People who go to therapy aren't inherently better than those who don't
On the weaponization of therapy + Our relationships can be therapeutic!
A couple of weeks of ago, the internet showed a renewed popular interest in the idea of “therapy speak” after celebrity Sarah Brady shared screenshots of texts from her ex Jonah Hill who seemed to be using words like “boundaries” to sugarcoat, justify and mask abusive, controlling behavior. Though I really don’t care to dissect the lives of rich celebrities— it did remind me that it may be time for a newsletter piece on mainstream therapy.
“Everyone should be in therapy!” // “If you’re not in therapy, you’re not healing & doing the work” // “You need help from a licensed mental health professional” // “You should really talk to your therapist about that” // “If everyone went to therapy, this world would be a much better place”
‘Go to therapy’ is the new ‘just pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ or ‘why don’t you just work harder’. Therapy is almost universally framed as a good thing. Often, it is glorified as THE thing that will aid us in fixing all our emotional problems or life crises. Going to therapy and talking about healing may just be the go-to flex of our time. It is supposedly an indicator of how profoundly self-aware, enlightened, emotionally mature, or “evolved” an individual is. Meanwhile, people who don’t go to therapy for whatever reason are often thought to be ignorant, immature, unaware, personified red flags.
Social media is obsessed and saturated with pop psychology and psychiatry content related to “healing”, trauma, embodiment, neurodiversity, psychiatric diagnoses, treatments alongside productivity hacks, self-care tips and advice on how to love yourself without depending on anyone else, cut people out of your life, manifest your goals to be successful etc. It is unsurprising to me that mental health/ therapy lingo like boundaries, gaslighting, needs, self-love, self-care, healing, trauma, triggered, neurodivergence etc are increasingly weaponized to cause harm. But, I think the problem isn’t just limited to men, celebrities or any specific identity- it is bigger and it stems from the oppressive foundations & glorification of therapy itself. Most importantly, this hyper-fixation on therapy leads to more collectivist, sustainable, transformative, community-based approaches being overlooked.
Therapy isn’t a universal indicator of morality or enlightenment
Just like psychiatry’s primary function is to reduce our suffering to individual biological defects like “chemical imbalances”, psychology and therapy aim to reduce our distress to individual, psychological or behavioral shortcomings. Both were created to depoliticize our suffering and uphold oppressive systems so naturally, the sociopolitical roots of our distress are conveniently ignored in traditional therapy. Even if talking to a therapist has been somewhat helpful for some, that doesn’t mean it is helpful for all and it doesn’t negate the fact that the foundation & framework of these colonial/ capitalist systems is oppressive.
I spent nearly a decade in therapy. It didn’t really help (even if there were fleeting moments where I was so desperate, I convinced myself it did). It also made a lot of things worse. It individualized my problems and only made me want to fix myself in ways that would help me suppress my distress to better conform to the systems that were killing me slowly. I’m not alone. So many of my friends, community members and folks I work with in 1 on 1 sessions have spent YEARS being overtly harmed in therapy. The best case scenario for many was that it didn’t actually do much and their problems continued to get worse. Therapy just like psychiatry causes more widespread health & relational crises than one may think… and dismissing the voices that speak to these issues isn’t going to help anyone.
Many of us felt OFF about therapy before we even had the precise language to coherently articulate our discomfort. Many survivors of psychiatric abuse and institutionalization are shamed for speaking up given the popularity of psychiatric diagnoses & treatment which are glorified as universal “life-savers”. Similarly, many who have been harmed by therapy struggle to process their experiences and be open about it in a culture that puts therapy on a pedestal.
Therapy isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution everyone MUST pursue. It makes sense that some people don’t want to turn to mainstream mental health systems especially if they’ve already been burned by them. I’ve written before about why people may not want to pursue a psychiatric diagnosis or fit the neurodivergent/ neurotypical binary as well:
There are many complex political/ cultural reasons behind why some people don’t go to therapy and some may actually have more sustainable support or care practices rooted in community. If people were less judgmental, not trying to one up someone else and more open to learning about other people’s experiences or different ways of being… it may actually decrease some harm that comes from uncritical engagement with therapy, allow for more informed consent and make room for more bold collectivist, cultural, ecological approaches to thrive.
In the last section for paid subscribers, I elaborate on some things to keep in mind as you navigate the mental health minefield especially if you work or plan to work with a therapist/ counselor/ social worker.
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Community & reciprocal relationships are therapeutic
“Your friends cannot be your therapists”
This is similar to other messaging like “You have to learn to love yourself first before someone else can love you”. It’s all feeds into the lie that we are alone, no one will care for us except the system and that happiness comes from total independence, or rather dependence on consumption & the system framed as “self-sufficiency”. Isolated people are easier to control and more likely to turn to commodified support like self-care products, mindfulness apps, agreeable therapists, self-help books or other things that can be consumed in isolation.
In some ways, telling someone to go to therapy also rids ourselves of the responsibility we have to care for each other. The process of giving & receiving life-sustaining support within reciprocal relationships is in itself healing. Relegating something so fundamental as emotional support solely to a state-approved “expert” is one of many symptoms of living under capitalist systems that deprive us of the ability to sustain each other which leaves us dependent on them (the state/ companies/ corporations) thinking that WE, the people, are not enough for each other. We actually do need multiple sources of support and guidance rather than one expert having a disproportionate amount of power in counseling us and shaping our actions.
