According to a report in the Observer, almost one person in five in the UK has consulted a counsellor or psychotherapist (Observer 1st August 2010). This is a remarkable transformation in a country which until very recently was renowned for it’s stoical bearing characterised by the stiff upper lip and disavowal of emotions.
How did this transformation happen? The last thirty years has been an era where a concern with individualism, consumerism and the self as the focus of all needs and concerns has triumphed over collectivism. It cannot be stressed too much how novel the present emphasis on individualism is. For almost all of human history, except the present, virtually all religious, political, social and economic ideas and philosophies were based on concepts and notions of human collective action. Change for the individual could only come about through change in the wider society.
Now the terms have changed. Political ideologies mobilised to effect change in the wider society have been eclipsed by a gray managerialism about the best way to run the economy, where differences between political parties are largely marginal. At the same time collective and informal support networks at community and family level have largely disappeared and with it a marked rise in social isolation. Accordingly, the hitherto predominant focus on collective reforms and transformation have been replaced by an emphasis on individual happiness, self-worth and, above all, self-esteem.
Viewed from within this framework, the route to enhanced well-being, peace, stability and happiness is not “out there” but “in you”. Terms such as the “real you”, the “inner person” attest to some vague notion of an ideal type personality lying latent within people. All that’s required is therapeutic intervention to get rid of the facade of neurosis, fears and inhibitions that prevents individuals from dealing positively with issues and problems. Once these have been overcome, they will be free to become a “real person”, magically balanced and emotionally mature and empowered to cope with all situations.
Of course it helps to get outside help to assist this process and find this magical balance. And just as informal networks of support and action to deal with everything from collective action to family breakdowns or recovering from a traumatic incident have collapsed or been frowned upon so there has been the rise of the professional therapists and counsellors ready to step in with individually focused ‘interventions’.
The new framework, therefore, is one that is crucially defined by outside agencies, whether by the state in the form of social and health services or state supported voluntary sector agencies. Accordingly we are witnessing the effective professionalization of people’s inner thoughts, concerns and worries: their private space so to speak.
There is not a shred of evidence that people have magically balanced inner personalities which are emotionally mature and just waiting to be shorn of essentially superficial problems. Humans are dynamic, interactive creatures intensively shaped by external circumstances. People constantly change and develop, for better or for worse, in response to this. Under the guise of liberating people from problems and concerns, therapeutic society actually strives to persuade people to adjust and confirm to their present circumstances; a profoundly conservative influence.
Moreover, when people are willing to invest the solution to their fears, hopes and concerns, their private space, to others, they can leave themselves open to abuse, manipulation and even authoritarian control.
There is nothing wrong with talking about problems or getting counselled. But that is no elixir that can transform people’s circumstances or make them conform to them. A healthy society is one which balances the collective with the personal. A therapeutic society places the emphasis on the latter and leads to hopes, desires and expectations which can never be fulfilled. We need to break out of our growing dependence on therapy and re-assert our aspirations for collective action.