A slap in the face for psychobabble

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

There have been and have been far too many words ever since. “I am a work in progress.” “I am overwhelmed by what God is asking me to do and be in this world.” “This is a time of healing.” “I want to be a vessel for love. ‘ (A love boat?) ‘Be careful in your highest moment. Then the devil comes for you.” With that same 21st-century confidence in long-distance, unproven diagnostics, Will Smith has been dubbed “narcissist,” “narcissistic madman,” and, because half-understood jargon always works best in compound form, “gaslighting narcissist”.

“Who on earth talks like that?” I want to ask, but the point is, many do. Over-the-top psycho-babble long ago spread beyond the shrouded hills of Hollywood to people with far less excuse. It’s one thing to talk like you’re the center of a sentimental movie when you are a lot. Quite different if you fill out a Bumble profile as a Deloitte partner.

You will know the way of speaking I am coming up with, but let’s analyze its main characteristics:

A desperate grasp for depth. An emphasis on “humility” that sits alongside an almost Napoleonic sense of central place in the universe (“God is calling me”). Above all, the belief that knowledge of the language and conceptual framework of psychotherapy is the same as emotional depth. I keep coming back to a friend’s incorrigible aperçu. “They don’t talk about their feelings. They talk about talking about their feelings.”

This line captures exactly what bothers me so much. It’s not emotional over-sharing. This is, for the most part, a healthier thing than its opposite. I just don’t think there’s any emotion shared here. The psychological jumble of words mastered by millions of people (“intentionality”, “growth mentality”) gives the impression of hard-won self-knowledge and fearless disclosure. However, what I hear is the sound of nothing. I’m listening to one of those precocious kids who can recite memorized sonnets without really feeling or even fathoming them. No one is as shallow as the demonstratively deep.

Or so brittle. And that’s why the slap was such a story of its time. A man who spent years giving surly advice on self-mastery turned out to be hopeless. (Imagine Deepak Chopra getting into a bar fight.) Smith’s best defense is that he’s in good company. I can’t be the only foreigner in the US who has been reprimanded by someone for not having a therapist who—choosing my words here—seems to have had uneven results with his.

If psychobabble was limited to actors picking up their big certificates, I wouldn’t. But like sand, it gets everywhere. When researching short-term rentals recently, I saw a place that one reviewer praised for showing signs of “self-care” being practiced on the premises. Who, and I ask this time, talks like that?

The most emotionally intelligent people I know are taciturn. These cold fish can sense the unspoken instincts of a voter on their doorstep, the deception of a client on the other end of a phone line, the change in atmosphere in a courtroom, or, within moments of entering a party, who might want company for the night. How they then use the information is often self-serving. But nothing about “empathy” or EQ implies being good. It’s about insights into how people work. It’s a lot harder than parroting the language around it. (Jada Pinkett Smith seems to say “cure” while I say “that.”)

With any luck, the Oscars showed people the core problem of psychobabble: not that it’s vulgar and sleazy, though it’s both, but that it actually fails in itself. It doesn’t reveal things, it shrouds them in a fog. It doesn’t necessarily prevent a personal outburst. It can be a sign of bubbling. There’s a word for that, I remember. Take it from a Brit. It’s a different form of oppression.

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Adam Bradshaw

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