Just because we buy packaged food controlled by corporations, grown on monocrop plantations built on top of the ruins of diverse ecosystems, with the blood/ sweat/ tears of exploited poor farmers, sold on lifeless grocery aisles… that doesn’t mean we are incapable of gradually growing food, cultivating sustenance the land so generously gifts us in abundance and feeding each other. But it makes sense that people struggle to imagine an existence outside the cages they’ve been raised and socialized in.
No single person or friend can meet all your emotional needs. I cannot meet my own needs either. I am not enough for myself. However, a web of diverse, equally important relationships made up of people committed to making each other’s daily lives more livable… can be the ULTIMATE form of “therapy”. Cultivation of a relationship to culture and land, defined by grounding rituals and traditions, is therapeutic.
Maybe providing each other with sustainable support to navigate our distress IS something we need MORE practice doing without just assuming that it is impossible simply because it is unfamiliar. Liberation is unfamiliar. All facets of freedom from our chains will be unfamiliar which is why it will take time to ease into and gradually build familiarity with practice.
This is not to say that expertise on a topic or niche isn’t valuable. Across history, various forms of healers have served as medicine guides. I serve as a community caregiver and care deeply about decolonizing medicine to practice it through a more politicized, collectivist, cultural, ecological lens. I work with people in 1 on 1 sessions so it would be hypocritical of me to say that receiving care, guidance or accountability from a practitioner is totally pointless— but the lens through which they practice does make all the difference and they can never replace your need for community. Most of what I do is help people do the work they need to do to EXPAND their safety nets & support systems, build/ sustain a multitude of healthy relationships and anchor in community/ culture/ ecosystems which also helps them cope with oppressive systems in more sustainable ways.
While, I’ve had to take responsibility for my actions and show a willingness to grow- my friends have absolutely been my healers, guides and accountability partners. “The real work” happens in relationships. So yes, talk to your homies. If I had to tell people something instead of “go to therapy”, it would be “get some friends and build life with them”.
Therapy’s extremes of invalidation or validation are both unhelpful
Why is “therapy speak” so easy to manipulate and leverage for selfish gain? Understanding the political role of therapy may have some answers.
Mainstream therapy blames you for your problems or it blames other people and often it oscillates between both extremes. If we point fingers at ourselves or each other, we are too distracted to notice the exploitative systems making us all sick & sad. Both these approaches aim to make people to stay in line, remain isolated and conform to capitalist norms without pushing back on them.
Therapy is also extremely popular among absurdly wealthy celebrities, politicians and corporate tycoons who have built empires on the misery & graves of workers… and that is fascinating because what does that tell us about therapy?
I think mainstream therapy in a capitalist society can take two unhelpful forms—
Sometimes, people come out of therapy feeling defective, broken, confused and dismissed.
Their individual “faulty behaviors and unhelpful ways of thinking” are identified as the cause of their distress (the basis of therapeutic modalities like cognitive or dialectical behavioral therapy) and treatment focuses on replacing so-called negative thoughts with positive ones or deploys isolated exercises or techniques like “mindfulness” to merely accept the pain that comes from society instead of trying to understand, question or change anything. In the long run, as you can imagine— this doesn’t work.
Other times, people come out of therapy feeling fully affirmed, unconditionally validated and this ego-caressing can feel rewarding in the moment even if it doesn’t help ignite any growth or transformation.
People are convinced that they can do no wrong, are infallible, incapable of causing harm and that other people are the problem. Treatment then focuses on inflating self-confidence, self-worth, self-acceptance & self-love to chase one’s self-centered dreams/ ambitions/ aspirations without taking any accountability for one’s own actions. This sort of individualistic therapeutic approach encourages narcissism, isolation, self-centered hyper-vigilance, a general mistrust of others who are framed as threats to our inner peace or extractors of energy and it further breeds a superiority complex. People are encouraged to see relationships as accessories & a means to a greater selfish end. The focus is on what someone can do for you and not on how to give, care, show up for other people. People are not pushed to examine how oppressive conditioning under these systems shows up in their relationships— because that level of introspection and growth is simply too invalidating.
“You don’t owe anyone anything. No one is entitled to your time and energy. If anyone invalidates you and disturbs your peace, they are toxic- cut them out of your life. You don’t need that negativity. You don’t need anyone else— you alone are enough. Put yourself first. You are perfect just the way you are.”
In reality, we all have work to do. We are all socialized within these systems and real support requires accountability. Our liberation is contingent on us being aware of our bs, understanding the values of the empire that we may have internalized as our own, and working on changing these patterns. Therapized people may fixate on dissecting, healing, improving, optimizing the self in isolation, guided by a therapist, without necessarily practicing vulnerability and accountability in relationships… or they may simply chase validation while rejecting discomfort that comes from accountability. All of it may just be another symptom of isolation and severance from community/ culture.
Healing in any form requires growth, a willingness to practice in relationships, it is not solely validating or invalidating, it is complex, it is not a goal to achieve but a lifelong process that no one is above it, it is both liberating & difficult, it is about acceptance AND a willingness to change or transform into something new and ultimately it is going to require many invalidating ego deaths so we can let go of the fixation of the “self” to ease into interdependence & community care.
The weaponization of “therapy speak” & social justice jargon (by individuals & therapy itself)
I’ve been in relationships or in activism spaces with people who were being a**holes (a thing we all do sometimes) but they used specific jargon and language that made it very difficult for their behavior to be called out or pushed back on.