The American pop psychology/self-help phenomenon is at least as old as the advice in Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack. But for much of our history, despite the success of books like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, it’s been a relatively modest phenomenon, more blip than blimp on the cultural landscape. Starting in the ’70s, however, the pop psychology trickle became a roaring Niagara. Today this mass-media industry is a fixture of the American way of life. If the torrent of self-help books, magazines, websites, TV shows, videos, CDs, and whatnot suddenly ceased, our economy would probably crash and civilization as we know it would end.

“Serious” therapists tend to look askance at this roiling flood–when they’re not recommending it to clients or actually writing it themselves–but it’s therapy that’s given pop psychology its vocabulary and its concepts. “Codependency,” for example–a respectable enough idea about how substance abusers suck in enablers–soon became the oversold, underthought symptom-du-jour for a mountain of books in the ’70s. During the ’80s, what had been the genuine, hard-won therapeutic insights into the impact of childhood trauma on adult life morphed into a monstrous culture of victimhood, in which the bad stuff that happened to people when they were kids became their badges of honor and identity when they’d grown up. Once the language of therapy is out in the popular domain, the Market takes over and does its unholy work, turning the most nuanced ideas and complex arguments into simple-minded mush and pumped-up fads. If the mass market can make a parody of Freud’s work, it can do so to anyone’s.

Still, it does seem that we’re seeing a crude kind of self-correction going on in the pop psychology field. If the cult of victimhood was all the rage a decade and a half ago, the “abuse excuse” its lingua franca, today we’ve veered off in a far more muscular direction, toward what we might call the boot camp of the self-help movement. The avatars of this newer, take-no-prisoners mode, like Drs. Laura and Phil, sell themselves as tough cookies who don’t like whiners and have no patience for the self-indulgent, excessively psychologized narcissism of the “me” generation. There’s a certain kick in watching these pop-psych kung fu experts in action–briskly and efficiently chopping through people’s muddled, messy problems; demolishing in a sentence their pitiful, whimpering attempts to justify themselves. Boy, if we could only whip our own lives into shape with such certainty and so little apparent effort!

In this issue, frequent contributor Michael Ventura takes a mordant look at Dr. Phil and concludes that, while what happens to the poor sacrificial lambs who are the “guests” on his show may be pop entertainment, it isn’t remotely therapeutic. Elsewhere psychologist Paul Pearsall suggests that the endless parade of commonly accepted bromides for self-improvement is simply no match for the vast challenges of making it through life in our complicated world. Both authors shed light on the cardinal weakness of pop psychology: its failure to distinguish between the value of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps and recognizing when life has become far too complex for any simple, programmatic solution.

Even more than this, they remind us of something every halfway conscious human being knows intuitively in his or her bones: no self-help generalizations can replace the comfort and nurture of other human beings when we’re facing the dark night of the soul. Ultimately this is what the therapeutic relationship is all about, and this is what makes it something entirely other than what the Dr. Phils of the world are selling.

Rich Simon

Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.