How therapy-speak turned victimhood into currency
The language of trauma cracked the code of the attention economy and turned mental health into the new luxury item. Also: Malcolm Gladwell, Roger McNamee, Harry Styles, street photography, and more.
📰 This is the Rubesletter from Matt Ruby (comedian, writer, and the creator of Vooza). Sign up to get it in your inbox weekly.
Fine, I’ll play along:
I’m sitting with discomfort, respecting boundaries, and being present while naming the trauma of my lived experience. I’m processing my pain and examining the codependent relationships I’ve participated in due to my avoidant attachment style. I have been attempting to heal this trauma with a combination of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, meditation, and plant medicine. These tools have helped me avoid spiraling as a response to my disorders which include anxiety, depression, and a sprinkling of OCD. As I move forward in my healing journey, I know I need to do the work, be an active listener, hold space, and…
Ugh, I can’t anymore. Sure, there’s truth in all that. But communicating like this offends me as a lover of words. It reeks of mindless therapy-speak and how we keep repeating buzzwords until they’re sapped of meaning.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s good that we’re finally talking about mental health openly. I get it’s been in the shadows too long and pain has been caused by all that hiding, silence, and repression. When I was growing up, words like retard, spaz, wacko, and crazy were tossed around freely and there was no such thing as being “ableist.”
So I guess I should cheer on Prince Harry, Kevin Love, Simone Biles, and the other celebs shining a light on depression and other mental health issues. It encourages others to be open about their issues and lessens the stigma.
There’s something icky about it too. The more we turn our trauma into public revelations, the more it feels like we’re turning victimhood into a form of currency. Plus, it’s yet another way predatory capitalism is fracking us: “He’s being open about his depression…” Great. “…and he’s now a paid spokesman for the online therapy company TalkSpace.” Gross.
It all feeds into a system where we pathologize, over-treat, and over-medicate. Also, it minimizes the challenges faced by those who suffer in a truly depthful way. I know we’re not supposed to compare pain, but something feels off when we lump together PTSD with Seasonal Affective Disorder. “Oh, you’re a war veteran who attempted suicide? I understand. I get totally bummed out by winter.”
Diluting the power of words
Therapy-speak is an attack on language; it dilutes words that once had impact. Let’s get real: Hurt feelings aren’t trauma, conflict isn’t abuse, silence isn’t violence, words aren’t weapons, loving tidiness isn’t OCD, pointing out an argument’s flaws isn’t gaslighting, and mean tweets aren’t death threats. Talking like this renders these words increasingly meaningless.
Consider how we discuss doxxing “attacks” and then imagine explaining them to a senior citizen:
Kid: “It’s an attack where someone publishes your name, address, and phone number in public where anyone can see!”
Senior: ”Um, you mean like the phone book?”
Kid: ”Well, kinda. But now it’s a vicious form of attack that puts someone’s life in danger!”
Senior: ”But…that’s just the white pages of the phone book. We’ve had this forever. They used to drop that info on your doorstep every year.”
Kid: ”This conversation is triggering me. You’re being toxic.”
We’re obsessed with the language of hurt, especially online, because of the benefits to broadcasting one’s pain. Go public with whatever you’re struggling with and you’ll get Likes, followers, and a stream of supportive comments. If you level up, you can get someone fired, pimp your Patreon, or become a spokesperson for some new HealthyTalkBetterMindCalmSpace app.
(Re: these online therapy platforms, I’m sure they’re helpful but it feels bizarre that we’re attempting to treat issues that stem from the most glaring problem we face as a society – addiction to our phones – via apps that require us to spend even more time on our phones. It’s like holding AA meetings inside a brewery. The first step to healing: Put down your goddamn phone.)
Look at Demi Lovato. Because I’ve had to. And I couldn’t care less about Demi Lovato. Nonetheless, upon the release of their (Demi is non-binary now) new album, social media consistently threw their suffering in my face.
Every two weeks, Demi was trending again based on a new mental health reveal. It was like watching a MasterClass on trauma as PR schtick. Here’s Demi’s blueprint:
Discuss addiction issues and overdose
Mention bipolar diagnosis
Reveal past sexual assault
Identify as non-binary
Admit eating disorder
Make a documentary series about your struggles
Release new album
Become face of online therapy platform (hopefully she got a nice piece of their $1.4 billion SPAC deal to go public)
I’m sure Demi has genuinely suffered. But at what point do I stop feeling sorry for them and start feeling like I’m being manipulated?
These sorts of trauma revelations are a bulletproof way to crack the code of the attention economy. But when your pain is communicated via press release on businesswire.com, it’s a little suspicious. One them’s “trying to take away the stigma and taboo of mental illness” is another them’s promotional media tour for a new album that also yields equity in a company set to IPO for $1.4 billion.
