The Rise of Therapy Culture
The implications of shifting truth from external to the internal
Epistemic status: abstract, speculative, experimental
Recently I’ve written about how markets disrupted traditional communities and how reality is up for grabs.
In summary: we’re all responsible for defining our realities now. This has profound implications. If and when anyone rebels against our version of reality, we push back. Some are coming to call this “The Great Snowflake-ification.”
To be sure, this critique has been around for decades. Christopher Lasch lamented this in The Culture of Narcissism; Allan Bloom in The Closing of The American Mind; Jonathan Haidt in The Coddling of The American Mind; and Richard Weaver in Ideas have Consequences. But how did this happen?
Back to the beginning
Some people blame the hippies — they were “the absent parents”, so the next generation became helicopter parents as a result. Others blame capitalism and technology, which led us to expect our societies to adapt to us rather than the other way around. And then there is a deeper analysis that blames the collapse of transcendent meaning, which led to the idea that you have your truth and I have mine.
While truth used to reside in religion and society, over the last 50 years we’ve made our feelings the highest source of all truth. So for 99.9% of human history, you adapted yourself to the world, and you didn't expect the world to adapt to you — but now it’s the opposite.
The Therapeutic Turn posits that psychology itself has institutionalized this world view — that truth and authority can be found inwards, and that the highest goal of society is self-actualization.
But the decline of organized religion signified a great inversion in how we view the self too. Consider how therapists have replaced the role of priests in modern society, for example.
Traditionally, the role of the religious therapist (e.g. the priest) was to make sense of your misery as it relates to the broader context of better helping your community. Their goal was to change your feelings so they could align with what was expected from you. The idea was to “look inwards so you can serve outwards.” And if you were a sinner, look inwards to correct your feelings.
Christianity popularized inwardness as a response to corruption of the church. “The church was corrupt,” the logic went, “but God is within you, so serve him in the way you think best.” We still have echoes of that today, with people saying “the kingdom of God is within you."
Of course, as society became increasingly secular, once we discarded God, we still kept the “look inwards” part, replacing God with emotions as our guide and the idea that we should “correct” our feelings with the idea that our feelings are pure and we need society to acclimate to them to live authentically.
In a more contemporary example, Oprah popularized the following:
"I am guided by a higher calling. It's not so much a voice as it is a feeling. If it doesn't feel right to me, I don't do it.”
But what undergirds these concepts without God? It's unclear.
We try to transpose authority onto "authenticity", but it's unclear what that means exactly, and it’s challenging to have so few shared morals. This, to me, helps explain fake news. With fake news, we focus on the change in the "news" part, but not our conception of what "fake" really means, or more precisely, the sanctification of our inward feelings as truth above all else.
We used to think "truth" was external, and that's what let us cohere. Now we believe "truth" is internal, and we can't coordinate around anything because of conflicting truths.
As a result, therapy adapts to this great inversion — it no longer serves the purpose of socializing an individual to broader societal expectations.
Instead, it seeks to protect the individual from the kind of harm that society itself creates that prevents you from being yourself. After all, self-actualization is the main goal, not cohering with society. And that’s the big change: We now expect society to acclimate to us, not the other way around.
Many religious priests couldn’t care less about you being yourself or self-actualization, unless it meant you could better serve God or your community.
The moral calculus has changed. We’ve transitioned from the Protestant ethic, rooted in the belief in salvation through ascetic self-denial, to a therapeutic ethos offering self-realization in this life, where the objective is no longer salvation, but attainment of the best physical and psychological health possible.
To be sure, there’s nothing new about people having an interest in well-being. What’s new is the therapeutic ethos’ introduction as a promise of liberation independent of God or another transcendent, eternal entity. For the first time in history, it’s based exclusively on the self.
We used to find meaning in our external commitments. Before the rise of therapy, commitment was outwardly directed to those communal beliefs and institutions that were bigger than the individual and in which the individual, to the degree that they had conformed to or cooperated with them, found meaning.
