How Therapy and “Self-Care” Usurped Religion

November 29, 2022 | Tara Isabella Burton
About the author: Tara Isabella Burton is the author of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World and the forthcoming Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic​Granta, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.

Examining the modish “gospel of self-actualization” expressed in countless online articles and social-media feeds, Tara Isabella Burton observes that “the pursuit of private happiness has increasingly become culturally celebrated as the ultimate goal . . . at the expense of our sense of communal obligations.” Burton finds here the language of psychotherapy, often with much of its meaning gutted, transformed into a moral imperative for “self-care.”

It is easy to be cynical about the proliferation of therapy culture and the attendant self-focus it promotes. But I believe the growing popularity of therapy discourse is less about generational or cultural selfishness than it is about a cultural hunger: the shared need for a framework to talk about the questions foundational to our existence as human beings and a shared sense that the good life relies on more than just our material circumstances.

Historically, the project of making sense of our lives was often dominated by religion. Our churches, our synagogues, our mosques offered answers to life’s most wrenching questions: Why do we suffer? What is my purpose in life? Why do we keep making the same mistakes over and over? But religious institutions don’t have the cachet, or public trust, that they once did. . . . For some, the language and worldview of therapy fills that gap.

Yet it is precisely [its] rejection of our communal lives that makes therapy culture—at least the version of it on social media and in wellness advertisements—such an imperfect substitute. The idea that we are “authentic” only insofar as we cut ourselves off from one another, that the truest or most fundamental parts of our humanity can be found in our desires and not our obligations, risks cutting us off from one of the most important truths about being human: we are social animals. And while the call to cut off the “toxic” or to pursue the mantra of “live your best life,” or “you are enough” may well serve some of us in individual cases, the normalization of narratives of personal liberation threatens to weaken further our already frayed social bonds.

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