Recently my friend sent me this video from Wisecrack, a large non-Christian YouTube channel that explores philosophy and pop culture. For reference, their YouTube channel has garnered over 3 million subscribers in their ten years of existence.
Warning: the video has some crude moments.
The Rise of Therapy Speak
In this video, they talk about the rise of therapy in America and how “therapy speak” started to proliferate in our culture until seemingly every conversation contains words like toxic, trauma, gaslight, self-care, or stories of family wounds. By and large, the normalization of therapy is a good thing. Our character shouldn’t be judged because of our mental illness. We should be able to work through trauma and wounds, familial and otherwise, in order to be happier and healthier people and break generational sins. Seeking help when you need it is good. It should be encouraged, not shamed or discouraged.
But good therapy is not the same as popular, social media-driven “therapy speak.” Therapy speak is when therapeutic jargon makes its way out of the therapy session and into common conversation by diluting its meaning, assigning it authority, and blanket prescribing its concepts to everyone. Therapy moves from a psychological service for the benefit of an individual to a sociological prescription for the reformation of society.
In fact, as Wisecrack points out in the video, therapeutic speech can become a smokescreen for actual, systemic societal ills by placing the burden to change back on the individual. Instead of focusing on how, say, remote digital work in a post-pandemic, post-gender world with inflation that continues to lessen the value of work every day creates a system where men specifically feel more isolated and less valuable, which leads to greater levels of depression, despair, and even suicide (read Of Boys and Men by Richard Reeves). There are many other examples like this, of course.
I want to be overly clear before we move on: I am not critiquing good therapists doing good therapy for people who need it. The therapists I know in real life, you’re doing great work. The people I know who are in therapy in real life, I’m happy you’re in therapy seeking help. This isn’t about that. I am critiquing therapy speak in our culture as a pseudo-religious phenomenon. If I say “therapy” or “therapeutic,” I’m talking about therapy speak. A good thing (therapy) that has gone beyond the bounds it was meant for (therapy speak).
How The Non-Religious Think Therapy Replaced Religion
Similar to how James K. A. Smith once compared the liturgies of a shopping mall to that of a church service, Wisecrack points out how therapy has replaced religion in our society (did I mention they’re not Christians?).
They talk about how, in our culture:
Therapy replaced confession
Self-affirming mantras replaced prayer
Communities with the same diagnosis replaced church groups
Self-actualization replaced salvation
The focus of religion is the community and one's relationship to God and others. The Church is, in fact, a community of people with the same diagnosis, a diagnosis of sin. But therapy turns the focus away from others and onto the self and offers no ultimate salvation from your problems. No one is going to save you. You’re never going to be fully free. Your only hope is to “do the work.”
New Treadmills of Trying Harder
In his book, A Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman describes the symptoms of a system with a gridlocked imagination that causes high levels of chronic anxiety, and the very first symptom is the feeling of being on a never-ending treadmill of trying harder.
When I first read that, I immediately thought of fundamentalist churches with rigid theology and cultures that don’t allow any deviation from the norm. But when you realize that the only hope for an individual in a therapeutic culture is to “do the work,” you realize how short it falls as a replacement for true salvation. Both the fundamentalist church and the therapeutic culture tell you that your only hope is to “do better.” Only Christ looks at your faults and failures, your sins and neuroses, all the ways you deviate from the norm, and says, “It is finished.” Only Christ promises more than a journey of healing. He promises to definitively make all things new.
Not only that, but therapy is expensive. It’s a privileged service by nature. Prescribing therapy as the cure for society’s ills reveals a class divide where the well-off can “do the work,” and the poor are left stuck in their trauma. To make matters worse, the cost of therapy plus the proliferation of therapy speak creates demand for untrained therapeutic social media influencers who propagate diluted therapeutic ideas (to the point of misinformation) that leads to false self-diagnoses and profit off the trauma and mental health struggles of the lower class through ad revenue and online course sales. Ironically, instead of sharing tips and tricks and courses that help relieve anxiety and depression, the constant deluge of therapeutic content actually serves as a reminder of the problem to begin with, which exacerbates it into an even greater problem instead of making it better. Therapeutic capitalism is a far cry from a self-care socialist utopia.
All of this, of course, leads to replacing the cultivation of virtue with medication. Why should the high school boy learn self-control when he can pop a Ritalin (I say as someone who was on Ritalin in high school)? Why should someone learn to be emotionally resiliant when a medication can numb them to their negative feelings?
Both/And, not Either/Or
I’m not saying all medication is bad, just as I’m not saying therapy is bad. I’m saying that there is an industry that is profiting off of easy answers to complex problems by offering incomplete solutions. Many of these things are not either/or. They’re both/and.
You might need therapy… and community.
You might benefit from medication… and spiritual disciplines.
You might need to be more introspective about your trauma… and grow more emotionally resilient.
You might need to find ways to take better care of yourself… and take on more responsibilities that benefit others.
And above all, we all need grace, without which we will all be run ragged on the treadmill of trying harder.
I don’t want to go backwards in the progress we’ve made in destigmatizing therapy, mental health, and even medication. These are good developments. But we need to make sure we’re not gaining one set of goods and losing another vital set of goods.
What I see in something like this video from a secular organization as big as Wisecrack is, well, a crack in a way of thinking that has come to dominate the cultural landscape. I think we’re already starting to feel the exhaustion of the treadmill when the therapeutic reaches past the scale it was designed for. Do I think Wisecrack is representative of all of culture? No, of course not. But it’s a crack that I anticipate widening over time. A small sign of things to come.
Grace For The Generations
Will the younger Gen Zers and the upcoming Gen Alpha (my son’s generation) find the same solace in therapy that Gen Xers and Millennials have? I don’t think that’s a given. It makes me wonder if we’ve created our own treadmills for younger generations to run on and if they’ll look elsewhere to seek out what we’re all looking for: grace.
Rest for our souls. Peace with others, ourselves, and God. If only there was a place for that. Oh yeah, at its best, that’s the church. As the secular psychotherapist quoted in the video says,
Resilience is not a bunch of traits in an individuals. Resilience is the ability to tap into the collective resources. If everybody goes it alone, we’ll be avoidant and depressed, but if we create a thing together and understand how we maintain hope, we will not have a mental health crisis, we will have world crisis with people better coping.
Maybe we see a generation or two looking back to religion to see if their predecessors left anything behind on their way out. And maybe they’ll come back to look for it. I hope they do. I hope our churches are healthy when they get here. And maybe the kids will be a little bit healthier than us when they come back because it was okay for them to go to therapy somewhere along the way.
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I’ve been writing and thinking along similar lines. Keep it up.
Thank you for how insightfully you articulated this, Ian. There is so much to chew on here.