The Trouble with Therapy Culture

by Rob Weatherill

Have you been traumatised recently?  Our therapy may help you. Been abused as a child? The group will offer you an opportunity to explore your own issues…Therapy operates in the zero gravity of the postmodern, where everything is floating, like currencies float.  Everything that was once anchored has been liberated (by therapy) and now has to answer for itself, take responsibility for itself and make its own choices.

The world itself has become therapeutic in every aspect.  Each element in the world must promote its therapeutic values, from individual (psycho)therapies to large corporations: all missions are therapeutic.  Caring, like Vodafone’s ‘How are You?’ or BT’s ‘It’s good to talk.’  The Blairite sociologist Antony Giddens acknowledged that he read a great deal of therapy literature during his research.  He says: “If one looks at how a therapist sees a good relationship – in any of the three spheres [friendship, parent-child, sexual] – it is striking how direct a parallel there is with public democracy.” (Giddens,1999, Lecture 4, p6).  At every level there should be what Giddens calls ‘a democracy of the emotions in everyday life.’  Floatation and negotiation make up our public and private worlds, marking the end of  strong institutions like, for instance, marriage, the church, politics, schools.  These, ‘hollowed out from within’ by their liberation, have become what Giddens aptly terms ‘shell institutions.’     We have achieved what Philip Rieff coined as the title of his well known work, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (Rieff, 1966).

Undoubtedly, therapy has come to fill the place vacated by traditional religions, but, much more importantly, the place left by the end of the social.  Just as genuine commitment to friendship, fellowship and conviviality was being lost, there came an explosion of  ‘Public Relations,’ agencies for the commercial promotion, management and exploitation of relationships at every levels in every cultural sphere.  On all fronts, the destruction of personal ties and direct conversation with the other, in favour of the aggressive promotion of these through publications, glossy literature, training videos, the internet, all to ‘demonstrate our commitment/sincerity/care.’  In short, the therapeutic relationship was born.

With the growth and promotion of public relations, there was a parallel growth of its sister pathology: paranoid relations.  Mutual antagonism, suspicion and litigation haunt the devastated sites of the social: harassment, victimisation, abuse, bullying, unfair dismissal, miscarriages and distrust of all sorts.  With that, precautions, safeguards, security systems, documentation of intimate detail, recording, monitoring, under the imminent threat from the other who can turn from a friend and colleague to an enemy, according to the instantaneous logic of imaginary relations. Screens to watch over us, at work, at leisure, in the precinct, in the car, the caring gaze of the Other.

Just as we name new shopping centres or housing estates after the places they’ve destroyed (Frascati, Holmwood, Gresham House) so therapeutic strategies ruthlessly re-cycle old traditions, by stripping them of their contextual gravity, that is their absolute otherness to Modernity.  Myth, music, dance, painting,  Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity all purloined, and made to work in the service of self-expression and true communication, marketed for weekend workshops to ‘free creativity’ or ‘to get more in harmony with yourself.’

Consider holotropism (whole growth), for example, it boasts various shamanistic procedures, aboriginal healing ceremonies, the healing trance dance of the King bushman and other groups, rites of passage, as well as (why not?) psychedelic therapy, certain forms of hypnosis, other experiential psychotherapies, different spiritual practices including controlled breathing, music and other forms of sound technology, and focused bodywork.

One prestigious psychotherapy institute advertises its training.  The glossy pages of its prospectus are interspersed with sayings in ancient script format from, for instance, Kierkegaard, St Augustine, C.G. Jung, The Talmud, Kahil Gibran, Kant, Nietzsche, Emerson – all of whose thinking (in many cases profound) is reduced to the same vapid spiritual kitsch: ‘One must have chaos within one to give birth to a dancing star’ (Nietzsche).  ‘The greatest loss, that of oneself, may pass unnoticed’ (Kierkegaard).  Language is manipulated to address the alleged narcissistic wounds of the consumers.


Beauty will grow inside us, we will flower, what is asleep will awaken within us, the majesty of the soul, the dreamer of dreams, the little child will sing, you will become a Radiant Warrior, soar to electrifying heights, Ascension, Chanting, Universal Consciousness.

While this abuse of language and of the past might make us wince, we have been softened up for this remorseless eclecticism during the three decades of the so-called Postmodern, whose business (literally)  has been to re-cycle and level everything for promotion and selling.  We should ask, has all it all been worth it?  Or, to quote Baudrillard (1993) : what do we do ‘after the orgy,’ that is, the orgy of destruction, of pulling down, of desecration of the sacred sites?  Meanwhile, the sacred, for its part has reappeared in saccharine, harmless, new age forms.  We have no real way of answering our question of worth – has it all been worth it?  Paraphrasing Jameson (1991: xi), we went out one morning and the thermometer was gone.  We have no way of measuring, or of making critical judgements anymore.  Everything is of equal value; everything is therapeutic.

Zizek (2000)  has said that Buddhism (used for relaxation) is the perfect structural fit with global capitalism.  Therapy oils the wheels of the system and the system itself proposes itself as therapeutic.  It is no longer ‘alternative,’ it is the system!  The conflict between therapy and the system has been resolved!  We might say that, ‘they are there for each other.’  This is holism.   And holism has become omnipotent: it utterly believes its own rhetoric of healing and reconciliation. Anyone who cannot see and affirm this, well they need help.   Not so long ago people were afraid to say that they were going to therapy.  Now, people only feel inadequate or guilty if they are not ‘in’ therapy.

