Social media self-validation enshrines bad behavior as a sign of goodness. The very attitude or action that may be your problem, something to work on or try to modify, gets turned into proof of your goodness. Are you stubborn and obstinate? No, you’re standing strong when everyone else is trying to take you down. Are you manipulative and crafty? No, you’re shrewd in navigating relationships so no one can take advantage of you. Are you too sensitive and anxious? No, you’re rightly attuned to personal slights and the atmosphere of injustice that surrounds you. That’s the biggest problem with therapeutic crowdsourcing online. We take comfort in the idea that all our problems and challenges can be attributed to other people, to injustice, to the sins and selfishness of others—whatever keeps you from being your true self.
Not long ago, I came across an insightful column in the print edition of Wired that spoke of our generation’s penchant for “self-soothing” on social media by “crowdsourcing therapy.” As people turn to their online “community” for validation, they increasingly turn to “therapy-speak” as a means of understanding and expressing themselves. This tendency is downstream from therapy influencers who may or may not be real practitioners but have gained an audience online.
Just as perusing WebMD engenders false confidence when we quickly diagnose ourselves or our family members after a cursory look at medical symptoms, we’ve become overly trusting of the self-help gurus and self-proclaimed therapists online who give advice about various psychological maladies. There’s an audience for this, as confirmed in The Atlantic, which notes that many social media feeds are now crowded with “therapy influencers who tell us to be more aware of our anxiety, our trauma, our distress. Instagram is full of anxious confessions and therapy-speak. The TikTok hashtag #Trauma has more than 6 billion views. . . . More than 5,500 podcasts have the word trauma in their title.”
No one can deny there’s such a thing as real trauma, and abuse, and depression, and anxiety, and toxicity, and all kinds of social and psychological challenges that deserve attention. But surely we should differentiate between therapy with trained professionals who take an individual interest in your life and what The Atlantic dubs “Therapy Media,” an ecosystem filled with nonexperts broadcasting their thoughts about mental health for strangers. “The way we talk about the world shapes our experience of the world.”
Recent studies show it’s possible for people to “consume so much information about anxiety disorders that they begin to process normal problems of living as signs of a decline in mental health.” Surely that’s a factor when we consider all the dumbed-down diagnoses and simplistic solutions on offer.
Self-Soothing and Relational Breakdown
Nowhere do we see this problem more clearly than in the attempt to apply online therapy-speak to real-life relationships. The Wired column notes how the world of social media gives you the illusion of community while you burrow further and further into yourself. And self-indulgence these days shows up whenever you privilege your sense of identity, what you feel, often to the detriment of your relationships.
Not surprising, then, that we see relational breakdown as the result of some of the pop-level therapy-speak out there—suspicions that heighten interpersonal tension and raise the stakes in every interaction.
- “She didn’t just lie to you or mislead you. She’s gaslighting you.”
- “That person isn’t just wrong. His take is harmful.”
- “The reason you don’t see eye to eye with him is because he must be a misogynist.”
- “She doesn’t get along with you because she’s racist.”
- “Your boss says ‘You’re difficult to work with,’ but that just means ‘You’re difficult to take advantage of.’”
When you’re safely cocooned in an online world that constantly validates your perspective, you interpret the words or actions of people in the real world in distorted and damaging ways.