A slap in the face for psychobabble


Two weeks have passed since an Oscar night that was said to have witnessed the sad triumph of violence over words. On reflection, something nearer the opposite happened.

There were, and have been since, all too many words. “I am a work in progress.” “I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world.” “This is a season for healing.” “I want to be a vessel for love.” (A love boat?) “At your highest moment, be careful. That’s when the devil comes for you.” With that very 21st-century confidence in remote and uncredentialed diagnosis, Will Smith has been called a “narcissist”, a “narcissistic madman” and, because half-understood jargon always works best in compound form, a “gaslighting narcissist”.

“Who on earth talks like this?” I want to ask, but the point is that multitudes do. Overwrought psychobabble long ago diffused beyond the cocooned hilltops of Hollywood to people with much less excuse. It is one thing to talk as though you are the focal point of a sentimental movie when you very often are. It is quite another when you are a Deloitte partner filling out a Bumble profile.

You will know the mode of speech that I am getting at, but let us anatomise its main features:

A desperate grasping for profundity. A stress on being “humble” that sits alongside an almost Napoleonic sense of one’s central place in the universe (“God is calling on me”). Above all, a belief that knowing the language and conceptual framework of psychotherapy is the same thing as having emotional depth. I keep going back to the unimprovable aperçu of a friend. “They don’t talk about their feelings. They talk about talking about their feelings.”

That line captures with precision what it is that so bothers me. It is not emotional over-sharing. That is, for the most part, a healthier thing than its opposite. I just don’t believe that any emotion is being shared here. The psychological word salad that millions of people have mastered (“intentionality”, “growth mindset”) creates the impression of hard-earned self-knowledge and fearless disclosure of it. What I hear, though, is the sound of nothing. I hear one of those precocious children who can recite rote-learned sonnets without quite feeling or even fathoming them. No one is so shallow as the ostentatiously deep.

Or so brittle. And this is why the slap was such a story of its times. A man who has spent years doling out mawkish advice on how to master the self turned out to be hopeless at it. (Imagine Deepak Chopra getting into a pub brawl.) Smith’s best defence is that he is in plentiful company. I can’t be the only foreigner in the US who has been chided for not having a therapist by someone who — choosing my words carefully here — seems to be getting uneven results from theirs.

If psychobabble were confined to actors going up to collect their big certificates, I’d leave it alone. But, like sand, it gets everywhere. Browsing for short-term rentals recently, I saw one place extolled by a reviewer because there were signs of “self-care” being practised on the premises. Who, and I’ll ask it this time, talks like this?

The most emotionally intelligent people I have known are taciturn. These cold fishes can sense the unspoken instincts of a voter on the doorstep, the dissembling of a client on the other end of a phone line, the atmospheric shift in a courtroom or, within moments of entering a party, who might want companionship for the night. How they then use the information is often self-serving. But nothing about “empathy”, or EQ, implies being good. It is about insight into the workings of human beings. It is much harder than parroting the language around it. (Jada Pinkett Smith appears to say “heal” as I say “the”.)

With luck, the Oscars showed people the core problem of psychobabble: not that it is vulgar and smarmy, though it is both, but that it fails even on its own terms. It does not reveal things, it obscures them in a fog. It does not necessarily stave off a personal eruption. It can be a sign of one bubbling. There is, it occurs to me, a word for this kind of thing. Take it from a Brit. It is another form of repression.

Email Janan at [email protected]

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