Psycho-therapy is only one of many therapies that you should be ‘into,’ to boost your performance in every sphere. Liberation involves enslavement: to ourselves; our bodies; our minds; our perfectly integrated ‘functioning.’  To be dysfunctional is the greatest sin.  Yet in the old days only machines functioned or dysfunctioned.  Today, we are more likely to be celebrated as information regulating biocomputers.  Processing, re-programming and performing are key metaphors.

There is one world: it is a therapeutic and virtual one. The virtual participates in what Milan Kundera calls ‘angelic discourse.’  Here Goodness accumulates to such an extent that the bad (we wouldn’t say evil) has been reduced to a walk-on part.  I heard one therapist claiming that even severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia could be cured by ‘opening the shakras and revisiting past lives.’  Flying high in the virtual universe, floating in the free market of information, the promotional real, the mediated real,  continuously reinvents itself.  Freed up from any serious appointment with truth, the real embraces the paranormal and every form of  hyped-up alternative.

If the democracy of the emotions is all there is, caring and sharing and the whole rhetoric of inclusion and rights, is any escape possible?  But why would you need to escape, some will say?  Have you thought: you may need more therapy?  Is psychoanalysis, for instance, any different?  The first answer is, No!  Psychoanalysis as the first form of the modern psychotherapies may be the worst in its religious adherence to growth and interpretation. And yet, there may yet be a glimmer of hope.  For Freud spoke of ‘free association’ without censorship. What is censored today is not sex, but negativity.  You can only be negative if you are willing to work on it!  There is no free form of negativity, no singular negativity.  There is no Death Drive, to use Freud’s heretical term.  Negativity must be recycled along with everything else, put to the service of integration and positivity. Therefore, negativity dare not show its face in the virtual universe lest it be lovingly confronted.  Forced into a clandestine existence in the margins of the virtual, Baudrillard suggests, it becomes part of the black economy, i.e. an economy that simply does not exist.  Like the Dark Matter of the universe that holds the visible universe together, negativity holds our subjective universe together: the devil has all the best lines.

So the first thing a radical psychoanalysis might attempt is to discredit the now ubiquitous therapeutic superego that prevents free association, the free circulation of malediction and spite and creates instead the myth of growth and the fully-analysed person. Outlaw the use of  the ‘psychologically correct’ discourse of mutual nurturance, connectedness, vulnerability, fragility, dialoging, working on issues, etc. This amounts to simulations of unconditional love (mothering), dissimulations of the truth,  at the heart of therapeutic ideological control.  Against narcissistic knowing (‘I need to work on my relationship with my father,’ ‘I think this dream means this or that.’ ‘My child self is hurting’ etc.), one is caught by the real of melancholy, of suffering, cold dark matter.  Thought speaks us, woven and interwoven as an underground mycelium, to use Freud’s (1900) metaphor. Where the ego was there shall the it (Id) come to be.  Fundamentally dis-located, homeless, there is no possibility of a harmonious return, no natural, evolutionarily guaranteed place for us in the universe. A radical psychoanalysis escapes therapy.  Listening, as it does, largely in silence, it escapes the vast excess of meaning and communication that blights the world. It avoids being therapeutic.

The humanistic, like the self, is not integral to itself, it rests on the in-humanistic (the Id), which is its hidden support and strength. Therapy betrays the inhuman.  What is paradoxical here is that the inhuman ‘returns’ via the system itself.  What purports to help via every conceivable gratification, isolates and atomises us at computer screens, in cubicles in what Baudrillard ironically calls our ‘terminal’ condition, where the choices made in the virtual world concern only which button to click on.

In the early days, therapy culture served us well, but now, God-like and global, things are reversed, we are there to gratify its demands, to fill those counselling courses, those empty aircraft seats, hotel rooms, to consume, to communicate more and more, and so on. We feel empathy for these empty spaces and want to fill them, heal them, those consumer goods that wait in silence on shelves in stores and warehouses and want to be bought.  Believe us: we feel your pain and your loneliness.

If you have been affected by anything that has appeared on the programme, please contact us.  There will be trained counsellors on hand to deal with your questions and comments.  There will be a helpline after the show.  Do call.  Please hold.  All our lines are busy at present.  We value your call.  Thank you for flying with us.  Thank you for shopping at this store, for booking online, and so on and on.  Virtual gratitude.  Virtual interactivity creates the illusion of care and participation.  Just like: thank-you for sharing that with us.  It’s all electronic therapy, formulaic gratitude (a contradiction), not coming from real people, but only from the signs of people, who have long since departed, leaving us with electronic facilitations (voice mail, synthesis, answering machines and the like).  The ghostly world is filled with automated transactions and digital protocols operating from locked and secure servers and systems, encryptions, codes and viral defences (electronic correctness).

As the soft technologies of therapeutic control become global so too do the black political and libidinal economies network across the planet.  Things are going critical.

Rob Weatherill is a practising member of the European Association for Psychotherapy, a member of the three analytic groups in Ireland, a supervisory analyst and an author.


Baudrillard, J. (1993) The Transparency of Evil.  Translation James Benedict. London and New York: Verso.

Freud, S. (1900) The Interpretation of Dreams. S.E. 4 and 5.

Giddens, A. (1999) B.B.C. Reith Lectures.  London: B.B.C. Radio 4.

Jameson, F.  Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.  London: Verso.  1991.

Reiff, P. (1966)  The Triumph of the Therapeutic.  London: Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Zizek, S. (2000) The Fragile Absolute.  London and New York: Verso.