Thoughts on Esther Perel’s Perspective on Therapy in the Modern World

therapy

For anyone who doesn't know Esther Perel - look her up! Esther Perel is a renowned psychotherapist, who is most known for her work with couples and thought-provoking perspectives on relationships and connection.

Perel is an accomplished author of best-sellers, Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs. She hosts an award-winning podcast called, Where Should We Begin?, and has given many TedTalks and interviews to share insight into the complexity of human relationships.

In a recent interview with Delia Cai of Vanity Fair, Perel comments on the popular topic of "therapy-speak". This is a term used to describe psychological jargon that have become buzzwords across social media platforms. This blog is an opinion piece that further considers her perspective.

Therapy-Speak in Our Daily LivesĀ 

What are examples of therapy-speak? If you, your partner, or someone you know has attended therapy - or has simply been exposed to mental health accounts on social media, you might have heard buzzwords, such as "boundaries", "gaslighting", or "holding space". These are therapy terms that have real meaning, however, somewhere along the way they seem to have lost their potency and purpose.

It seems as though the global pandemic had some positive impact in the mental health sphere. Specifically, as it destigmatized the experience of mental health issues [because many struggled for a number of reasons through the pandemic], and it opened accessibility by normalizing the use of telehealth services for therapy.

I have heard having a therapist being likened to having a gym membership; it's almost as if you're given a side eye if you haven't had therapy yet! Overall, this is good news. It means that concern over judgment is perhaps less of a barrier to accessing mental health support than it would have been in the past. However, Perel offers an interesting perspective in her Vanity Fair interview.

Psychobabble

Specifically, Perel comments on the observation that the use of therapy jargon to describe 'normal' behaviour, in addition to hyper-focus on the self, and overanalyzing our interactions has perhaps served to make us feel more isolated as a collective. This is a generalization, of course, because therapy has likely helped millions of individuals, families, and couples have better communication and increased connection over the decades. I believe Perel is specifically referring to the diluted, black and white nature of messaging on social media apps that confuse people in thinking for themselves about what's 'good' and 'bad' or 'right' and 'wrong'.

For example, Perel comments on the technical term, "gaslighting", being inaccurately used to describe someone simply voicing a different opinion than you, and thus, dismissing any opportunity to even engage in conversation. Gaslighting is a term used in domestic violence literature as it is a red flag for abuse.

The issue with using terms like this to describe someone who might have responded in a way that hurt us [without it actually being gaslighting], is that it doesn't allow for nuances and individual differences in relationships. Some people are simply more emotionally intelligent than others. Some people have better communication skills than their partners.

As a therapist, I have noticed that people can be quick to assume others' intentions [perhaps a protective mechanism]. I wonder if jumping to conclusions about others leaves people feeling lonelier, as they are left thinking that their partner is malicious when they might just need some work on communication.

Perel also comments on the self-prescribed labelling that happens online. As people search for freedom in self-discovery and educate themselves on psychological theories, such as attachment theory, they seem to paradoxically put themselves in a box. They become their label of "insecure attachment". Perel notes that when we hyper-focus on the self and labelling, we might lose focus on parts of life that give us a sense of vitality, such as having deep and meaningful relationships with others.

Therapy as a Process, Not a Textbook

Therapy is a nuanced process of supported inquiry and it is very different than the certainties people are given across social media. In many cases, a large part of therapy is helping people learn to live in the grey, as opposed to a black and white mentality, because life and human beings are much more complex and nuanced than theories allow.

In my opinion, technical psychological terms should be used as guidelines for giving context as opposed to prisons that we're tied to. Yes, your history might have shaped patterns of behaviour that are commonly categorized under anxious attachment, but does that mean that you operate that way in every type of relationship in every context?

I found Esther Perel's interview to be refreshing food for thought, as we're bombarded by messages about mental health and therapy online. In my personal experience, I have felt mentally overloaded with these messages to the point that they lose their impact and meaning in a way.

I have found that purposeful and sought-out psycho-educational content on social media is useful and clarifying. However, too much exposure to it all at once almost leaves the impression that there is a right and wrong way to live; you are 'good' or 'bad' if you fall into these categories, and because there's many options for improving it's your fault you're still unhappy. This level of overstimulation can be overwhelming and lead to more confusion than clarification.

Conclusion

Overall, I think it's incredible that therapy and mental health has become so mainstream such that there are less barriers to access. In agreement with Perel, I think that we can be a little more discerning and cautious with the labels we give ourselves and others; are we really feeling more connected or are we driving ourselves inward? Ironically, my final note is that if you're confused about a technical term, such as 'boundary' or 'gaslighting', you could always run it by your therapist for clarification in your personal context!

 

Written by Corinne Qureshi, Registered Psychotherapist and Co-Founder

References

  1. Cai, D. (2023, June 26). Esther Perel thinks all this amateur therapy-speak is just making us lonelier. Vanity Fair. Retrieved from: https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2023/06/esther-perel-amateur-therapy-speak