“You’re victim blaming! Stop shaming Demi, they’ve overcome so much!” Fine. But it’s weird that we can’t even challenge someone coming forward with their pain, we can only applaud them. Victim narratives offer a cloak of nobility and if you dare to question that narrative, you’re toxic/part of the problem. It’s a clever pre-emptive strike against any form of criticism. Heads: I win. Tails: You’re a jerk.
Ego, self, and class
The benefits to going public in this way are mentioned all the time. But we don’t really talk about how this can also be a manifestation of ego. At the root, often, is the belief that I’m special, that my anxiety/depression/suffering/trauma is wildly different than everyone else’s. It’s a way of elevating my first person narrative and cementing my role as the center of the universe. It’s an I-Me-Mine mentality where the ego gets to indulge itself (look at me) while simultaneously playing the role of the victim (also, feel bad for me).
But what if we’re all suffering? What if we’ve all endured trauma of one sort or another? What if we’re all trying to heal? What if, gulp, I’m just like everybody else? The horror!
Have you noticed how much the word “self” comes up in wellness talk? Self-help, self-care, self-love, etc. The unsaid message: “I’m all about me and taking care of me.” It’s an approach that breeds narcissism and diminishes compassion, which inherently involves letting go of the spotlight and focusing on those around you.
Plus, it lets you do pretty much anything and get away with it if you label it right: “I spent 6 hours watching Netflix and then I ate a pint of Ben & Jerry’s…Self-Care Sunday! I just took a bunch of horse tranquilizers mixed with fentanyl, played Grand Theft Auto for 9 hours, and divorced my wife…Wellness Wednesday!”
(Another big tell is when someone uses the phrase “lived experience.” Isn’t all experience lived? Are they worried their past will be confused with some zombie experience? I’ve come to look at “lived experience” like a pity beacon. Whenever someone uses it, watch out for the woe-is-me tale that’s almost sure to follow.)
It’s not all about you
We’ve gotten so into self-care, we’ve forgotten how to other-care. It's all keto cereal and meditation retreats while stepping over homeless people. You can self-this and self-that, but the solution frequently lies in the more challenging realm of what you do for others. We hate on organized religion, but at least thinking about others is baked into these ancient sects.
These days, we don’t have faith in religion or, for that matter, anything bigger than ourselves: Institutions can’t be trusted, the mainstream media is fake news, history books are filled with lies, and science is up for grabs. The result is the elevation of the “authentic” individual and “trust your gut” personal feelings. Basically, it’s an altar of you.
And then there’s the class/status element to all this. It’s rarely janitors, firefighters, meatpackers, or people who’ve committed to a life of service talking like this. They’ve got to get to work. Every time someone mentions their Myers-Briggs personality type, they’re basically identifying themselves as someone who's got plenty of free time.
In fact, it seems like those who suffer the least drone on about mental health the most. The conversation takes place mostly among wealthy, (usually) white, college-educated people. An obsession with mental health is the new luxury item, a Prada bag for those who’ve renounced possessions but still want status. The unasked question: How do you afford your therapy lifestyle?
The different kinds of compassion
So does this mean you shouldn’t be compassionate when people highlight their suffering? Of course not. (General rule of thumb: Don’t be a monster.)
The trick is to offer the right kind of compassion. Social media is excellent at providing idiot compassion, the kind where we just “Yas Queen!” each other blindly. But sometimes mindful conflict is healthy. I’m not talking about trolling or insulting, I’m talking about wise compassion, the kind that favors healthy confrontation over one’s desire to be polite/pleasant. (Obviously, this is better done via genuine dialogue as opposed to bite-sized back-and-forths on social media.)
Here’s Buddhist nun/scholar Pema Chodron on idiot vs. wise compassion:
[Idiot compassion] refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it’s whats called enabling. It’s the general tendency to give people what they want because you can’t bear to see them suffering. Basically, you’re not giving them what they need. You’re trying to get away from your feeling of I can’t bear to see them suffering. In other words, you’re doing it for yourself. You’re not really doing it for them.
Wise compassion is a heavier lift that requires deep work. Idiot compassion is easier, but it’s a short term fix that doesn’t make anyone’s life better in the long run. Go ahead and offer kind words and a helping hand to those who are genuinely hurting. But if you suspect it’s a more transactional therapy-speak coming from some wannabe TalkSpace spokesperson, don’t be afraid to push back gently (or, y’know, keep it moving) instead of heaping praise upon them.
