The over-examined life

The pernicious, underlying morality of therapy culture.

Kate Whitaker

January 6, 2023

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates utters the words, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But who does the examination? Today, we are assailed by a team of experts at every corner. Every personal problem expounded on Twitter is met with a wave of freshman psychology majors urging the poster to “go to therapy” or using and overusing psychiatric terms so much that they’re memed into oblivion (see: gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss). Every nice act is “love bombing.” Every spat with a friend makes them a “toxic person.” That the phrase is eerily reminiscent of Scientology’s “suppressive persons” seems lost on those who use it. Therapy is a cure-all, an unquestioned good, necessary for everyone to find their “true selves.”

In fact, therapy and the modern science of psychology that informs it are anything but absolute benefits to either patients or society at large. Embedded in psychology’s tenets is an implicit affirmation of a sociopolitical and moral system, liberalism. This entanglement is deep and long-lasting, and, ultimately, with therapy as their vehicle, the failures of liberalism manifest in all of our psyches.

To see this underlying liberal morality, let us look to three of the fathers of modern psychology. Scholars have been concerned with the workings of the mind since the pre-Socratics, but what we know as experimental psychology today—a scientific field with specific methods and axioms—emerged in the 1800s from an unlikely source. John Stuart Mill, the philosopher and political economist known chiefly as an advocate for liberty and utilitarianism, has also been credited with developing prior scholarship on cognition into a systematic philosophy. As was common in the nineteenth century, Mill believed that a person’s past and present treatment influenced their psychology, behavior, and character. Writing of human nature’s “astonishing pliability,” Mill proposed the creation of a new science called “ethology,” which would study how upbringing and environment formed a person’s mind. The moral conclusion he drew from this? Humans, and even whole societies, are perfectible, if only we could shape them correctly; it is our responsibility, then, to learn through the science of ethology how exactly we may do so.

Wilhelm Wundt, another father of psychology, further developed the relationship between societal perfectibility and individual psychology with his apperception theory. Seeking to understand the mental processes that give rise to the “general development of human societies and the creation of joint intellectual results,” Wundt posited that learning was a creative and conscious process by which people could choose to accept or reject new ideas. Through this theory of apperception, he proposed that humans could voluntarily assimilate into civilization through self-education, using everything from art to religious practices as cultural tools for their own psychological benefit. Wundt, therefore, provided the societal perfectibility proposed by Mill the means by which it could be achieved and re-emphasized the importance of choice for personal fulfillment.

The most famous father of psychology, Sigmund Freud, conceived of the human mind as deeply and subconsciously broken. Whereas Wundt approached psychology as the study of conscious thought, Freud focused on how the subconscious could affect mental health. Freud was well-versed in the thought of Mill, and the latter’s utilitarian philosophy served as a foundation for central elements of Freudian psychoanalysis, such as the psychosexual development theory. The theory states that a person goes through five sexual phases as a child and that the suppression of any of these phases would cause neuroses later in life. Freud’s idea that issues arising in childhood, such as sexual repression, lead to subconscious, intrinsic problems later in life remains a central tenet of modern psychology.

Through these three thinkers, we can start to observe liberalism’s implicit moral system taking shape in the field. Mill takes the premise that progress toward an ideal society can be achieved through the study of the mind as his starting point. Wundt assumes the benefit of assimilation to a dominant culture, as well as the importance of choice in self-actualization. And Freud operates upon the assumption that humans are deeply and subconsciously broken, filled with anxieties and disordered instincts that can only be solved by psychology. In post-war America, a technocratic version of the preexisting liberal regime reaches full fruition, advancing the philosophies of these three and many others through “scientific” means. It is no coincidence that modern psychology emerged at the same time as liberal thought and with many of the same figureheads, and that the theoretically neutral discipline now functions as an agent of the political philosophy it owes its existence to.

Further examination of the precepts of this psychological liberalism makes clear their profound implications for how we live our lives. Freud’s psychosexual development theory offers a secular version of the Fall of man in Genesis and the doctrine of original sin. We are sick, not sinful, even as this psychological disease ultimately takes on many of the worst assumptions about original sin. For Freud, our own parents take on the role of Adam and Eve, endowing us with an irreparably perverted nature, and psychoanalysis becomes our baptism. But unlike Christian baptism, Freudian psychoanalysis promises us no escape from the taint of illness; instead, we are left in a state of permanent vulnerability, which necessitates the constant presence of a team of medical professionals.

As sociologist Frank Furedi puts it, a “sick role” allows “exercise of social control through permissive therapeutics.” We relinquish our self-control, choosing either to wallow in our suffering or, as modern psychology would prefer, to hand over the reins to outside expertise in the form of psychiatrists and therapists. These professionals are given license to encroach upon our everyday lives and push us to conform to a dominant culture, one learned in psychiatric programs by way of apperception. As we continue to depend on outside management to regulate our emotions, we even begin to construct a manager inside ourselves. This manager further enforces conformity, outlining what is socially acceptable by making use of the framing of “mental health.” In a vacuum, this self-management can be natural and necessary for a functioning society, as it upholds established social order. But if, as Mill claimed, psychology aims to produce an ideal society by perfecting human nature, we must question which type of society it seeks to bring about or maintain today.

