WH Auden wrote that “literary confessors are contemptible, like beggars who exhibit their sores for money”. We needn’t ask what he would make of the wellspring of confessional books on offer today, each hawking its own particular brand of self-laceration.
Beggars they are no longer, however, for emotional exhibitionism is now a lucrative business. Consider Elizabeth Day’s Friendaholic: Confessions of a Friendship Addict. An offshoot of her podcast series Best Friend Therapy, it promises to “unpack the significance and evolution of friendship”. In reality, it reads like a 400-page transcript of her therapy sessions – a form which recently reached its apotheosis in Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare.
Unlike Harry, however, who has struggled to rebrand himself as a fallible human, Day has mastered the subtle art of relatability. In recent years she has embarked on a project to offset her successful career as both novelist and journalist with various confessions of failure. She is, we are to understand, as hopeless as the rest of us, having failed at a litany of things: “marriage”, “self-acceptance”, “playing tennis” even.
[See also: Your therapist shouldn’t be on TikTok]
In both her chart-topping podcast series How to Fail, and now in Friendaholic, Day is reminiscent of the high-achieving school girl who, upon discovering that her accolades are an impediment to popularity, determines to shove her various trophies to the back of the wardrobe. Whatever her motives, this career move has been highly effective and demonstrates a canny understanding of the market. Day has alighted on that sweet spot between relatable and aspirational. A goldilocks combination for the Instagram age.
That Friendaholic will be a commercial success is a foregone conclusion. Many people will feel seen by this book. They will find in Day’s relatable prose an everywoman figure who, like them, has survived the harrowing experience of being ghosted by a friend (few, though, will have the opportunity to punish said friend in print); they may feel inspired by her application of “friendship contracts” – in which both sides are explicit about what they can offer to a new relationship and what they want in return; they will probably see themselves in Day’s “charitable” treatment of friends she no longer likes but continues to see out of the kindness of her heart.
In the scientific research she cites as evidence that “frenemies are bad for [our] health”, readers will find the conviction to finally jettison those most toxic of relationships. And, all snarking aside, many will find comfort in the honest description of her fertility struggles, for which she has rightly been praised.
Coming from the Auden school, my relationship with Friendaholic was of the more “toxic” variety: like a frenemy, I loved to hate it. For much of the book I felt like I was rubbernecking a car crash, unable to tear my head away from the scene of the disaster. I felt this acutely in those moments when Day dishes on ex-friends, saying of one: “She told me she was frustrated and bored in her relationship, and was guiltily nurturing a workplace crush on a younger colleague.” I’m just glad Becca’s not her real name. Although a pseudonym provides thin protection from such a detailed character assassination.
At other times, it made me laugh out loud, like when, for example, Day earnestly tells us that “a best friend has even been shown to boost productivity”. Perhaps the most galling thing about Friendaholic, however, is the banality of its advice. I can’t think of any reader who would be glad to wade through 400-pages of Day’s anecdotes to be told that it is “quality not quantity” that counts.
I’m sure that Day has a ready-made diagnosis for whatever kind of reader I am: a masochist perhaps? Or just a plain old narcissist. For what Day has mastered above all, in both her podcasts and her books, is the language of therapy-speak – that Instagrammable lingo that works like a relentless sheepdog, herding the whole of human experience into pens marked “triggering”, “gaslighting” and “traumatic”. It is from this argot that Day plucks such unwieldly phrases as “growth mindset” and “traumatic microaggressions”. It is the lexicon that has given her the mindless expressions “hold a space” and “do the work”.
[See also: The narcissism of anti-racist therapy]
Though Day is adept at therapy-speak, she is far from the sole perpetrator. Its spores have travelled such vast distances, in fact, that they have successfully infiltrated most of our institutions, publishing houses, entertainment platforms, and have even made it past supposed gatekeepers of our language, such as the Merriam-Webster dictionary, whose word of the year for 2022 was “gaslighting”. For those like Prince Harry, who like to talk a lot but think little, the ready-made quality of therapy-speak is of particular appeal. It provides off-the-shelf phrases for the tired of mind.
There are, of course, those who laud the increase in therapy-speak as a sign of our emancipation from the shackles of Victorian repression; when it comes to our emotions, we’ve finally learnt, as the idiom goes, that it’s better out than in. But while it is beyond contestation that an increased awareness of mental health problems is a good thing – certainly for any society claiming to be civilised – what if the proliferation of therapy-speak is actually a symptom of our increased alienation?
This is the argument made by the American historian Christopher Lasch. As a staunch critic of mass consumption, which he viewed as a threat to the integrity of the individual, Lasch was particularly attuned to the ways in which it discouraged “initiative and self-reliance” and promoted “dependence” and “passivity”. “Dependent” people, he wrote in The Minimal Self (1984), are easily converted into consumers of therapy, which is “designed to ease [their] ‘adjustment’ to the realities of industrial life”. Therapy-speak, then, is the language of the consumer, and consumers do not make for independent thinkers, let alone free ones.
The need for “adjustment” shows no sign of abating. The global online therapy market is predicted by analysts to grow by $9.31bn by 2026; Spare sold more than 1.4 million copies on its first day of publication; and online therapy influencers, like Brené Brown and Tabitha Brown, are followed by millions. If the listener figures for How to Fail are anything to go by (one million a month), then Friendaholic is also set to bring in bountiful sums for her and her publishers.
It is often said that what passes as left-wing politics these days is just red-washed liberalism, so absolutely has the critique of mass production and mass consumption been abandoned. It is perhaps for this reason that therapy-speak has gained such traction. Rather than recognising it as the language of passive consumerism, it is the left that has most vociferously promulgated therapy-speak – no doubt mistaking it as an instrument of progress. They are yet to discover that the woolly language of therapy works to cushion us from hard but necessary truths. Or that it sets up an impossible series of false expectations about what we are due from this world. They do not discern in the mechanically repeated phrases “that’s so triggering”, or “I feel gaslit”, the whirr of the production line and the chink of the tin as it is lifted off the shelf.
One way of taking a stand against the spread of this mechanical language would be to stop lining the caps of confessional beggars like Elizabeth Day. For, as Auden says, though such writers are contemptible, they’re “not so contemptible as the public who buys their books”.