, it seems to be the only thing that works! How could that be? How could something so stupid work?

The answer is that it doesn’t work, because nothing works. Empirically, of course, 12-step programs in real life have a huge level of recidivism, and their hegemony over the treatment of addictions stems more from the fact that they’re free than from their effectiveness — though the fact that they resonate with an individualistic and moralistic culture surely helps.

As for therapy, it’s definitely not free! In fact, it’s becoming less and less accessible even as its narrative becomes more and more culturally hegemonic. And this shouldn’t be surprising. As the man says, the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. Just like a stable marriage or an organic CSA box, the therapized model of mental health has emerged as a luxury good that signals a moral virtue that is earned through reflection and discernment. The upper classes have their shit together. Maybe they’re just built different.

What does this post add up to? Maybe not a lot! Maybe I need to rewatch those episodes of Big Mouth with more of an open mind and I’ll realize that I need to take care of my emotions rather than projecting them onto things I can’t control, or whatever.

One thought on “The Culture of Therapy: Or, Men will literally write a whole long blog post instead of going to therapy

  1. This is one of the better anti-therapy rants I’ve read! The only caveat I’d say is that (in my experience) many therapists don’t totally subscribe to the vulgar therapy culture stuff you see on social media.

    I’m also more sympathetic to therapy not because I think it works, but because a lot of people in society are deeply unhappy and there’s not a lot of external resources for them to deal with that unhappiness (maybe religion works for some, it doesn’t for me, though I appreciate my church). I see therapy and therapy culture more as an effect than a cause of the modern world.

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