In yet another entry in what looks like a long-running series – I fail at something. Only this time, for a change, it wasn’t an online failure. A few years ago, deciding that my real-world social life was not exactly flourishing, and that the cause of this must be some deep seated personality issue, I decided to try therapy and signed up for a group run by a local therapist. (If you want to know what profound intellectual considerations led me to choose group therapy in particular – it was cheaper than the individual kind).
I managed to stick the weekly sessions for about two months, which I think was the bare minimum to which I’d committed myself at the beginning, after which I quit, because I’d come to hate the whole experience.
I’ll admit to not being the most naturally self-revelatory person on Earth, and that’s an obvious problem for anyone undertaking that kind of process, but actually my main difficulty was that after a few sessions I concluded that pretty much everyone in that group (including me) either didn’t really have a serious problem or, if they did, didn’t have the kind of problem that could be resolved by probing their psyche for their hidden motivations. Worse; I think for one or two of them, who seemed to have been attending group therapy for years, it had actually become the problem. The sessions were providing some sort of emotional crutch to them, meaning they were less motivated to make the changes in their life that they probably needed to make.
For example, there was one woman whose son was a drug addict and was making her life a misery. There’s no doubt that’s a serious problem, but it’s not really one a therapist and a bunch of group therapy attendees were remotely equipped to deal with, because (a) none of us really knew much about drug addiction and (b) at root the problem was external to the person. If you’re depressed in that situation, it’s nothing to do with some kind of internal maladaption; it’s because you’re in a situation that’s depressing (and difficult to resolve in a way that isn’t very painful). Likewise, there was an unemployed guy who probably needed to spend time getting a job, rather than waste even more wondering why he seemed to lack the motivation to.
To me, the worst example was a woman who had what sounded like a disastrous marriage with a man from a very different cultural and religious background to her, and who I think really needed to call a halt to the whole mess and divorce him, but (as far as I could make out) was determined not to because her sister had got divorced, which was somehow a shame to be avoided. No, I don’t really get that one, either; and needless to say, she was one of the people who’d been at this for years.
No doubt I should have made all these points in the group, at the time, rather than years later, and I felt like making them, but I was simply uncertain about how we were supposed to react to things in a therapy group. On the one hand, there was the idea that we were supposed to be honest; on the other, we weren’t supposed to be judgemental. But a lot of the time, the only honest thing would have been getting judgemental. It didn’t help that the therapist’s role seemed to be essentially to systematically wind up the last speaker – I often used to wonder if I wasn’t paying for the privilege of being trolled in real life.
Also, I’m English, and brutal honesty to people’s faces does not sit very well with pretty much everything in English culture. It’s all about being nice (in public, anyway). The problem with everyone being nice to each other in that setting is that you end up with an orgy of mutual back-slapping; what the internet usually calls a circle-jerk.
What insights did I get out of the experience? Well, not trying group therapy again, that’s for sure (and I haven’t had any kind of therapy in the years since). I can certainly see the irony of going into therapy because you struggle with human relationships, then finding out that you can’t put up with the other people involved, but I haven’t taken this as a cue that I am just a hopeless misanthrope. Sitting around with a bunch of people that you never see outside a room in which you discuss your deep emotions once a week is a weird and unnatural relationship and I doubt you can really read over from it to anything more normal.
In the end, there is always the point that if you conclude you aren’t going to solve a problem, the solution is not to define it as a problem, which I think is what I did in practice.
However, one thing that this has contributed to, I can see in retrospect, is the suspicion of social justice types which I’ve undoubtedly revealed far too much about elsewhere. After all, that is kind of a therapeutic movement, all about personal feelings and identity and so on. More specifically, if there’s one thing you’re guaranteed to hear from a male feminist, white crusader for racial justice and so on, it’s that the experience is all about self-examination and being willing to confront your shortcomings, or “privilege” or whatever. (But fun!)
Yes – just like therapy. If the future those people foresee for white, non-disabled, heterosexual men is an endless therapy session of self-questioning, they can keep it.