Stop Talking About It. You’ll Feel Better. image

Stop Talking About It. You’ll Feel Better.

The WEIRD world has a problem. This is how Abigail Shrier encapsulates it in her new book, Bad Therapy: Why the kids aren’t growing up:

With unprecedented help from mental health experts, we have raised the loneliest, most anxious, depressed, pessimistic, helpless, and fearful generation on record. Why?
How did the first generation to raise kids without spanking produce the first generation to declare they never wanted kids of their own? How did kids raised so gently come to believe that they had experienced debilitating childhood trauma? How did kids who received far more psychotherapy than any previous generation plunge into a bottomless well of despair?

It’s an important question and the answer Shrier gives is the title of her book: bad therapy. Her argument (and be prepared, it’s a polemic) is that we have been suckered by a therapeutic worldview: that all our therapeutic parenting, therapy, counselling, and drugs have made things worse, not better. But because we are so enthralled to the worldview our response is to try and solve the problem by adding ever more therapeutic parenting, therapy, counselling, and drugs.

The issues Shrier is grappling with are relevant for us all, not least Christian parents and those in pastoral ministry. The greatest danger that I perceive in the therapeutic worldview is its tendency to drive us towards narcissism. We are too easily too consumed with the self, something the Bible warns us against explicitly (2 Tim 3:1-5).

This curving in on the self is dangerous spiritually, as it turns us away from God. It is also dangerous personally, as the evidence clearly suggests that the more time we spend thinking about ourselves the less happy we become. And it is dangerous to community as, by definition, it prevents us from thinking about the wellbeing of others. Shrier illustrates this last point:

About a year ago, I was on a flight, seated behind an American family of four – two parents and two little girls. Mid-air, the girl who was about eight let out a protracted scream so shrill, my eardrums felt like they’d been pierced by a sharp object.
Her father, red-headed and bearded, a gentle giant, attempted to calm her down. He asked her what was wrong. He inquired about the reason for her anger toward her younger sister. He told the younger one not to pinch or whatever she had done. He urged them to reconcile.
He never once mentioned the other passengers on the plane. He didn’t tell either of those girls that when they cried out, they might be disturbing ninety other people. He never mentioned that we were all sharing this space in the air, and we all had a job to do: be good neighbors for the length of the trip. He never troubled his daughters with thoughts of us.

If you are committed to the therapeutic model of parenting you might find this illustration offensive. It’s a very practical one though, and it applies in churches every Sunday, when an entire congregation have their attention torn from worship and the Word by the child whose parent has failed to teach them to be a good neighbour. (A recent post on the TGC site helpfully explored the pros and cons of gentle parenting.)

A plane, or a congregation, being disturbed by an unboundaried child is one thing; more disturbing is the damage being done to an entire generation by bad therapy. Our relentless expectation is that our children should always be happy, yet all we do to try and achieve this can perversely have the opposite effect:

According to the best research, we have it all backward. If we wanted our kids to be happy, the last thing we would do is to communicate that happiness is the goal. The more vigorously you hunt happiness, the more likely you are to be disappointed. This is true irrespective of the objective conditions of your life.

As Christians we know that true happiness comes when we forget ourselves, not focus on ourselves. It is in the moment of absorbed focus on something outside ourselves – something bigger and better than us – that we feel most complete. This is why it is as we give ourselves in worship to God that we find our greatest joy and integrity. It is when we really ‘lose ourselves’ in wonder at the Saviour and what he has done that we truly find ourselves (Matt 16:25).

The therapeutic worldview takes a different approach from this self-forgetfulness. It calls us to constantly monitor ourselves, to be permanently alert to our feelings and state of happiness, but this tends to make us more anxious and depressed! As one professor of psychiatry told Shrier:

If you track a person’s emotions over the course of a day or even a week happiness is actually a very rare emotion, statistically speaking. Of our sixty-thousand wakeful seconds each day, only a tiny percentage are spent in a state we would call “happy.” Most of the time we are simply “okay” or “fine,” trying to ignore some minor discomfort: feeling a little tired, run down, upset, stressed out, irritated, allergic, or in pain. Regularly prompting someone to reflect on their current state will—if they are being honest—elicit a raft of negative responses.

These negative responses are made worse when we insist that everyone talk about them the whole time. Rather than letting it all hang out, not talking about it might help more. Some repression might actually be better for us.

“Really good trauma-informed work does not mean that you get people to talk about it,” physician and mental health specialist Richard Byng told me. “Quite the opposite.”
Byng helps ex-convicts in Plymouth, England, habituate to life on the outside. Many of these former prisoners endured unspeakable abuse as children and young adults. And yet, Byng says, the solution for them often includes not talking about their traumas.
One of the most significant failings of psychotherapy, Byng says, is its refusal to acknowledge that not everyone is helped by talking about their problems. Many patients, he says, are harmed by it.

Rather than go with the therapeutic flow Shrier urges parents to be parents. Her recommendations for how to do so: Parents are the true experts on their kids, and are in it for the long haul – rather than contracting parenting out to ‘experts’ who have a vested interest in keeping the therapy wheel spinning. Put boundaries in place around behaviour – be authoritative. Don’t allow kids to have smart phones, ‘knowing full well that they are linked to a rise in depression, anxiety, and self-harm’. Allow kids more autonomy – don’t track and monitor and supervise them the whole time: let them create their own play. Don’t put them on medication. Don’t go diagnosis hunting.

The challenge here is that even if you agree with Shrier’s conclusions, it is almost impossible for our solitary actions to make much difference. When the whole world is therapeutically shaped (count up how many times you’ve heard the phrase ‘mental health’ today) taking away your daughter’s iPhone isn’t going to remove her from all the other therapeutic influences that surround her. It’s the water in which we swim.

I’ve been on both sides of this. A couple of my own kids have had extensive therapy for significant mental health issues. I’ve also seen the reality of bad therapy and the harm that has done to people. It’s complicated, but surely, in our churches we have the opportunity to do things differently – and better. It’s not going to be easy but it has to be possible for a Christian community to come to unified resolution about how to handle these things, together.

That would mean things like an agreed level of boundary setting for children (and that parents will be shepherds rather than sheepdogs). It would mean agreed habits around the use of phones (perhaps an annual youth camp at which they are banned – and times when the adults leave them behind too. Who really needs a phone with them in a church service?). It would mean allowing pastors to pastor, and not be relegated to a position of less qualified therapist. It would mean agreeing that the gospel is where we find a better hope and salvation.

Our world has come to believe that ‘therapeutic’ always equals ‘good’ but there is plenty of evidence pointing the other way. If it doesn’t help the kids grow up, then therapy is bad.


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