Lost in self
A young man came to my house today to buy a piece of unwanted furniture and that went smoothly enough but my sense of his desperate need to talk about his problems has stayed with me. I didn’t tell him I’d trained and worked as a psychologist; I didn’t ask him any questions and once he began to tell his most personal and sad story, I didn’t encourage him other than by being a good listener and not telling him to stop. It was a strange and deeply one-sided interaction. The young man had absolutely no interest in me and his sharing had nothing at all to do with relationship. He just had this overwhelming need to unburden himself and as I listened and made sympathetic noises I had a sense that he’d rehearsed his own sad story many, many times, either to himself or to others on-line. He was, in effect, lost in himself.
I find myself in situations like this a lot and not just with strangers. To some extent it has made me cautious and ill at ease in social situations. The general Zeitgeist of our times is that there is no such thing as a private life. Reality television, confessional talk shows like those of Oprah Winfrey and Jeremy Kyle and the press’ colonisation of the intimate lives of celebrities is evidence of this.
Maybe I should be pleased about this phenomenon of people unburdening themselves and disclosing the intimate details of what would once have been kept secret just a couple of decades ago. After all, this self-analysis and sharing of intimate personal details must have something to do with psychology’s success and the fact that it is so mainstream? On the other hand, I wonder if people’s mental health is best served through this opening up on an uncensored and often, although not always, purely financially motivated basis? Obviously, I don’t include what happens between appropriately qualified and regulated mental health and therapeutic professionals and their clients within their boundaried and confidential sessions together.
Either way, I am uncomfortable about complete strangers telling me of their relationship problems, broken families and personal grief. Maybe my good listening helps them feel unburdened, perhaps it clarifies the possible choices they might make or maybe they have an inkling of my background and think I can give them some professional help. The fact is, professional support or therapy can only happen when there is an explicit contract for this to happen. This protects both the client and the professional by setting some parameters and realistic expectations for the interaction.
Many people use the phrase ‘professional relationship’ to describe what happens between clients and mental health professionals but I’m of the same view as novelist E.M. Forster, who wrote in his famous novel ‘A Passage to India’, “where there is formality, all relationships suffer.” Real relationships don’t allocate time and set fees but they do require a degree of reciprocity. If I listen to my friend’s or relative’s story, the deal is that they listen to mine, unless the situation involves a parent and child and that’s an entirely different scenario. If you never have your own story or needs listened to, the relationship isn’t going to work and nobody develops or learns a great deal.
This seemingly contemporary trend towards extreme introspection and becoming lost in self at the expense of relationship, personal maturity and psychological health, may well have something to do with the advance of technology and its involvement in our personal lives. Some people blame technology and social media for the social and emotional problems of our times but I think that is naive and simplistic. It is a much more ‘chicken and egg’ situation in that we only have the technology and social media that we do as a result of the values that society has produced and society isn’t something that is separate from ourselves. We all, to some degree, are society. If our values don’t happen to place relationship between people as intrinsically precious and important and if we support the commodification of same through allowing ourselves and our friendships and relationships to be part of a global business initiative, then we can expect the sort of social media that we currently have, i.e. one in which people allow those whom they have never met or care about to know the detail of their lives and to call themselves ‘friends’.
I watched a Netflix documentary called the ‘Social Dilemma’ this week. It was a fascinating critique of social media and new technology from individuals who had developed and managed some of the giant brands such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and TikTok. Whilst it acknowledged many of the gains it also painted a pretty bleak future for humanity unless more humane and ethical technology was promoted and required. I can’t do justice to its arguments and rationale, which were extensive, but there was one voice, that of Tristan Harris, former design ethicist from Google and co-founder of The Center for Humane Technology, that rang out particularly loud and clear for me. His points about the ‘tech’ industry’s need to lose the “corrosive business model” that is “manipulating individuals’ psychology” and reducing people to the status of an extractable resource or product, seemed relevant and important in this time when many people seem to have become so disconnected from others as they search for themselves