Not long ago, I came across an insightful column in the print edition of Wired that spoke of our generation’s penchant for “self-soothing” on social media by “crowdsourcing therapy.” As people turn to their online “community” for validation, they increasingly turn to “therapy-speak” as a means of understanding and expressing themselves. This tendency is downstream from therapy influencers who may or may not be real practitioners but have gained an audience online.
Just as perusing WebMD engenders false confidence when we quickly diagnose ourselves or our family members after a cursory look at medical symptoms, we’ve become overly trusting of the self-help gurus and self-proclaimed therapists online who give advice about various psychological maladies. There’s an audience for this, as confirmed in The Atlantic, which notes that many social media feeds are now crowded with “therapy influencers who tell us to be more aware of our anxiety, our trauma, our distress. Instagram is full of anxious confessions and therapy-speak. The TikTok hashtag #Trauma has more than 6 billion views. . . . More than 5,500 podcasts have the word trauma in their title.”
No one can deny there’s such a thing as real trauma, and abuse, and depression, and anxiety, and toxicity, and all kinds of social and psychological challenges that deserve attention. But surely we should differentiate between therapy with trained professionals who take an individual interest in your life and what The Atlantic dubs “Therapy Media,” an ecosystem filled with nonexperts broadcasting their thoughts about mental health for strangers. “The way we talk about the world shapes our experience of the world.”
Recent studies show it’s possible for people to “consume so much information about anxiety disorders that they begin to process normal problems of living as signs of a decline in mental health.” Surely that’s a factor when we consider all the dumbed-down diagnoses and simplistic solutions on offer.
Self-Soothing and Relational Breakdown
Nowhere do we see this problem more clearly than in the attempt to apply online therapy-speak to real-life relationships. The Wired column notes how the world of social media gives you the illusion of community while you burrow further and further into yourself. And self-indulgence these days shows up whenever you privilege your sense of identity, what you feel, often to the detriment of your relationships.
Not surprising, then, that we see relational breakdown as the result of some of the pop-level therapy-speak out there—suspicions that heighten interpersonal tension and raise the stakes in every interaction.
- “She didn’t just lie to you or mislead you. She’s gaslighting you.”
- “That person isn’t just wrong. His take is harmful.”
- “The reason you don’t see eye to eye with him is because he must be a misogynist.”
- “She doesn’t get along with you because she’s racist.”
- “Your boss says ‘You’re difficult to work with,’ but that just means ‘You’re difficult to take advantage of.’”
When you’re safely cocooned in an online world that constantly validates your perspective, you interpret the words or actions of people in the real world in distorted and damaging ways. If a conflict takes place, or if a difficult conversation must be had, it’s easy to lob an accusation against the person who made you feel uncomfortable. If they disagree with your assessment and stand up for themselves, that’s proof they’re narcissistic. If they don’t push back, well, you must have been right.
Self-Soothing and Suspicion
Relationships cannot thrive under these conditions. Living with the suspicion that all disagreement or conflict is just a way for someone to exert power or maintain control poisons normal human interactions. Everyone has an ulterior motive? No one could possibly want the best for you or to see you aspire to something better?
What’s more, diagnoses like this are impossibly broad. There may be cases where the analysis is true—maybe your boss is trying to run over you; maybe that person is a racist—but how could an article or meme or social media guru tell the difference? Therapy-speak applied indiscriminately to all contexts isn’t helpful but harmful. It flattens the context.
Even worse, social media self-validation enshrines bad behavior as a sign of goodness. The very attitude or action that may be your problem, something to work on or try to modify, gets turned into proof of your goodness. Are you stubborn and obstinate? No, you’re standing strong when everyone else is trying to take you down. Are you manipulative and crafty? No, you’re shrewd in navigating relationships so no one can take advantage of you. Are you too sensitive and anxious? No, you’re rightly attuned to personal slights and the atmosphere of injustice that surrounds you.
That’s the biggest problem with therapeutic crowdsourcing online. We take comfort in the idea that all our problems and challenges can be attributed to other people, to injustice, to the sins and selfishness of others—whatever keeps you from being your true self. You find affinity with others who feel the sting of the same critiques, and soon you think you’re entering a community when you’re actually individualizing more and more.
Self-Soothing and the Lonely Prison
Wired also pointed out something I alluded to last year: the dilution of language around words like “trauma” and “abuse.” These words carry weight in the mental health community, but now they get applied in situations where ordinary stress and conflict take place. A boss has a tough conversation, and suddenly the employee thinks, I’m uncomfortable, therefore I’m experiencing trauma. Or, This hurt my feelings, therefore my boss is an abuser. Or, I’m feeling stress, therefore my job is “triggering” me, and I may be in a toxic place. The Wired article said,
It can make it easy to pathologize normal human conflict and disagreement as something much more complicated: abuse, psychopathy, clinical narcissism. It’s all too convenient to use this language to flatter yourself and damn anyone who angers you. The risk is that, instead of working to resolve the conflict or improve yourself, you put up a wall and end up feeling more alone than ever.
And that’s right where we are. People have thrown up walls, thinking they’ve secured protection, while in reality, the security is a prison cell.
All this kills real community. Close community is impossible without conflict. Only the most shallow and superficial of friendships can be maintained without occasional disagreement and distress.
Self-Soothing and the Church
What might all this mean for the church?
Bonhoeffer in Life Together reminded us that as Christians, we bear the burdens of our brothers and sisters. Even more, we sometimes bear our brothers and sisters as the burden. That’s when you know you’re family, when your brother is a burden and you remain with him anyway, “not merely [as] an object to be manipulated.” God bore with us to maintain fellowship. And now we do the same.
So, for starters, we must become more aware of the digital formation that leads to therapy-speak. We need to recognize it when it shows up in conversation and conflict.
True Christian community cannot coexist with the idea that someone’s feelings must always be right or must be treated as objective truth. We cannot live together in harmony if all we have is “my truth” and “your truth” as synonyms for experience or personal fortitude.
Unless we appeal to Scripture, unless we heed the wisdom and experience of other believers, unless we find ways to be formed by deeper truth than today’s therapy-speak, unless we maintain categories of sin and repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation, acceptance and aspiration, we’ll get sucked into the superficial online world that promises community but delivers isolation.
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