Suggested reading: The problem with letting therapy-speak invade everything

by Tara Isabella Burton

If the language of the internet is anything to go by, America’s collective mental health is in shambles. Before the midterms, some of us were suffering from “election stress disorder”; others have left Elon Musk-acquired Twitter as an act of boundary-setting. Our political lives have become saturated with the language and imagery of therapy. Our personal lives too: The language of “trauma” and “attachment styles” has become a common way to understand ourselves and our relationships.

Increased awareness of the importance of mental health is no bad thing, especially in the aftermath of a punishing pandemic. But in many cases, the prevalence of what The New Yorker’s Katy Waldman has termed “Instagram therapy” has exacerbated a broader cultural trend toward solipsism, masquerading as “self-care.” The idea of self-care, in turn, has been largely divorced from its links to activism and is now often used to frame individual pleasurable actions, like taking a bubble bath or canceling plans, as morally worthy, even necessary. The exhortation to take care of ourselves, to protect our mental well-being at any cost, has become a mantra for a newly dominant ideology. … (continue at The New York Times)

7 Comments

  1. The need for social,organizations s I’m religion still strong. I began singing in chorale groups after retirement for two reasons meeting and working together as ensemble, and learning skills not used in surgical practice. Before retiring to forests and lake we were in a church as much social as beliefs not dictated. I Aught an adult Sunday school class where compared Jesus to Buddha. Some felt challenged.
    The drugs for anxiety depression not new. I recall, the !illtown generation when my mom suffering pangs after divorce. And certainly many psychologist believe children under stress require anti depressants. Our nephews daughter born with absent forearm and hand. When one parent insisted this was. Psychological disability we physicians who watched her in sports and playing king of the raft on a lake..
    Twitter regularly posts great threads. The ability for trolls or bots to criticize by name calling is unsettling. I follow smart industRious medical scientists. There data from research may disagree with beliefs not based on reasoned study is criticized as leftist liberal. It can be a great place to disagree debate, but not for ad hominem slurs

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    1. Hi Gadfly,
      It IS self-care, in a sense, nature therapy, and certainly not narcissistic.

      You say it is self-care but you qualify it ‘in a sense’. Any act with beneficial consequences for yourself can be considered self-care. What is important, though, is the focus of that act, yourself, or something external to yourself.

      Where the focus of the act is primarily yourself you are moving into the territory of solipsism, narcissism and hedonism. This is a preternaturally unhealthy state of affairs because it erodes the bonds of trust, compassion and empathy with others. An internal focus degrades the quality of our attention to the external world.

      But where the focus of attention is external to yourself, such as in what you call ‘nature therapy’ you are training yourself to be aware of and sensitive to the world outside of yourself and therefore aware of and sensitive to needs outside of yourself. That is a healthy state of affairs that will have beneficial consequences for your self. So yes, you might call it ‘self-care’ but that is not its predominant quality.

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  2. On reading that rather excellent article I found myself nodding in agreement thoughout, except for the remark about religion, which I thought lacked insight.

    We(in the privilaged West) are living in a world of surplus, pleasure and satiety. This state of affairs has refocussed our attention so that it is predominantly on the state of our feelings and to a far lesser extent on the state of other people or the world around us. These things have become merely instrumental for enhancing our internal emotional world.

    This is not natural to us. It is ‘natural’ to the animal world since an animal is only aware of its own internal state, having no theory of mind. In a way we are reverting to our prior animal state. This produces internal strains since it is in conflict with another part of us, the better part which evolved in us with the arrival of cognition. This better part of us is centred on love. I am not using this word with its common, romantic or erotic connotations. I am talking about something much greater and stronger than that. We all have an innate love for the truth, the good and the beautiful. The strength of the love is reflected in our desire for excellence. We desire the perfection of the true, the good and the beautiful. And in this sense, Saint Paul is right, the preeminent virtue is love, over and above the four cardinal virtues. Most people make the mistake of interpreting the word in what I consider to be an excessively narrow way.

    The second problem is that the present pleasurable state of satiety dilutes our sense of the future. We are the only animal that can imagine the future. Once you can imagine the future you can begin to imagine a better future and it is this imagination of a better future which has propelled progress and seeded morality.

    It is our ability to imagine a better future and work towards it that has supplied our lives with purpose and meaning. But pleasurable satiety anchors us in the present, focusses the attention on internal states, away from others and away from the future. This is what weakens purpose and meaning, with the attendant gowth of emotional maladaptation.

    Being able to imagine a better future has made us a creative species. By realising our innate needs and love for the good, the true and the beautiful we have become supremely creative in the way we make a better future.

    We are the best we can be when we become ‘other’ focused, moving our attention away from our present internal states towards the ways in which we can create better futures.

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  3. Robert Graves famously said “the future is not what it used to be

    Every moment in the present is an act where we precipitously fall into the future. It is the way we fall into that future that defines our sense of happiness, fulfilment and pleasure. However happiness, fulfilment and pleasure are present emotions and attachment to them weakens the move into the future.

    For myself I work(imperfectly) towards a balanced state of mind that can endure the tests of the present and the burden of the past with equanimity(Stoicism), can enjoy the present without excessive attachment(ascetic practices), is ‘other centred'(Christianity) and finds meaning in creating a better future(guided by Ikigai).

    In outline the Japanese concept of Ikigai means finding the confluence between four things:
    1) Doing what you are good at
    2) Doing what you love
    3) Doing what you find rewarding
    4) Doing what is beneficial to others.

    The Japanese believe that the combination of these four things results in a state of fulfilment.
    Ascetic practices reduce our attachments to present pleasures, making space for movement into a better future.

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  4. Massimo, you asked
    Right, but what [has] any of that to do with religion?

    presumably in reply to this brief reference
    except for the remark about religion, which I thought lacked insight
    However the substance of my lengthy comments had nothing to do with religion.

    My brief comment referred to this statement by the author, Tara Burton
    Historically, the project of making sense of our lives was often dominated by religion. Our churches, our synagogues, our mosques offered answers to life’s most wrenching questions: Why do we suffer? What is my purpose in life? Why do we keep making the same mistakes over and over? But religious institutions don’t have the cachet, or public trust, that they once did. Americans are leaving organized religion;

    I think she asks valid questions though I think she gets some things wrong. So I think my comment had some relevance, especially when one considers that her book is titled “Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World.”

    Of course we can disagree over the substance of my remark and that could lead to a fruitful debate.

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