If I were asked to trace the decline of the American psyche, I suppose I would go to a set of cultural changes that started directly after World War II and built over the next few decades, when writers as diverse as Philip Rieff, Christopher Lasch and Tom Wolfe noticed the emergence of what came to be known as the therapeutic culture.
In earlier cultural epochs, many people derived their self-worth from their relationship with God, or from their ability to be a winner in the commercial marketplace. But in a therapeutic culture people’s sense of self-worth depends on their subjective feelings about themselves. Do I feel good about myself? Do I like me?
From the start, many writers noticed that this ethos often turned people into fragile narcissists. It cut them off from moral traditions and the normal sources of meaning and identity. It pushed them in on themselves, made them self-absorbed, craving public affirmation so they could feel good about themselves. As Lasch wrote in his 1979 book, “The Culture of Narcissism,” such people are plagued by an insecurity that can be “overcome only by seeing his ‘grandiose self’ reflected in the attentions of others.”
Lasch continued: “Plagued by anxiety, depression, vague discontents, a sense of inner emptiness, the ‘psychological man’ of the 20th century seeks neither individual self-aggrandizement nor spiritual transcendence but peace of mind, under conditions that increasingly militate against it.”
Fast forward a few decades, and the sense of lostness and insecurity, which Lasch and many others had seen in nascent form, had transmogrified into a roaring epidemic of psychic pain. By, say, 2010, it began to be clear that we were in the middle of a mental health crisis, with rising depression and suicide rates, an epidemic of hopelessness and despair among the young. Social media became a place where people went begging for attention, validation and affirmation — even if they often found rejection instead.
Before long, safetyism was on the march. This is the assumption that people are so fragile they need to be protected from social harm. Slate magazine proclaimed 2013 “the year of the trigger warning.” Concepts like “microaggression” and “safe spaces” couldn’t have lagged far behind.
This was accompanied by what you might call the elephantiasis of trauma. Once, the word “trauma” referred to brutal physical wounding one might endure in war or through abuse. But usage of the word spread so that it was applied across a range of upsetting experiences.
A mega-bestselling book about trauma, “The Body Keeps the Score,” by Bessel van der Kolk, became the defining cultural artifact of the era. Parul Sehgal wrote a perceptive piece in The New Yorker called “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” noting how many characters in novels, memoirs and TV shows are trying to recover from psychological trauma — from Ted Lasso on down. In January 2022, Vox declared that “trauma” had become “the word of the decade,” noting that there were more than 5,500 podcasts with the word in the title.
For many people, trauma became their source of identity. People began defining themselves by the way they had been hurt.
Apparently, every national phenomenon has to turn into a culture war, and that’s what happened to the psychological crisis. In one camp, there were the coddlers. These were the people who squarely faced how much abuse, mistreatment and pain there was in society. They sought to alter behavior and reform institutions so that no one would feel emotionally unsafe.
The problem is, the coddling approach turned out to be counterproductive. It was based on a series of false ideas that ended up hurting the people it was trying to help.
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt described the first bad idea in “The Coddling of the American Mind.” It was the notion that “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker,” inducing people to look at the wounds in their past and feel debilitated, not stronger.
The second false idea was, “I am a thing to whom things happen.” The traumatized person is cast as a passive victim unable to control his own life. He is defined by suffering and lack of agency.
The third bad idea is, “If I keep you safe, you will be strong.” But overprotective parenting and overprotective school administration don’t produce more resilient children; they produce less resilient ones.
The counterreaction to the coddlers came from what you might call the anti-fragile coalition. This was led by Jordan Peterson and thousands of his lesser imitators — from Sen. Josh Hawley to an army of masculinist influencers. This coalition seemed at first like a bunch of rugged individualists telling the snowflakes of the world to toughen up and stop whining. But you didn’t have to hang around this world long to see that they merely represented the flip side of the fragile victim mindset.
The right-wing victimologists feel beset by hidden forces trying to oppress them, by a culture that conspires to unman them, dark shadowy conspiracies all around. Donald Trump sets the world record for whining about how unfair the world is to him.
As the historian and anthropologist Danielle Carr wrote in an essay in New York magazine, recent right-wing narratives, even J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” often follow the trauma formula: “Take the lamentations about atrophying manhood and falling sperm counts. Call it what you want, but the core idea is always shaped like trauma. Once, we were whole, but now we’re not; now we suffer from a sickness we struggle to grasp or name.”
Left or right, apparently we’re all victims now.
The instability of the self has created an immature public culture — impulsive, dramatic, erratic and cruel. In institution after institution, from churches to schools to nonprofits, the least mature voices dominate and hurl accusations, while the most mature lay low, trying to get through the day.
The people with these loudest voices often operate in that histrionic manner that suggests they are trying to work out personal wounds through political expression. People on all sides genuinely come to believe they are powerless, unwilling to assume any responsibility for their plight — another classic symptom of immaturity.
The core problem here goes back to the therapeutic ethos itself — the way it cuts people off from the larger sources of a moral order; the way it charges people to create yourself by yourself, out of yourself; the way it refuses to recognize the reality that we see ourselves as others see us.
The founders of the therapeutic ethos thought they were creating autonomous individualists who would feel good about themselves. But, as Lasch forecast: “The narcissist depends on others to validate his self-esteem. He cannot live without an admiring audience. His apparent freedom from family ties and institutional constraints does not free him to stand alone or to glory in his individuality. On the contrary, it contributes to his insecurity.”
If we’re going to build a culture in which it is easier to be mature, we’re going to have to throw off some of the tenets of the therapeutic culture. Maturity, now as ever, is understanding that you’re not the center of the universe. The world isn’t a giant story about me.
In a nontherapeutic ethos, people don’t build secure identities on their own. They weave their stable selves out of their commitments to and attachments with others. Their identities are forged as they fulfill their responsibilities as friends, family members, employees, neighbors and citizens. The process is social and other-absorbed; not therapeutic.
Maturity in this alternative ethos is achieved by getting out of your own selfish point of view and developing the ability to absorb, understand and inhabit the views of others.
Mature people are calm amid the storm because their perception lets them see the present challenges from a long-term vantage. They know that feeling crappy about yourself sometimes is a normal part of life. They are considerate to and gracious toward others because they can see situations from multiple perspectives. They can withstand setbacks because they have pointed their life toward some concrete moral goal.
David Bednar, a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, once observed that “one of the greatest indicators of our own spiritual maturity is revealed in how we respond to the weaknesses, the inexperience and the potentially offensive actions of others.”
In other words, a sign of maturity is the ability to respond with understanding when other people have done something stupid and given you the opportunity to feel superior.
The best life is a series of daring explorations launched from a secure base. The therapeutic culture undermined that inner security for several generations of Americans. Maybe we can try to build a culture around the ideal of maturity, and its quiet strength.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.