As written in The Rise and Triumph of The Modern Self, “The ancient Athenian was committed to the assembly, the medieval Christian to his church, and the twentieth-century factory worker to his trade union and working man’s club. All of them found their purpose and well-being by being committed to something outside themselves.”
Now our primary commitment is to our internal truths.
As a result, external institutions become, in effect, servants of the individual and her sense of inner well-being. Truth, meaning, and even reality have become inward and psychological, not external and natural.
This helps explain our obsession with authenticity. In a world where nothing external is real, the internal takes on new significance — it becomes truth.
Authenticity & Self-Awareness
If self-actualization is the highest goal in life and society today, only by becoming and expressing our true selves can we self-actualize.
The sentiment is displayed in the Howard Thurman quote:
"Don't ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs is more people who've come alive."
This idea of prioritizing authenticity over the collective — or that authenticity is how you can serve the collective — is very new. We have a hard time imagining how different this focus on internal truth is from what we used to regard as truth, partially because even our concepts of the same words have changed.
For example, when Socrates said "Know thyself", he didn't mean it like we mean it today, where you get in touch with your true self and self-actualize. He meant to say “know your role and get in line.” “Know thyself" really meant "know thy place." The difference was knowing your role based on what society expected of you vs. what you wanted your role to be.
This is not to say that people didn't have ambitions, because they did — it meant that these inclinations were not important to helping you discover your place in the world. The idea of following one’s passion made no sense when we lived in an “honor culture.”
"Honor" was thought of as fitting yourself into that role society expected — knowing your place. Whether you had honor depended on whether you could step into the role that was expected of you.
Today we live in a “dignity culture” — one where we believe we should have a right to pursue any role we want. Whether you have dignity depends on whether society recognizes you for who you want to be seen as.
While the collapse of external truth eliminated many prejudices and illusions that led to amazing things (e.g. social mobility), it also undermined the traditional belief that knowledge of nature can provide us with information about how to live our lives.
Because it killed the metaphysics underlying our belief in external truth, it killed our faith in it entirely. In other words, it led to relativism.
It also led to atomization. Without any solid community, the individual in the late-modern era strives to find meaning in a confusing, new reality. There is little guidance available, and as a result the individual stumbles and despairs. We no longer have faith in the traditions and collective structures that enabled us to collectively make meaning for centuries. We have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.
If the individual fails to create a coherent biographical narrative, which can provide a sense of meaning, there is a real danger of existential meaninglessness, which in the most serious cases will lead to depression, and, in the worst case, suicide.
People often attribute our cultural malaise to economic problems, but this is hard to believe since our society is richer than ever. It’s more likely that our malaise is teleological — we have lost external meaning or purpose, and so we relentlessly go inwards in search of a better high.
Today’s culture encourages young people to pursue self-actualization at any cost, and for some, that cost is great. In many cases, a person becomes depressed because they abide by the illusion that any/everything is possible for them. They’re saddened by the disconnect between their abilities and ambitions, or their opportunities to realize those ambitions. After all, society only needs so many artists and actors. Are 8 billion people really going to find 8 billion creative niches?
This begs the questions:
What exactly is this “inner self” we are supposed to be true to?
What if it's bad? How do we know whether to embrace vs. fix it?
How can we tell what is purely us vs. influenced by society?
Furthermore, these questions illustrate some challenges with the idea of authenticity:
There is no real or single self that we can identify.
There is no clear delineation between the inner and outer self.
We must adapt ourselves to society — there’s no way not to.
Authenticity sometimes justifies bad behavior.
Since we can't “achieve authenticity”, it becomes a hamster wheel.
Like advertising, psychology is apparently caught on a dead-end street from which it cannot exit. It doesn't solve the root and it upholds the problem.
While Paul the Apostle may have popularized these ideas initially, it was Rousseau who added his own spin that most closely resembles our view today.
Here’s a radically simplified version of his argument:
We all have a pure self.
Our pure selves are tainted by society.
If we remove the tainting of society, then we can be happy and pure again.
