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“Toxic” relationships, “burnout”, “productivity dysmorphia” – why do we medicalise societal problems?

Real structural political challenges are being dressed up with medical language and turned into pop psychology.

By Sarah Manavis

In June 2016, there was a period when a phrase that previously had only been popular in online spaces, such as Tumblr, began being used more frequently on the mainstream internet: “impostor syndrome”. It is a term – or a diagnosis – of a feeling of inadequacy that plagues many young people in the workplace and education. A belief that even if they had got a job, or secured a place at university, they were still not good enough. They are an “impostor” who has everybody fooled, and they lived in fear of being caught out. 

The spike in the discussion around impostor syndrome, or impostor phenomenon, was driven by the relief that young people felt when they heard the term. Never before had they been able to describe their feelings of insecurity. It was comforting to know that there wasn’t anything wrong with them and that this problem even had a medical-sounding name (the term was first coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ime ). In response, in 2016, many search-engine optimised pieces were written which explained what imposter syndrome was, and how to identify it. These stories were popular, and as they soared in readership other terms began to appear. 

Suddenly, your relationship wasn’t complicated, it was “toxic”. Your work wasn’t draining, you were experiencing “burnout”. You weren’t supporting a friend, you were being forced to carry their “emotional labour”. Despite not being listed in any reputable psychology journal, such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, these newly discovered phenomena increasingly borrowed language from established medical conditions.  Dysmorphia is the phrase en vogue to describe many modern neuroses – productivity dysmorphia (an “unhealthy relationship with professional achievements” in which you see yourself as having achieved less than you have in reality); money dysmorphia (which has been described as both having less money than you realise as well as having more); Zoom dysmorphia and Snapchat dysmorphia. These new terms all borrow the language used to describe body dysmorphic disorder.

The last two are in some cases valid. Zoom dysmorphia and Snapchat dysmorphia describe a new form of body dysmorphia. The increased number of facial filters available to use on video call technology or social media apps, has had an affect on the way people see their faces. This anxiety has prompted a spike in plastic surgery, with patients asking for their faces to be changed to look more like the filter. Women’s magazine articles that often use these terms, however, do not treat the conditions with much seriousness. Instead, they often resort to listicle articles full of “tips” that recommend remedies such as “Go deeper within yourself and pay attention to the quality of work you are doing instead” and “protect your mental health”.

It’d be easy to dismiss this trend as millennials grappling to call something an affliction that is, ultimately, a personal issue. But these experiences aren’t melodramatic nonsense: they’re widespread and real. Many people are told by the industry, company, or boss that they’re not doing enough, when they are meeting the job requirements. Millennials do suffer from financial insecurity, and the internet is warping how they see our bodies. These are all major, systemic issues. Yet instead of looking at the structural problems with work, generational economic disparity and the educational failure of an age group struggling with financial illiteracy, millennials are delivered stories that make for snackable content. Political problems are somehow made shallow; dressed up with medical language and turned into pop psychology. 

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The problems don’t end with treating social and economic phenomena as if they’re fluff. Creating an oversimplified label to discuss structural challenges misleads people from identifying what is really needed for these structures to change. These terms also make it easier for those in power (for example, a workplace’s management) to shirk their own responsibility to support their employees. As the academic and author of Lost In Work Amelia Horgan wrote on Twitter: “[these new pathologies] can easily be co-opted by management and HR: ‘we have reason to believe you’re not managing your tendency to burnout properly.’”

This is, of course, putting aside the very obvious issues with describing social phenomena as if they’re medical issues. In Refinery29’s article about productivity dysmorphia, the term is hyperlinked to a piece about how one writer’s body dysmorphia has worsened during the pandemic – a serious issue in which 25 per cent of sufferers have attempted suicide. What happens when, in an attempt to coin a catchy term to describe a societal problem much deeper than a single phrase could ever incapsulate, we flatten out medical issues that are in need of attention? We lose not only nuance but perspective on which problems can be solved through individual treatment and which are solved through restructuring our societal makeup.  

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So what, then, is the value of describing these social problems as medical issues? The obvious answer is validation. It feels better to say “I experience an affliction thousands suffer from” than to say you feel bad about yourself at work or struggle to shake the feeling that your life is less secure than it seems. It’s soothing to rely on “syndromes” and “dysmorphias” to prove that your problems are real (both to others and to yourself). But once again, a greater issue is at play: that feeling bad because of money, work, or societal pressure is a legitimate problem, but one that often isn’t recognised as particularly painful or unpleasant, despite dramatically affecting some people’s quality of life. 

These articles give readers another option: a way to redefine their discomfort and make their emotions more valid. But it’s not contradictory to affirm that something feels really bad and to also admit that those feelings are caused by wider societal problems. We can acknowledge that something is painful or challenging without expecting it to be classed in the same way as a medical issue. 

These new pathologies are good for website clicks (as well as for getting tweets to go viral), so editors will keep commissioning and writers will seek out fresh labels to put on millennial malaise. But the unintended impact of distracting from the broader issues that cause these problems will mean that, though these pieces may bring temporary relief and welcome recognition, readers will soon notice that those feelings creep back in. They will be left wondering why all the hundreds of articles aren’t doing much to make this affliction go away. 

[See also: The future of work: the problem with millennial productivity books]

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