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11 August 2023

Say no to Instagram therapists

Pop therapy promises solutions to problems that might not even exist.

By Pravina Rudra

I often find myself drawn in by “pop therapy” on Instagram. Sometimes an artful graphic, or a quote from Dr Nicole LePera (a psychologist with seven million followers) seems more convincing than it ought to. More than anything I find myself drawn to therapy videos. Take the British Instagram influencer who calls herself “The Therapy Girl” (she is not a therapist). All her videos are about dating. She explains in one, called “What my therapist taught me about toxic love”, how we should be wary of chasing a “spark”: a spark, she explains, is often provoked by people who are avoidant and activate our “attachment trauma” and “nervous system”.

The Therapy Girl is just one of many therapy influencers with a big following on Instagram. Psychologists are no longer stern. They no longer look grave and intellectually intimidating (they look, frankly, hot). Their qualifications for the advice they give are far more enigmatic than those of any psychoanalyst.

I am not always immune to their advice. Sometimes I find myself thumbing through the profile of Anna Kai, a former actress who issues lessons for life, all delivered in a flat, no-nonsense tone as she goes through her make-up routine (the brands are tagged in the post). With 924,000 followers, there is something authoritative about her manner – her briskness as she impatiently brushes blush onto her cheeks gives her the air of a GP who has five minutes until their next slot. She’s stylish. She dresses in a neutral palette. The proof of Kai’s put-togetherness is pinned to the top of her profile: an image of her with her photogenic, smiling husband.

We hear a great deal these days about misinformation and online “rabbit holes”. It’s become a common belief that digital technology is filling people, young men especially, with dangerous and false ideas. Well, what exactly are we supposed to make of pop therapy influencers? I follow one British influencer who has 243,000 Twitter followers. She spends all day posting pithy behavioural insights, while her website suggests she does tarot reading and has a master’s degree in mental health counselling. The other day she posted to Instagram: “If I’m dating you and feel unseen or emotionally neglected by you, I’ll immediately think…Will they make my possible future child feel unseen and emotionally neglected as well?” My initial response was to think: yes, correct. But then, I became suspicious of my own thoughts. Is that really true? Aren’t there lots of men who are devoted fathers but terrible husbands?

[See also: The rise of Citizen Celebrity]

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Instagram therapy is often radical and simplistic. There is an analogy here with the way political ideas spread on Twitter. Algorithms propel both because they are provocative, and they drive engagement from social media users. Perhaps the worst thing about pop therapy is the way it pathologises everything. I notice friends liking videos which explain why men aren’t texting back – they often suggest the man in question has “attachment issues” or is “emotionally unavailable”. You wonder: what if he just doesn’t want to sleep with you? Unlike an actual therapist, pop therapy rarely says: “Sorry, but I don’t know what he’s thinking.” Pop therapy has to categorise. It cannot allow people to be capable of change. The use of quasi-medical labels lends these influencers an aura of authority. But a real therapist would never diagnose someone at a distance.

Pathologising everything is useful though. It absolves everybody who does it from any sense of personal responsibility. On Instagram, the word “trauma” is handed out like coupons, in a way that’s unfair on people who, say, have suffered abuse, or live in a war zone. There are “5 signs you have trauma”, and acrostic poems for the word TRAUMA. The problem with flimsily diagnosed “trauma” is that you are given permission to hide from rather than brave the world.

Similarly, self-care memes often involve drawings of mugs and baths and little boxes tied with a bow captioned “treat yourself”. But self-care, as prescribed by an offline therapist, might involve getting out of bed, brushing your teeth and going to work. They would not try to sell you one of those mugs, as pop therapists do. Instagram therapy tries to make us feel snug. It never forces us to question our behaviour and what motivates it (the point of actual therapy) – except, perhaps, to occasionally wonder how we could be kinder to ourselves.

Therapy is mainstream. Attendance is flaunted as evidence of personal enlightenment. Psychobabble, or therapy language, is everywhere – look at the leaked texts last month allegedly from the actor Jonah Hill forbidding his girlfriend from hanging out with other men in the name of “boundaries”. It’s no surprise this all dovetails nicely with Instagram’s ubiquity. If you’re feeling bad while scrolling through people’s bikini pictures and engagement photos, how convenient that you can find a salve without leaving the app. Your childhood wounds, your adolescent traumas and your adult disappointments can be ameliorated using an interface engineered by Meta.

Pop therapists often explain that they want to reach people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access their help. It’s true that therapy is expensive. But then, even if we pretend everyone on Instagram is a qualified therapist, the advice I tend to see is the stuff that lots of people click “like” on – ie, only what instantly resonates. And if that was all the guidance we needed, wouldn’t life be a lot dandier?

A therapist (offline) once told me that young people need to accept that discomfort and difficulty are a part of life. They are challenges which we can rise to. We forget that not everyone has a unique pathology, which needs to be addressed through some sort of psychological intervention. Sometimes people aren’t toxic, or narcissists. Sometimes bad behaviour is just bad behaviour. 

[See also: Social media is taking a dangerous toll on teenage girls]

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