Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"Misery Poker"

When you learn a new skill you naturally want to show it off. Why spend all those hours mastering the skill if you are going to keep it to yourself.

If other people have acquired the same skill, you will naturally want to compete with them. You gain confidence by pitting your skill level against theirs.

When people go into therapy they are sometimes told to say whatever comes to mind, regardless of the effect it has on their listener.

Of course, this is abnormal, and, dare I say, socially dysfunctional behavior. But once you learn it, the chances are very good that you are going to show it off to your friends and family. What is the point of spending so much time learning to free associate if you have to repress it before you go out into the world.

Besides, therapy has declared that when you do not speak whatever is crossing your mind, you are self-censoring. It adds that self-censoring is contributing to your emotional distress. Doesn't this mean that verbal incontinence-- to call it by its real name-- is therapeutic.

Many forms of therapy also promote another dubious social skill, an offshoot of free association, called complaining.

In fairness we should note that some therapists have understood the danger involved in encouraging people to complain all the time. They invented solution-focused brief psychotherapy. When you are focused on solving your problems you are less likely to imagine that you will gain psychic benefit by exposing your psychic pain to the world.

I would add that cognitive and behavioral therapies also do not encourage people to complain about their problems.

Yet, traditional forms of therapy, the ones that have produced the therapy culture, have told people to express their feelings. If a sufficiently empathic therapist commiserates, then the patient would presumably be cured.

In some offices this process passes for a human connection.

When I practiced therapy I noticed that some patients believe that they must bring a passel of complaints to every therapy session. They have been persuaded that they would not be playing the game properly if they came to therapy to discuss things that were going well.

The source of this bad habit seems to lie in the confessional, of all places. You would no more go to confession and say: "Bless me father, for I have not sinned" than you would go to a therapy session and announce that you had done a great job dealing with your problems. You would feel that you were wasting your time and your therapist would accuse you of not addressing your issues.

This lengthy preamble to introduce Elizabeth Bernstein's Wall Street Journal article, "Misery Poker." Link here.

Bernstein begins by declaring: "Misery once loved company.... Venting helped people bond and made them feel better."

In other words, in the old days complaining was therapeutic. Or at least we thought it was. Last I heard, the nation's physicians wrote 120 million prescriptions for anti-depressants last year, so, perhaps commiserating did not make us feel that good.

Anyway, Bernstein makes an important point when she notes that this therapeutic palliative has ceased to work. "But as times get tougher complaining is starting to look more like a blood sport than a coping mechanism. Stressed to the max and desperate for everyone to know it, many of us are trying to trump each other with our carping.... Instead of sharing our misery, we seem to be using it as a competitive mechanism."

So, therapy taught people a coping mechanism. When they discovered that it no longer works, they assumed that they were not doing it well enough. Thus, they tried to hone their complaining skills by competing with others.

Now you can regain your mental health by mastering the skill of whining.

The therapy culture should feel proud.

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