Tuesday, November 14, 2006

'The Apathy Anonymous meeting is postponed due to lack of interest.'

A student and SHAMblog regular was nice enough to forward an email now making the rounds at her college. It announces a conference, tonight at The New School, that examines the rise of what Sally Satel—a featured panelist whom I quote extensively in my book—describes in her own book* as "therapism." (Too) briefly summarized, the term refers to the peculiar latter-day notion that almost every emotional twinge signals some psychological maladjustment that requires therapy. Satel is especially hard on today's penchant for grief counseling, wherein batteries of grim-faced psychologists descend upon schools, offices or other public venues beset by some mishap. Often, she argues, this actually makes matters worse by enforcing a climate of doom that prevents people from recovering at their own pace. Such themes, of course, are closely allied to what I wrote about in SHAM.

I should point out that there's irony in this panel discussion taking place in an academic setting: It was a loose coalition of academic forces who were instrumental in the rise of pop psychology in the first place, disseminating if not sponsoring the very notions that this latest conference seeks to dissect. But it's good to see these things getting discussed in any case. For too long now society has been in the vice-grip of a mentality that screams (and screams is exactly the right word) that no event in one's life is so inconsequential that it doesn't deserve intense real-time scrutiny. As this latest email asserts, "Everyday situations are increasingly being redefined through a therapeutic prism." And there was this candid moment from one of the mental-health professionals at my recent engagement in Tulsa: "We've raised a generation of emotional narcissists who think that nothing is so upsetting as finding lint in their own navel."

I think of all this, too, apropos of the "
coping calendar"** I found yesterday in the Norwich Bulletin. It presents a list of forthcoming meetings of self-help groups, all of them canted toward the Victimization end of the spectrum—that is, dealing with various maladies, syndromes, addictions and the like. By my count there are 42 of them (though the total number is higher, because some groups appear to encompass sub-groups that meet in their own right). And remember, this is taken from a source covering a relatively cozy metro area—Norwich, CT—so if anything, this listing is a mere fraction of what you'd likely find in a major urban center.

It's no surprise, then, that according to an NIH stat in the email announcing tonight's New School event, over 58 million Americans "suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year." That's more than one in four of us. And since a fair number of 12-steps and other efforts at mental-health remediation are anonymous, secret, or otherwise untracked/untrackable, I suspect that the quoted figure may be short by at least half. At some point the question becomes: If so much of America is "mentally ill," does the concept of "mental illness" even mean anything anymore? If these maladjustments are so widespread or so broadly defined that they include nearly everyone, are they really maladjustments? Or are they just, well, life? (In SHAM I point out that there is actually a group, Recoveries Anonymous, whose basic outreach is, "If you can't figure out what's wrong with you, don't worry...we'll find something." I'm being a bit unfair, but not that much.) Are most of the feelings we fret over just normal disappointments and upsets that fall under the heading of STUFF HAPPENS!, such that instead of hunting through the Yellow Pages for the nearest shrink or support group, we should just shrug, suck it up and move on...?

What say you?

* Co-authored with Christina Hoff Sommers, best known for an earlier controversial work, Who Stole Feminism?
** It would be hard to invent a more tragically apt name.

12 comments:

Trish Ryan said...

It's painful, but true. Some of the blogs I read reveal this, as people wax endlessly poetic about feelings, fears, and failures. Now I'm not saying we all have to be shiny happy fake people all the time, but the whole, "Hi, my name is ____ and I'm co-dependent/working through my abandonment issues/the child of a non-affectionate family of origin" has long struck me as an awkward and unfortunate addition to our basic social model. Any of us might be that, but is that ALL we are? Do we really want to lead with the core belief that we've fallen and we can't get up???

Steve Salerno said...

This is wonderfully on-point, Trish. Your closing question is as succinct a metaphorical statement of the problem as I've encountered. Thanks.

Cosmic Connie said...

I agree, with Steve, Trish -- that's a great metaphor. (Maybe it should be amended, though -- "We've fallen and can't get up without the help of the guru/seminar/recovery program du jour.)

