Is Art a Form of Therapy?

Illustration: Artwork by Sadia Tariq (May 2022)

by Derek Neal in 3 Quarks Daily: There is a meme on the internet that you probably know, the one that goes, “Men will do x instead of going to therapy.” Here are some examples I’ve just found on Twitter: “Men will memorize every spot on earth instead of going to therapy,” “men would rather work 100 hours a week instead of going to therapy,” and “men would literally go to Mars instead of going to therapy.” The meme can also be used ironically to call into question the effectiveness of therapy (“Men will literally solve their problems instead of going to therapy”), but its main use is to mock men for their hobbies, which are seen as coping mechanisms taking the place of therapy (“men will literally join 10 improv teams instead of going to therapy”). The implicit assumption in this formula is that the best way for men to solve whatever existential problems they may have is to go to therapy. I don’t particularly like this meme, and I don’t think therapy is necessarily the best way for a man to solve his problems (although it may be in some cases), but what do I know? I’m setting myself up for this response: “men will write a 2,500-word essay about why you shouldn’t go to therapy instead of going to therapy.” Fair enough. I should specify that I don’t have an issue with therapy itself; instead, I have an issue with a phenomenon I find pervasive in contemporary American culture, which is the assumption that therapy is a sort of magic cure for any ills one may have.

If you need to be convinced of the cultural capital that therapy currently holds, just turn on any reality TV show. All the characters will mention how they go to therapy or how they want to go therapy. In the same way that certain men 10 or so years ago would proclaim themselves as feminists in order to become more attractive to a certain type of woman, now men will say that they’re going to therapy for the same reason. Going to therapy is a sign of maturity, of growth, of “healing”. We are all in a perpetual state of healing, a journey that has no end, or so I’m told. To cite one recent example, in season 6 of Love is Blind, a Netflix show in which people talk to each other without ever seeing each other, and then, in some cases, propose marriage to one another, a man named Clay repeatedly emphasizes to the woman he’s proposed to, named AD, that he’s gone to therapy and he’s continuing to go to therapy, and AD finds this attractive. He’s working on himself, and this shows him to be a mature and desirable partner. I found this shocking. I have never been to therapy, but if I do go one day, I certainly won’t go around publicizing this fact as part of my social identity. Of course, this is all the more reason why I need to go to therapy, isn’t it?

To avoid misinterpretation, it would be a good idea to differentiate real therapy from the watered-down version frequently encountered on social media and reality TV. Good therapy, I imagine, is all about looking at yourself honestly. Recognizing your faults, your errors, but also acknowledging your strengths and positive qualities. Seeing yourself as you are; knowing yourself. The kind of therapy I see “in the air,” so to speak, does not always take this form. Instead, people seem to wield therapeutic jargon as a source of power, allowing them to preserve their solipsistic worldview and avoid a confrontation with reality.

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