Whether it’s the Columbine shootings, September 11, or Hurricane Katrina, in the wake of the initial crisis, an army of grief counselors descends on the survivors. Is that a good thing? Probably not.
In their excellent book One Nation under Therapy, ethicist Christina Hoff Sommers and psychiatrist Sally Satel show how junk science has promoted the notion “that seemingly content and well-adjusted Americans—adults as well as children—are emotionally damaged.” They trace the history of what they call “therapism,” which “valorizes openness, emotional self-absorption and the sharing of feelings.”
This trend was popularized by twentieth-century psychologists like Abraham Maslow. He believed—though he had no scientific proof for it—that restraint was unhealthy and that “self-actualization” and high self-esteem were crucial to human development. It was Maslow who said, “I sometimes think that the world will either be saved by psychologists . . . or it will not be saved at all.”
We see the fruits of that philosophy everywhere. From schools to talk shows, people are coached to focus on themselves and obsess about their own feelings—in short, to “save themselves” through psychology. No wonder that Jim Windolf, writing in the Wall Street Journal, said, “If you believe the statistics, 77 percent of America’s adult population is a mess. And we haven’t even thrown in alien abductees, road ragers or Internet addicts.”
As if it weren’t enough to teach healthy people that they’re emotionally crippled, therapism is most prevalent at disaster sites: Busloads of grief counselors shuttle in—who, the authors point out, are often underqualified. And they offer the wrong medicine.
Valid scientific studies show that self-absorption, or self-pity, is actually the worst possible way to respond to tragedy. Study participants who were told to focus on their emotions and express them aloud actually ended up more depressed than those who tried to distract themselves and find constructive ways to cope.