Rousseau believed there is an internal, intuitive moral compass that guides the individual to appropriate behavior toward others. We start as pure, and institutions corrupt us. Augustin agreed with Rousseau that there was an internal compass, but he thought it was a flawed one (e.g. “born sinner”) and that it needed to be directed towards good. He believed human beings were fallen creatures who could only be redeemed through God’s love.
Among other things, Rousseau’s thinking explains the reverence of children. Children are so happy because they are, in effect, “pre-society.” This is evidence that humans in their natural state are pure, and, as the logic goes, it’s society that corrupts. Thus, anything that disrupts society is good. (We’ll come back to this later…)
Rousseau reversed the Christian moral evaluation of the inner human self, and as a result, we went from enforcing social conformity to sanctifying our own whims.
Like therapy, the entire purpose of education changed. Historically, the purpose of such study was not ultimately the affirmation of the self of the student; rather, it’s the transformation of the self of the student through engagement with something external to her that makes demands on her.
Rousseau regarded the community as a hindrance to the expression of the authentic individual. As noted in The Social Contract, "Man is born free and everywhere is in chains."
So the purpose wasn’t to acclimate people better to society, it was to prevent society from interrupting our process of becoming ourselves.
The Emergence of Identity
So where did our concept of “identity” come from anyway?
Before modernity, there was no duality between the outer and inner, between what you did and who you were.
Why? Because you were part of the cosmic order. What you did was who you were. Everything had a purpose, and you manifested it. And you didn't question the purpose because God had ordained it.
The split occurred when we lost faith in that ordaining process. Science disrupted the narrative about a cosmic order and our purpose within it.
Instead, our view of the universe shifted to that of merely a collection of objects in efficient, push–pull causal interactions, with no mysterious or supernatural principles at work anywhere.
This transformation led to a flourishing of art and creativity, social mobility, and tremendous economic and technological growth — but also to tremendous alienation.
In his book The Secular Age, Charles Taylor called it disenchantment — we lost our concept of “the whole.”
So how does this relate to identity?
For much of the last 10,000 years of human history, the vast majority of people lived in settled agrarian communities where social roles were limited/fixed: a strict hierarchy based on age and gender, and everyone had the same occupation and religion. There was no need to ask: "who am I?” — limited social choices determined who you were on the inside.
Optionality (and expectations of self-actualization) created existentialism. With new horizons opening up, the “who am I?” question suddenly became more relevant, as did perceptions of a vast gulf that existed between the inner person and their external reality.
Identity grows, in the first place, out of a distinction between one’s true inner self and an outer world of social rules and norms that does not adequately recognize that inner self’s worth or dignity.
Individuals throughout human history have found themselves at odds with their societies, but only in modern times has the view taken hold that the authentic inner self is intrinsically valuable and the outer society is systematically wrong and unfair in its valuation of the former.
In many early cultures, dignity was attributed only to a few people, often warriors who were willing to risk their lives in battle. In other societies, dignity was an attribute of all human beings, based on their intrinsic worth as people with agency.
But no matter the culture, our inner sense of dignity has always sought recognition. It’s not enough to have a sense of your own worth if other people do not publicly acknowledge it, or, worse yet, if they denigrate you or don’t acknowledge your existence. Self-esteem arises out of esteem by others.
Because human beings naturally crave recognition, the modern sense of identity evolves quickly into identity politics, in which individuals demand public recognition of their worth.
While it’s obvious individualism has provided many great things for society, for many people, the single-minded quest for authenticity has turned out to be a setup for disappointment and failure.
In losing our sense of what it means to be part of and have commitments to a community, when we look for the "real me" in isolation, we often find there is nothing there — we are "we" before we are "I".
Like Socrates, when Polonius says "to thine own self be true", he's saying pursue self-knowledge not for its own sake, but as a means to better relate to others.
Our identity is tied into the wider context of the world, with the specific gods and spirits that inhabit that world, with our tribes, kinship system and family, and with those who have come before and those who are yet to come. It’s experienced as bound with the greater context of being in which we are embedded.
