A problem shared may not always be resolved

Therapy Culture
June 4, 2004

The author of this original and interesting book expresses the view that therapy, or therapy-like attitudes, permeate all aspects of contemporary life, focusing on the negative or pessimistic, limiting our potential as individuals.

Frank Furedi sums this up in his introduction: "This book suggests that the therapeutic imperative is not so much towards the realisation of self-fulfilment as the promotion of self-limitation. It posits the self in distinctly fragile and feeble form and insists that the management of life requires the continuous intervention of therapeutic expertise."

Furedi is concerned that constantly focusing on the negatives of life - such as stress, midlife crisis, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), debriefing or syndrome X, Y or Z - encourages people to consider themselves "victims", limiting their capacity to muster their own "coping resources".

According to the author, the "therapy culture" enables - or should I say disables - people to disown their problems, to avoid dealing with them head on, to encourage the expression of emotion for its own sake and to seek the advice and comfort of "caring" professionals, rather than dealing with the troubles themselves or with others in their lives.

The chapter titles highlight the sequence of Furedi's argument. He starts with "The culture of emotionalism", a chapter emphasising the shift towards encouraging the expression of emotion through such constructs as "emotional intelligence", "getting in touch with yourself" and the like, stimulated by the media and particularly our academic cousins across the Atlantic.

The second chapter, on "The politics of emotion", illustrates how the expression of emotion has been sanctioned and externalised into contemporary political life. Bill Clinton's rhetoric and behaviour while president and Mo Mowlam's views when Secretary of State for Northern Ireland are among the examples highlighted.

The next chapter, "Targeting privacy and informal relations", deals with the public's insatiable appetite for TV programmes such as Big Brother , Survivor and I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here . In a therapeutic culture, we want raw emotion, we want to get behind the facade or, as the author puts it, "the disapproval of the right of privacy is implicit to the value system of a therapeutic culture".

This is followed by a historical account in chapter four of "How we got here", which highlights the decline of tradition, religion and shared moral norms, the demise of politics and the professionalisation of everyday life.

With the break-up of the community and the extended family, and increasing mobility in search of jobs, we no longer have the social support systems we once had, and so seek therapeutic or quasi-therapeutic help for our problems.

The argument gathers momentum in chapters five to seven, where the author explores the "Diminished self", "The self at risk" and "Fragile identity".

Furedi acknowledges the changes in society and their impact on the individual but claims that "the concept of psychological damage is informed by a cultural sensibility that regards emotional problems as far more debilitating than hitherto recognised". He contends that they should not be considered "life sentences" and that labelling of every stressor (such as PTSD or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) only focuses our attention on the negative and encourages us to be illness-oriented and to seek help rather than to confront a problem directly.

The final two chapters, "Conferring recognition" and "Therapeutic claims-making and the demand for a diagnosis", polish the logic of Furedi's argument by saying that the more we rely on others - in this case, therapeutic professionals and other "experts" - the more we lose our self-identity and our ability to change our circumstance. If we blame society for our problems, the argument goes, "the self becomes denuded of any sense of responsibility for one's predicament".

This is a thoughtful book that encourages all of us working with people (and organisations) in distress, to consider how to provide help and support without discouraging or even undermining the individual's coping strategies.

Shelley wrote: "Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!/ I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!" The question is: whose responsibility is it to prevent "the fall" or to deal with the consequences after it? Many would support Furedi's stance, others would contend that he encourages us to abrogate our responsibility as human beings to help those in distress. His book makes a useful case for one side in a continuing debate.

Cary L. Cooper is professor of organisational psychology and health, Lancaster University.

Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age

Author - Frank Furedi
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 245
Price - £65.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 0 415 32160 3 and 32159 X

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