“But how are you really?” It was the second time my recent acquaintance had asked how I was.
I’d answered ‘fine’ the first time. Not ‘fine’ in that emotionally brittle sense that really means I’m-anything-but-fine (and-if-you-really-cared-you’d-know-it-already). I’d meant it in the neutral sense of “everything in my life is pretty ace right now and ‘fine’ just about covers it”.
But apparently she knew better. I was concealing something.
Her brow furrowed and she tilted her head to the side in a way that said “We both know that’s not true — and you’re only fooling yourself.”
It’s done with such conviction and consistency that I inevitably leave every interaction wondering if I am indeed fooling myself. Maybe I’m too deluded to realise my life really does suck and I just need a ‘good’ friend to guide me to my pit of despair so that I may wallow in it.
Over the years, I’ve had similar conversations — or versions of it — with people who insist on treating each and every social interaction as if I were lying on a couch with a box of tissues. Call it the ‘Oprah effect’: the invasion of therapy culture into every nook and cranny of life.
Terms like ‘repression’, ‘self-sabotage’ and ‘lack of insight’ are bandied about as casually and regularly as comments about the weather. Flippant remarks are cries for help and every expression of optimism is a missed opportunity for self-analysis.
Now, it’s important that we be clear here. I’m not dismissing people who speak openly about their feelings and their troubles. I’m fine with that. Given the decades — nay, centuries — of silence around depression and anxiety, it’s far better that people talk about these things openly.
I’m also not dismissing those soul-bearing discussions with close friends. I’ve been the beneficiary of countless life-saving D&Ms and the occasional intervention.
What I object to is the assumption that people are always broken and are in desperate need of saving by someone masquerading as a therapist.
Typically the person doing the psychological probing presents themselves as the expert, when in reality they’re not. The closest any of my faux-therapists have come to psychological training is reading a spot of Eckhart Tolle.
But a lack of professional training isn’t the only off-putting thing about approaching social interaction as therapy. What’s more objectionable is the power relationship that it sets up.
In a structured therapy session, there’s an unspoken relationship of power that’s reflected in the asymmetry of sharing. One person spills their guts, while another person listen and prompts. You don’t go along to a therapist to hear her troubles. Quite the contrary, you pay a therapist to listen to you unload and help you move on.
The fact that you get nothing back from them is the point. They are the expert with specialist knowledge and training that gives them insight and appropriate strategies to help you rather than share details about themselves.
Social interaction is quite a different matter. It requires a degree of reciprocity — a bit of give and take. If you share with another person and get nothing back from the other person, you’ll less inclined to share again. If you get pumped for information, you’ll feel like you’re being interrogated.
When social interactions turn into an informal therapy session there’s very little reciprocity. In my experience, the ‘therapist’ rarely positions themselves as the ‘patient’. They are more like social vampires, who drain other people of their experience and feast on schadenfreude.
The other reason the ‘Oprah effect’ is so off-putting is it’s just such a bleak and thoroughly disempowering view of humanity. It assumes everybody’s default state is one of illness and victimhood. All of us are helpless and misguided, needing to be counselled and saved.
It’s arrogant to assume you know someone better than they know themselves. And constantly fossicking for problems in other people’s lives isn’t friendship.
But perhaps the most offensive part of treating social life as therapy is that it’s incredibly boring.