The alternative is blindly “yes and”ing everyone who uses this kind of language. And eventually it won’t just be bougie, Goop-watching libs who recognize the power of therapy-speak. I mean, just look at these poor folks suffering from mental anguish and severe emotional distress.
It’s so brave of them to go public with their trauma. I hope they are able to heal soon. After all, we must honor their lived experience…riiiiiiight?
Support the Rubesletter
Do you enjoy getting the Rubesletter delivered to your inbox every week? Then please subscribe to the paid plan. Can’t commit to that? I get it. Then please send the signup link to people you think might enjoy it.
🌀 People always talk about raw sewage like it's so bad but I'd be way more concerned about a basement filled with cooked sewage.
🌀 The notion of an Irish Exit just makes me think Irish people are really polite. Thanks for not making it all about you, Irish people!
🌀 Ben Shapiro talks so fast that dumb people think he’s smart.
🌀 Life hack: NEVER take any advice from someone who must spend hours each week talking into a microphone. Howard, Rush, Rogan, Maddow, etc. It doesn't matter who they are. At that point, their lives are all about filling airtime, not being right.
🌀 I drink so many smoothies that fruit must think of me as a serial killer.
🌀 P0rn: MILF
Therapy: MILB (Mother I'd Like to Blame)
🌀 Why don't people trust science?
Science for decades: Shrooms are dangerous, Sweet 'n Low is healthy, you should eat I Can't Believe It's Not Butter.
Science now: Shrooms are medicine, Sweet 'n Low is rat poison, it shoulda been called I Can't Believe It's Not Lung Cancer.
🌀 Dear People Who Aren't Sure What They Want To Drink,
It's a bar. You've been to one before, right? Order what you got last time. If that sucked, go for what you got the time before. No need to reinvent the wheel every time you go out.
People Behind You at the Bar
🌀 I like how girls who are basic have a drink for every season...
Spring = kale smoothies
Summer = rosé
Fall = pumpkin spice latte
Winter = White Claw in Tulum
🌀 I need a documentary just on 80s NYC and how wacky that shit was. Bernie Goetz, Ed Koch, Phil Donahue, Central Park jogger, all those riots, the preppie murder, etc. I grew up thinking that was all normal and now I’m like WTF!?
🌀 Comedy shows now:
1) Everyone shows proof of vaccine
2) Everyone puts phone in sealed envelope for 2hrs
3) Strangers come together in a shared space in order to laugh
Even if there were NO comedians, that combo is worth every penny. It feels less like a show & more like the antidote.
🌀 "88-year-old CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-Iowa) announced that he is running for reelection" - If some 88yo dude showed up as your Uber driver, you'd be like hell no, I ain't getting in that car. Yet somehow he gets the keys to the country. Madness.
🌀 My parents were Jewish but not hardcore Jewish – like we were never "order Chinese food on Christmas Eve" Jewish, y'know?
🌀 I prefer home improvement videos to cooking videos because the guy teaching you how to fix a sink never has to tell you about his life history. It's never "Before I show you which wrench to choose, let me tell you about my grandma's hometown in Sicily."
🌀 People underestimate honesty as a life hack. Explaining lies is a huge waste of energy and forces you into performance mode. Plus, the truth is way easier to remember because, well, it happened.
🌀 It’s funny how all the people who refuse to wear masks are still willing to wear terrible sunglasses. Um, do you care what your face looks like or not? Because I’d def rather wear a N95 than a gross pair of Oakleys.
🌀 Men used to fight wars, work construction on a beam in the sky, & go out on fishing boats for months at a time. Now we just check IG, read comic books, play video games, & talk crypto. The problem isn't toxic masculinity, it's that actual masculinity barely exists anymore.
🌀 When my dad was dying of cancer, he was convinced his nurse was poisoning him. I kept thinking, "She doesn’t have to poison you. God already did that."
🌀 Re: "Libertarian" Peter Thiel
-Libertarians love privacy and free speech.
-Thiel founded Palantir (an evil data mining company) and declared war on freedom of the press (secretly funding lawsuit against Gawker).
-If he's a Libertarian, he's really bad at it.
1️⃣ On plastics and beauty. Excerpt from Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney.
My theory is that human beings lost the instinct for beauty in 1976, when plastics became the most widespread material in existence. You can actually see the change in process if you look at street photography from before and after 1976. I know we have good reason to be sceptical of aesthetic nostalgia, but the fact remains that before the 1970s, people wore durable clothes of wool and cotton, stored drinks in glass bottles, wrapped food produce in paper, and filled their houses with sturdy wooden furniture. Now a majority of objects in our visual environment are made of plastic, the ugliest substance on earth, a material which when dyed does not take on colour but actually exudes colour, in an inimitably ugly way. One thing a government could do with my approval (and there aren’t many) would be to prohibit the production of each and every form of plastic not urgently necessary for the maintenance of human life.
