Tell Me What That Means to You
A recurring theme in the therapy influencer corner of social media is the tension between New Age, trauma obsessed “therapy influencers” and their critics. It’s an important conversation to be had, though a confusing one for me as a therapist — and therefore, I imagine, probably confusing for clients, as well.
The camps are as follows: New Age therapy influencers, big name accounts sometimes with hundreds of thousands of followers, seemingly obsessed with trauma as a wide net rather than a specific experience or diagnosis, as well as interventions that are not quite evidence based. They peddle — according to their naysayers — in scientifically unproven concepts such as the inner child, shadow work, self-healing, manifestation and the power of positive thinking, and secret, potentially repressed traumas hiding in our unconscious and causing our current discomfort, dismay, and dysregulation.
Their critics are often more science-minded and social constructionist in character. They emphasize the diagnostic criteria for trauma, noting that trauma (and more specifically, post-traumatic stress disorder) and distress are distinct psychological and emotional experiences. They cite specific evidence based interventions exist to treat a diagnosis of PTSD. They expound on longstanding, widely accepted relational theories, such as attachment theory, to explain the complex experiences of misattunement, rupture, and repair that we all experience in early childhood and over the course of our lives in relationship with others. Frequently, they are more intersectional in their approach, calling out spiritual bypassing, toxic positivity, as well as the lack of accountability of some therapy influencer accounts, and underscoring the importance that mental health practitioners be able to hold an dynamic understanding of their clients various intersections of identity and lived experience.
If it’s not already obvious, there’s a lot that I admire about accounts that are critical of more simplistic — or outright misleading — representations of trauma and healing on social media. Many of these critics are also quick to point out the inherent marketing aspect of social media, and the dubious ways this function of being online interacts with the ethics of being a provider of mental health care. They highlight, again and again, that interacting with pretty, pastel graphics that offer affirmations or psychoeducation is not a substitute for therapy — though certainly wider accessibility of information that normalizes and contextualizes things like stress, anxiety, depression, and the angst we all experience in relationships can certainly be, at times, a good thing.
As with any polarized viewpoints on social media platforms, though, the back and forth can at times get snarky. And, because of the medium itself, provocative rhetoric is what tends to go viral. And as much as I agree with those who are wary and critical of therapy influencers on social media, sometimes, I interact with posts that give me pause. For example, the following tweet from psychodynamic therapist Jonathan Shedler characterizes terms such as “trauma work” and “shadow work” as “silly,” and states that an understanding of and fluency around such ideas is inherent in psychodynamic therapy and psychotherapy more generally.
Lacking from these critiques, however, is a nod to the fact that psychodynamic therapy and psychotherapy more generally both have their origins in Freudian psychoanalysis, an origin that is far from sacrosanct and unproblematic. Similarly, evidence based can be a questionable concept in and of itself. The field and practice of empirical study is undoubtedly an important one — and it exists within institutions (science, academia) that are just as bound and influenced by oppressive power dynamics as any other. Which interventions get studied in the first place, after all? Whose research gets funded? And how are indigenous, ancient, and non-Western ways of being and healing treated by these institutions?
As a therapist who works with clients who bring shadow work or their inner child into the room, I tend to wonder about what it must be like from a client’s perspective to see these viewpoints shared widely by people in positions of power. Of course, for some, it’s probably not such a big deal at all — as with other types of relationships, in the therapeutic world, there are many lids for many pots. (And anyway, a more pressing issue might be who can afford therapy — of any modality, heavy or light on the woo — in the first place?) If you’re a client who does find value and transformation in understanding your shadow, there are therapists who can and will enthusiastically meet you there.
The questions I prefer to ask, when I interact with the clients who have a penchant for these poetic and symbolic ways of understanding themselves, is, “What does that mean to you?” What does it mean to each individual to be engaged with shadow work? Who is the inner child? What do they look like, sound like, and need? What is the emotional experience of talking about them? What is the adult client’s relationship to the memory or image of that younger self? Critics of these concepts often note that even with interventions now as mainstream and ubiquitous as mindfulness, if not handled with care and proper training, have at times been shown to exacerbate anxiety and distress. Certainly, this is important data that I keep at the forefront of my mind often when working with clients. But part of respecting a client’s agency is a willingness to be curious about the language and frameworks that resonate with them in understanding themselves — while simultaneously holding a safe and consistent container for the therapeutic alliance, providing adequate and informed psychoeduation, and even gently challenging clients, when appropriate, with regard to the impact and efficacy of their coping mechanisms. Doing so is a practice in both/and: Both acknowledging that some of the ways folks find to access their own healing may not be strictly evidence based, and that doesn’t mean that those methods are entirely without value.