Perspective: Is ‘self-care’ culture toxic?

Alex Cochran, Deseret News
Alex Cochran, Deseret News
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You may have heard by now that America is suffering from a “loneliness epidemic.” Earlier this year, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an 80-page document summarizing the many hazards of Americans’ declining social connection. While social engagement has decreased among all age groups, time spent with friends has plummeted by 70% in only two decades among teens and young adults.

Murthy underscores, “Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling — it harms both individual and societal health. It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death.”

It’s no great revelation that social media, with its myriad distractions and often false sense of community, has played its part. But social media has also helped proliferate an illusory therapy-speak and a therapeutic culture that can hamper in-person relationships.

The harm in therapy-speak

Therapy-speak is the casual use of therapeutic terms in nonclinical settings. Instagram and TikTok in particular are saturated in such “therapeutic” content. Examples include describing someone who is acting selfishly as a “narcissist” or referring to an adverse event as “trauma.” David Brooks has noted that while therapeutic culture promises a kind of liberation, it puts adherents at odds with many of the duties and responsibilities necessary for forming meaningful relationships. “Therapy-speak,” meanwhile, has a set of problems that aren’t necessarily found in therapy itself.

Addison, a young mother of three, told us about how “all the quotes and affirmations on Instagram” made her feel like she had things “all figured out.” But when things got harder and heavier, she decided to try real therapy, which was far different than she imagined.

“It wasn’t about blaming the world or others. It was more about understanding my own perspective.”

It was only later she realized, “maybe those Instagram posts were actually part of what created those damaging cycles” — making her “feel the world was against me.” By comparison, her experience working with a qualified therapist led her to consider that “maybe I was the one creating the problem with my outlook.”


Esther Perel, a psychotherapist and expert in building strong and lasting relationships, notes that breaking down stigma around therapy is important, but using therapy-speak absent from the individualized, relational context of a clinical setting can do more harm than good.

“It’s very important to show that therapy is a highly relational, nuanced, and contextual conversation,” Perel states. “That is very different from what you get on TikTok or (Instagram) or your friends in armchairs.”

Seerut K. Chawla, a London-based psychotherapist who rose to prominence as a critic of “Insta-therapy,” similarly cautions that “psychotherapy is conducted within a mutually consensual private relationship that cannot scale.” She argues that by engaging in vague, highly validating pop-psychology, online therapeutic advice often serves only as marketing content, which “gives the appearance of something vaguely related to therapy without offering any of the benefits.”

In therapy, a formal diagnosis can serve as a powerful tool for treatment, but like all good tools, they can be wielded as weapons in the wrong context. For example, the authoritativeness of therapeutic diagnoses or other therapeutic labels can result in one-sided interactions that fail to consider the needs of others or the long-term health of our relationships.

Perel sums it up this way: “I don’t like what you do, so I say you’re gaslighting me. You have a different opinion, and I bring in a term that makes it impossible for you to even enter into a conversation with me. Labeling enables me to not have to deal with you.”


In her article, “Is Therapy-Speak Making Us Selfish,” Rebecca Fishbein describes how “boundaries” and “self-care” can sometimes be invoked to place incontestable demands on others. She notes that there are times when an emphasis on protecting one’s individual needs can “overlook the fact that someone else is on the other side of that boundary-setting.”

“And when you’re on the other side of someone’s perhaps overzealous self-care, the experience can range from annoying, to frustrating, to downright hurtful.”

Debbie had originally gone to therapy because she felt unhappy, with a life driven by meeting all the needs of the people around her. Her husband. Her teenage and adult children.

“When was it my turn?” she recalls asking her therapist in an early session. After being recommended an influential book, “Boundaries,” Debbie admitted beginning to experience a “new life.”

“I was able to serve better because I chose when I would, and when I wouldn’t, so I didn’t resent it.” When she didn’t feel able to support a child or neighbor, she describes saying, “Sorry, I wish I could help” as her “go to.”

However, Debbie eventually began to notice that the focus on taking care of herself “didn’t always align with what was best for my kids, both the teenagers and the grown ones.” Recognizing that she may have “swung too far in one direction,” she began reevaluating.

“Instead of just asking what boundary was best for me, I started considering what was the right boundary, period.”

In his own commentary on therapy culture, Steve Salerno warns against using boundaries as a way to control others. “At first blush, this delineation of boundaries may seem reasonable and innocuous,” he writes. But much of the discussion around boundaries seems to assume “it’s natural and even healthy for your engagement with others to be about your expectations, your wants, your sense of agency, and the validation that you reap from such interactions.”

The isolating effects of this kind of self-focused therapy culture are further compounded by a tendency to pathologize the normal difficulties of relationships. When terms like “narcissism,” “toxic,” “gaslighting” and “trauma” are used to amplify one’s subjective sense of hurt, all conflict essentially becomes abuse. Powerful words can elicit powerful responses, but they can also become cudgels to invalidate other peoples’ perspectives and relieve us of our duties toward them.

The benefits of self-denial and shared values

Therapy culture can be particularly difficult to navigate for the religious. Religion is, by its very nature, about obligations; self-fulfillment may be the end goal, but it comes about in part through a denial of self or exercising self-restraint. If acts of self-denial are characterized as emotionally or psychologically harmful, faith provides a nearly endless supply of grievances in the online wellness community.

Certainly, some religious communities and teachings can be harmfully rigid. And they can also be enforced badly through shame or punishment. Even so, pro-social faith traditions are undeniably important for creating cohesive societies and relationships.

“All the research shows that being part of a community, being married, being part of a church or religious organization, that all of these are associated with greater satisfaction in your personal life,” says Daniel Cox, the director of the Survey Center on American Life and a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Self-denial and shared values help us sand down our jagged edges, which allows us to come into closer proximity to one another. Religious observance teaches individuals how to navigate their wants and needs in light of the reality that others also have wants and needs. To live within certain parameters and to curb our individual desires reflects, far better than words, that other people are real and valuable to us.

We are deeply relational beings, as Murthy’s dire warning makes clear. We cannot self-actualize on our own; our fullest potential and greatest happiness is achieved within relationships to others. Embracing cultural messages to prioritize ourselves above others is antithetical to building that happiness.

Editor’s note: the names of clients in the piece have been modified to protect privacy. 

Meagan Kohler is a Latter-day Saint convert and writer who studied philosophy, French and Latin at BYU. She lives in Utah with her husband and four sons. She writes on Twitter @TresClare. C.D. Cunningham is the managing editor of Public Square Magazine. After graduating from BYU-Idaho, he studied religion at Harvard University.