Such an experience of the self carries with it a strong sense of belongingness, a feeling that one is part of a larger whole.
The conception of the self as inextricably tied to a wider context also makes possible an awareness of the intricate interwovenness of all reality, the dependence of each person on something greater than himself, and the consequent sense of human limitations that comes from such an awareness.
The result is two visions of the good life:
Become yourself, inwards out
Lose yourself, outwards in
But wait, how does this all connect to snowflakes?
Well, institutions cease to be places for the formation of individuals via assimilation and socialization.
Instead they’ve become platforms for performance, where individuals are allowed to be their authentic selves precisely because they are able to give expression to who they are inside.
This helps explain the concern over making the classroom a “safe space” — a place where students go not to be exposed to ideas that may challenge their deepest beliefs (part of what was traditionally considered to be the role of education), but to be affirmed and reassured.
Which is why to call people snowflakes *completely* misses the point.
We just have a different model of reality, a different model of the self, and a different model of truth than we once had.
“Truth is what I feel,” they would say. The new spin on Descartes is basically “I feel it, and therefore it is true.”
Or, put differently, that which hinders my outward expression of my inner feelings — that which challenges or attempts to falsify my psychological beliefs about myself and thus to disturb my sense of inner well-being — is by definition harmful and to be rejected.
So-called “external” or “objective” truths are then simply constructs, the logic goes, designed by the powerful to intimidate and harm the weak.
Overthrowing them — and thus overthrowing the notion that there is a great reality to which we are all accountable, whether that of the polis, of some religion, or of the economy — becomes the central purpose of educational institutions.
An intense internal focus, to the extreme, is a recipe for disaster (just like an intense external focus, to the extreme, was a disaster, hence the pendulum swing).
This swing was amazing in 1960. It was still great in 1990. And maybe it was a force for good in 2010. But it’s unclear whether it still is in 2021 — or whether we've swung too far to the opposite side.
To be clear, the shift from external to internal has led to so much innovation, social mobility, and much of the joys of the modern world. The question is whether we've gone so far in that direction that we’re now undermining the same benefits that the internal initially gave us.
The question is whether a relentless focus on the therapeutic has structurally made us more narcissistic — it may have given us overconfidence there’s such a thing as “our truth” when (1) this is only a partial truth—reality does exist outside of our minds and desires, and (2) it makes it hard to find common ground in society.
The Howard Thurman quote, "Ask what makes you come alive, not what the world needs, because what the world needs, is people that have come alive ..." may sound nice, but, out of all things, is that really what the world needs most? Poverty, climate change, etc. are all issues that, if unaddressed, will destroy our planet — these seem more important than us prioritizing whatever makes us “come alive.”
Imagine the converse of the quote: "Don't ask what makes you come alive, ask what the world needs & how you can best serve other people — because serving others is what will best make you come alive." That sounds more accurate.
I’d love to hear any feedback on this piece as the ideas are still evolving and crystallizing.
Books I’ve quoted directly & liberally in writing this:
Until next week,
I appreciated the perspective here, framing our ills with a lens toward modern Western society. I was surprised that for all of the talk of going inside & internal aims, not once did Eastern philosophy appear. The sub-traditions of Vedānta (incl. non-dualism), of the Buddhism-derived epistemologies, of Taoist concepts from Nei-Yeh.
There's a lot of focus on internal alignment and internal work from the East, and I'd posit that because of our globalizing civilization, we're seeing the swirl of perspectives and disciplines (e.g. capitalist yogis) who attempt to blend these together in ways that are not yet cohesive nor integrated. There are few modern moral leaders. My take is that since the 50's or so we are seeing the erosion of traditional religion, combined with a swirling shifting moral sea that we're still learning to float in.
I think your point about therapists taking on the role of priests in society is spot on. As far as the Thurman quote goes: it could be that only once people have come alive as a result of following their inner purpose/direction are they capable of seeing the world from the vantage point that has it calling on them to serve others. Aliveness might be a form a receptiveness to the outside world.