The modern conception of psychology emerged simultaneously with liberalism, so when early psychologists sought social ideals to which to conform their patients, those put forth by liberal political philosophy seemed the perfect fit. The emphasis on self-actualization through choice, both in nominally democratic political systems and capitalistic markets, parallels the belief of early psychologists, like Wundt, in the importance of apperception to personality development.

And just as it is crucial to be a good consumer in the liberal, democratic, capitalist West, so it is in experimental psychology. Think of the consumption that goes into “self-care” and “self-improvement” (to say nothing of the billions of dollars we pay to the pharmaceutical industry to feel better). A night in isn’t truly fulfilling unless you fully maximize your free time, a principle that places a market framing on leisure and typically involves purchasing the right products for the job. Modern life leaves us just dissatisfied enough that we can deceive ourselves into thinking that buying more consumer goods and paying extra for convenience and entertainment will provide us with the fulfillment we desire.

Good citizenship also requires being a good producer and therefore laborer. Think of the term “emotional labor,” coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild. Though often misused to indicate emotional work done in interpersonal relationships, this actually refers to the emotional work that goes into most service jobs. If you are hired as a barista, your job is not only the physical labor of making coffee, but also the emotional labor of being friendly to customers. You must manage your emotions to become the ideal worker, someone who is always happy and eager to help. Thus, the therapist within pushes us to conform to an order that reinforces economic liberalism.

If being healthy means being a functioning member of society, we can see how psychology’s definition of healthiness tacitly accepts liberalism. And liberalism is not merely the condition to which psychology conforms; as I’ve shown, its morals are also embedded in the process of modern psychology itself. The call is coming from inside the house.

As Freud wrote, “It might be said of psychoanalysis that if you give it your little finger, it will soon have your whole hand.” The same could be said of liberalism; aided by psychology, it gradually subsumes all parts of the human experience. Constant talk of human capital exemplifies this trend. Workers have gone from merely selling their labor to branding, marketing, and selling themselves. Sociologist Nikolas Rose observes how people view their lives “as a kind of enterprise, seeking to enhance and capitalize on existence itself through calculated acts and investments.” If this enterprise exists as a series of choices, an industry of expertise—psychology—emerges to tell us which choices to prioritize. We can see this tendency from the earliest history of the discipline, where Wundt encourages assimilation through the power of choice. As Rose points out, this “freedom” ultimately consists of our ability to subject ourselves to constant self-scrutiny and psychologize virtually every aspect of our lives, past and present.

This unending focus on the self also leads to rampant social atomism, another fatal flaw of therapy culture. Starting with Mill’s ethology and developed in Freud’s work on psychosexual development, modern psychology teaches us that others are obstacles to discovering our “true selves.” Take, for example, the role of our parents in Freud’s psychosexual development theory. The object of healing, according to modern psychology, is discovering who you are apart from the influence of others. The implication is that our family, friends, and partners are barriers to our wellness, and if acted upon, this idea leads to the dissolution of our social bonds, leaving us with an empty individualism.

But there is another way: personalism. In his 2009 encyclical Caritas in veritate, Pope Benedict XVI advocates for personalism, a philosophy that places the inherent dignity of the human person at the center of all ethical conduct. While personalism has its roots in theological thought, the notion that humans have intrinsic value need not be religious in nature.

A personalist doctrine for psychology recognizes that the central characteristics of someone’s true, authentic self are their relationships with others. As Pope Benedict writes, “the human creature is defined through interpersonal relations.…It is not by isolation that man establishes his worth, but by placing himself in relation with others and with God.” In contrast to modern psychology’s dependence on expertise, consumption, and social atomism, personalism respects the inner knowledge and goodness that can come from human charity. We all owe it to our own well-being as well as to that of others to recognize the worth of each human person and the resulting responsibility we hold toward them.

But, ultimately, the most important part of wellness comes down to this question: Does therapy culture work? The answer is a resounding no. More than 24 million Americans are on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which primarily treat depression, even though psychologists have known for a while that it is highly unlikely that depression is caused by an imbalance of serotonin. People keep seeking answers to their problems in therapy and modern psychology, despite the fact that self-reported life satisfaction levels have dipped significantly since the 1970s and suicide rates in the West have been climbing for the last twenty years. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome, it seems as though the system that is supposed to be treating our insanity is itself insane.

But why should it stop? The industry is just responding to incentives; if people remain sick, “big psychology” continues to profit. It’s time for something new. If the unexamined life is not worth living, perhaps so, too, is an over-examined one.

Kate Whitaker is a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying classics, religious studies, and law.