As a personal-growth survivor :-), I definitely agree with the notion that we are an over-therapized culture. (I am sure that "over-therapized" is not a word, or wasn't until now, but you know what I mean.)

There's nothing wrong with admitting that one needs help overcoming a bad habit, destructive pattern or real addiction, but we've gotten to the point where we put in an emergency call to therapists, counselors, etc. to get us over every little bump in the road. I wrote about this a few years ago myself. (If you're interested, just Google "cosmic connie therapy overload".)

I am, however, interested in this "Apathy Anonymous" group you mentioned, Steve. I've had an apathy problem for a while and think I may need therapy to deal with it... :-)

Anonymous said...

Welcome back, Steve! I'd like to suggest that anyone who'd like to get over him/herself once and for all read or listen to Eckhart Tolle's "A New Earth." It really puts the ego in its place!

a/good/lysstener said...

The New School, huh? Right in my neck of the woods. I should check it out and let you know how it goes. Sounds interesting actually.

This is a very good post, btw. I know soooo many people like this! Who totally obsess over "everything that is ME". Or perhaps I shouldn't say that, in light of how much trouble I got into last time around for using people I know in my illustrations.

Case Carstensen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Salerno said...

Case, thanks for your thoughtful comments and, of course, for the purchase. (Every little bit helps these days.) There's something of a paradox here that I guess we must confront at some point. I agree with your observation about your friends; in fact, it echoes what I say at the end of SHAM, where I describe a woman I know who is so obsessively focused on "will I be happy someday? will I be happy someday?" that she almost never pauses to smell the flowers around her on THIS day. And yet, a devil's advocate might counter that your notion of "what's the best option available now?" is simply a more positive spin on the "taking the pulse of my happiness on a minute-by-minute basis" for which I constantly attack the self-help movement. So between the two of us, we seem to be saying that you're not supposed to constantly ask yourself if you're happy enough, short-term--but you're not supposed to be overly focused on long-term happiness, either! So what's a person to do?

Maybe the answer is to be focused on nothing: to just react to life instead of over-analyzing it. On the other hand, those types of people--the "reacters," if you will--often run into serious problems because of a lack of impulse control, or because they're engaging in all sorts of random, spontaneous behaviors that have no organizing premise and lead nowhere. And aimlessness ain't such a hot program for success, either.

I think I'm going to cop out and fall back on a line I also use often: that what this proves, if nothing else, is that these topics are waaaay too complex to be reduced to a simple-minded program like "7 keys to such-and-such," which is what most of self-help does. Each person has to find his or her own path.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve -
I think that often, the topics are so complex only because we choose to make them so.

Many years ago, while attending classes at Unity Village, an instructor passed an apple around the class, telling each student to come up with a metaphysical lesson that somehow related to the apple. After listening to some really "inventive" interpretations, the apple came to me. I ate it. The instructor was visibly irritated; he apparently had some clever interpretation of his own with which he had intended to enlighten us all. When he asked just what metaphysical lesson I was making, I told him that to get the "nourishment" we required, life, like the apple, had to be devoured, not simply discussed. The instructor was pretty cold to me for the rest of the course. I think he was just pissed off that I took his lunch. :-)

Case Carstensen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Good one, RevRon! Zen in action!

Anonymous said...

Hey Steve, I was flipping the dial and as I write this I'm watching Larry King who has some of the "gurus" as you call them on his show. Did you know about that? What a bunch of buffoons! Very rich ones though
-Carl

RevRon's Rants said...

Carl -

"Very Rich?" I wonder...

The truly wealthy people I know have little interest in showing off by telling people how wealthy they are. They as a rule seem quite satisfied with their lot in life, and don't go around bragging about their possessions. And none of them panhandles for gifts.

As I'd mentioned in a previous blog, the vow of poverty I once took was actually a statement of wealth, rather than an abandonment of affluence. When one achieves true abundance, they are freed from the constant hunger for "more." The constant need for more wealth and more possessions is really a plea for acclaim and an attempt to fill whatever empty place exists in one's consciousness.

The closer one looks, the more it would seem that these people have fallen, and can't get up unless we buy them a never-ending supply of crutches.