Hooked on self-esteem

'Therapy culture is one of the greatest threats to public health.' Frank Furedi talks to Jennie Bristow about his new book.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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‘There are no heroes in this drama.’ With his new book Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability In An Uncertain Age, Frank Furedi, professor of sociology, prolific author and trenchant critic of the fears and fads of our times, can expect to attract as many new enemies as he can friends.

Like his previous books, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear, Furedi’s Therapy Culture – published in the UK today by Routledge – takes a contemporary theme close to people’s hearts and knocks it on the head. With its criticisms of the ‘growth industry’ of counselling and the spread of concepts such as ‘self-esteem’, the book has received strong interest across the political spectrum in the UK, and will be welcomed on both sides of the Atlantic by people disturbed by aspects of our shrink society. But as Furedi says, ‘even many people who kick against therapy culture are prepared to use it’ – and Therapy Culture is rather more than just another anti-counselling critique.

Furedi has for some time been concerned about the rise of emotionalism in politics and culture. But the problem, he insists, is not only that today’s society celebrates emotion above achievement and reason – it’s that it has created a regime that ‘praises some emotions and stigmatises others’, creating an authoritarian and destructive dynamic.

And Therapy Culture does not focus simply on the charlatans and crackpot theories within the profession. ‘Every movement has its parasites’, says Furedi, but the real problem with therapy is not its aberrances, but the way it ‘most systematically expresses cultural norms’. To put this in non-academic speak: today’s society has made therapy into a way of life, and that’s what needs to be challenged.

‘Every culture has a story about the human subject – the values it expects people to aspire to’, explains Furedi. ‘Our culture’s story is of a weak, feeble person, who is continually at risk, and for whom the chances of things going wrong are very great.’ Therapy culture represents a shift from the view of the robust, independent person, capable of great individual and collective achievements, to the notion of the fragile, powerless victim in need of continual professional support. ‘Far less is expected of humans in the twenty-first century than was expected in the nineteenth’, says Furedi. ‘Today’s society operates around the belief that people can’t cope on their own, or face the challenges of life.’

It is the society-wide belief that people cannot cope on their own that leads to the features of therapy culture that we are all too familiar with today: the burgeoning counselling industry, the relentless emphasis on boosting ‘self-esteem’, the expansion of categories such as ‘trauma’ to encompass more and more life events. What gave rise to this downbeat view of human agency, this ‘fatalistic epistemology’ that recasts people as victims? It is not that life in the twenty-first century has suddenly become harder, or that people have become weaker for no reason at all. The decisive reason, Furedi says, is a broader political and cultural shift – in particular, the collapse of the left, and of any project for social change.

‘The traditional conservative imagination has always presented a modest narrative about the human subject, in particular around the emphasis on deference, and people’s inferiority to God’, he explains. ‘The left historically had a more ambitious sense of the human potential. What changed over recent decades was that the conservative imagination stayed the same – and the left’s imagination adapted to the mood of demoralisation, coming up with a version of the human potential that was even more powerless than that of the right.’

The ascendancy of therapy culture represents an attempt to find a ‘web of meaning’ through which people could understand society, at a time when traditional explanations and solutions were seen to have failed. Having given up on the notion that human beings could change the world, the left focused instead on helping people to survive their circumstances. This shift, Furedi explains, was rapid, complete and – to him at least – unexpected.

‘I remember in the early 1980s, talking to people on unemployment schemes about how the government was introducing counselling for the unemployed’, he says. ‘We were laughing about what a con it was. It felt so transparently manipulative to say “we can’t provide jobs, so we’ll try to make you feel better instead”. Yet 20 years on, many of the same people with whom I laughed then have become part of the industry.’

So therapy culture has been around for a while; but Furedi was surprised by the speed at which it took hold. ‘The dynamic has completely changed’, he says. ‘In the 1970s, radicals were often scathing of psychology. Feminists, for example, used to protest bitterly against the medicalising of pregnancy and other aspects of women’s lives. The political culture of the time was suspicious of psychological explanations and solutions, and saw them as a way of imposing conformity.

‘Yet now, it is people from the cultural left who are the most insistent about the importance of medicalised explanations and therapeutic interventions’, he continues. ‘It is feminists who demand that pregnancy and parenting be recognised as traumatic, and that women are offered counselling to help them deal with it. The trade union movement is at the forefront of pushing concerns with workplace stress, and the importance of counselling.’

In a time when social change is off the agenda, therapy culture unites conservatism and radicalism under an umbrella of survivalism. When it is accepted that there is nothing we can do about the circumstances that we live in, the big challenge of the new century becomes helping individuals merely adapt.