2️⃣ How Business Models Have Shaped Big Tech. Roger McNamee (interviewed by Kurt Andersen).
We live at a moment in time when our democracy is under assault from within and the tool that those who are trying to defeat democracy are using is Internet platforms. And we are in this incredibly awkward situation where in order to save democracy, in order to end the Covid pandemic, in order to restore people's right to make their own choices, in order to restore capitalism to the kind of competitive, vibrant thing that it is in its best days, we have to force radical changes to the business models of the very companies on which democracy deliberates its choices. That's very much equivalent to changing a tire on a car while you're moving…
For Facebook, for YouTube, for Instagram, Twitter and for other platforms that are out there which use recommendation engines, driving people towards more extreme groups, more extreme ideas, more extreme behaviors is essential to the business, which is why when people say, well, you just need to add more moderators to clean it up, I mean, that's ridiculous. That, that is literally like trying to, you know, clear weeds by trimming the very tops of the weed. You know, if you don't take the roots out, you are stuck.
3️⃣ It’s fun when a musician you think you don’t like does a cover you think you don’t like and you’re like “Maybe I’m wrong more than I think.”
4️⃣ An introvert's guide to street photography by Dina Litovsky.
My first street images were mostly sleeping people and side shots taken with trembling hands. I thought they were poetic. Bruce Gilden, infamous street photographer and my mentor, thought otherwise. He immediately recognized them as evasive and timid. I can't quite recall if he used the word "trash" or I imagined it in my hazy moment of defeat, but I do remember I cried. Defensively, I whipped out the social phobia card expecting sympathy. What I got was possibly the best advice of my career. "Who cares?"
"You either get over it or get out of the game." Bruce never minced words.
5️⃣ Are we repeating the cancel culture of the 1950s? Malcolm Gladwell advocates for the possibility of redemption. He composed a speech that he wishes the editors of Teen Vogue had given to their staff, in the midst of the Alexi McCammond controversy:
We have hired Alexi McCammond as our new editor-in-chief, because we believe she is a fine journalist. But in doing so, we have taken a chance. We have gambled that she is not the same person at 27 that she was 17, and we have gambled that when she says she is genuinely remorseful about what she said when she was a teenager that she is telling the truth. We would ask all of you to take the same chance on her. Because there can be no genuine diversity for anyone in the workplace if we are not willing to extend that basic human courtesy to others.
Before you pass judgement on who she is, or what she believes, or the threat she poses to your wellbeing, meet her. Talk to her. Challenge her. Take the measure of her—see if she is willing to convince you of her transformation. And at the same time, take the opportunity to learn something equally valuable about yourself: that you are able to offer forgiveness to others, even when you know that at some point in the past they said things that were profoundly hurtful to you. We are a magazine that intends to instruct young people on how to become enlightened and informed adults. If we cannot be open to the possibility of another's redemption, then why do we publish this magazine every day?
Thanks for reading!
P.S. You can support the Rubesletter by sharing this with a friend and/or subscribing to the paid plan…
The end stuff
I'd love to hear from you – just leave a comment or hit reply/send an email email to firstname.lastname@example.org (I read/reply to all messages).
If you’re reading this via email, clicking the headline up top will always take you to a web version.
If you got this from a friend and would like to subscribe, you can sign up here.
Check the archive for back issues. Lots of good stuff there.
About the Rubesletter: Weekly musings from a standup comedian and startup veteran. If you like my comedy or writing, if you dig tech, politics, art, wellness, & pop culture, if you enjoy smart/nuanced takes & hate BS, if you’d like me to turn you on to other people making cool stuff, then subscribe.
Social media: Find me on Twitter (@mattruby), Instagram (@rubymatt), or YouTube.
My latest standup special is free on YouTube. And you can stream my standup albums “Feels Like Matt Ruby” and “Hot Flashes” too.
You nailed my sentiments so many times in this article but especially when you said, "We have gotten so into self care we have forgotten about other care." This is s hyper focused self centered reality these days. And then there are the many people who want to pretend to stand up for others but really everything is still all about them getting the virtue credit. So even when they act like they are focusing on others its still a self centered action.
There are a ton of us out here in the world who are like you and me though. Probably more of us then there are the victimhood loving, self-centered folk. It's all a sort of collective propaganda that had become a way to divert us away from each other. And so many of the people who spot off on a social media platform, if challenged in a respectful way , are not nearly as extreme as they seem. Glad to know you are helping to spread the word and truly empower people.