It is in this sense that therapy culture promotes conformity: laying down a framework of acceptable emotions and behaviour that people transgress at their peril. So being in touch with one’s emotions means that it’s fine to cry in public or obsess on the ‘trauma’ of a bad experience – but those who get angry are sent on anger management courses to suppress their rage, and those who fall passionately in love are suspected of suffering the pathology of ‘loving too much’.

Therapy culture, to Furedi, does not just mean public displays of emotion and rather too much counselling. It represents a process that is actively destructive of people’s views of themselves, and their relationships with each other. The book has a chapter dedicated to ‘the cultural myth of self-esteem’ – the all-powerful contemporary notion that you are what you feel about yourself. We must all be familiar with this over-used term: a graph at the beginning of the book shows how citations of the phrase in British newspapers have gone from nil to thousands in just over a decade. But what does it actually mean?

‘That’s a very good question’, says Furedi. ‘Its meaning has changed over time – making it one of those phrases that is actually meaningless.’ Insofar as the term is used to mean how one feels about oneself, this, surely, is ‘continually subject to modification’ – ‘how you feel about yourself after breakfast can be very different to how you feel in the afternoon, and whether your self-esteem is high or low, its relationship with outcomes is far from clear’. In terms of scientific evaluation, he says, the concept of self-esteem is ‘similar to that of the soul’. But the very vagueness of the term is what makes it so ideally suited to therapy culture.

‘What’s interesting is not what self-esteem is, but why it is accorded such significance’, Furedi explains. This is all to do with today’s obsession with ‘the fragility of internal life’ – namely, the sense that people can no longer judge themselves on the basis of their achievements in society, or their relationships with others. It all has to be down to how they feel about themselves, emotionally, at any one point in time. This is not merely narcissism or selfishness, although it often looks like that. It represents the estrangement of people from one another – a process cultivated by therapy culture.

One of the justifications often put forward for why therapeutic intervention is needed by modern society is the fact that we live in an increasingly atomised world, in which the bonds between communities and families are weaker than before, leaving individuals isolated and lonely. Yes, says Furedi, society is more atomised than 30 years ago – and for some years, he has been theorising about the causes and consequences of this process. But it is not inevitable that social change breeds atomisation – ‘change can bring with it feelings of solidarity’.

And far from therapy providing the solution to atomisation, it only fuels this destructive trend, pushing people further away from their nearest and dearest. As he puts it: ‘Therapy breeds mistrust, treating private life and relationships between people with suspicion, and making a virtue of estrangement.’

The extent to which therapy culture destroys informal relationships between people is a key concern of Furedi’s book. By encouraging the focus on the individual, through propagating concepts such as self-esteem and emphasising the potential for abuse within relationships, the therapeutic dynamic encourages people to see others as a problem. By continually talking up the need for professional intervention to ‘help’ people with everything from the ins and outs of married life to how they raise their children, therapy culture weakens people’s relationships of dependence upon each other, and encourages increasing dependence upon professionals.

Furedi’s diagnosis of British and American society on the couch is stark, and sobering. He makes no attempt to sweeten the pill by positing an upside to emotional politics or strategies designed to boost self-esteem – to Furedi, therapy culture is unremittingly bad for individuals and society. So what can be done? Here, Furedi employs his own version of the counselling culture’s pet phrase: Let’s talk about it.

On a society-wide level, says Furedi, the way to counter therapy culture is to attempt to develop an alternative web of meaning, that gives us the ability to make sense of our lives based on an appreciation of people’s strengths and potential, rather than an assumption about their weaknesses and vulnerability. No small task, clearly, but one that is surely preferable to accepting therapy’s low-grade vision of humanity now and in the future. As for individuals – Furedi has a three-step plan of sorts. ‘We can do what we can to kick against the medicalisation of life; to cultivate the informal way of doing things; and to put the helping professions in their place.’

Life doesn’t make us ill, and friends are better than therapists. This may be shorthand: but it beats ‘I blame my parents’.

Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability In An Uncertain Age is published by Routledge. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

London conference, 22 November 2003: The Institute of Ideas, in association with Routledge and King’s College London, is holding a one-day symposium to explore the powerful influence of the therapeutic imperative in contemporary society, and to discuss themes in Frank Furedi’s Therapy Culture. This event will take place at King’s College, London, and is sponsored by the Body & Soul section of The Times. For further information, see the Institute of Ideas website, or call +44 (0)207 269 9220.

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Topics Politics


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