The November 25 edition of the New York Times Sunday Magazine has a headline that reads ‘What Brand is Your Therapist?’ The story, ‘The Branding Cure: My so-called career as a therapist,’ is written by Lori Gottlieb, herself a newly practicing psychologist. She describes – and mostly deplores – the trend towards people finding therapists online and the way that some therapists are encouraged to market themselves on the web. There are ‘branding consultants’ who specialize in helping psychotherapists, at least in California, and they recommend among other things, the use of warm and inviting websites, Facebook business pages, and Twitter accounts where prospective clients can get to know the counselor a bit more personally.
As a therapist who has all three my interest in Gottlieb’s story was piqued. On what basis did her skepticism rest? As a relatively young therapist, it’s a safe bet she’s not a tech Luddite, like some of my contemporaries.
I soon learned the article is an example of much that is wrong with ‘traditional’ therapy. It turns out that Gottlieb was trained psychodynamically, with the same tired old dogma about how the therapist has to be a ‘tabula rosa’ so that the ‘transference’ is unsullied.
In the world of old school analytically informed thought, therapy is a place to pursue self-knowledge in a leisurely, drawn out way, over a period of years. It is the kind of thing Woody Allen did to get more creative. It’s as much a method of self-enlightment as it is a way to cure mental illness or even help with concrete life issues. Gottlieb’s branding consultant tells her, “Nobody wants therapy anymore….they want to buy a solution to a problem” and Gottlieb mourns the therapy she studied so hard in grad school to provide. She appears oblivious to the social class privilege of the psychodynamic approach.
Psychoanalysis is an inherently elitist modality. Few people have the time or money to indulge in years of self-exploration. Most people don’t come to therapy for ‘insight.’ They come because they are in pain, and they want to get out of pain as quickly as possible. Sure, some stay on and do ‘deeper’ work, but at some point long-term psychotherapy becomes about quality of life, not curing mental disease. In other words, some people do stick around to do the ‘deep work’ Gottlieb extolls – people who aren’t really that emotionally disturbed but want to maximize their potential. People who are not in crisis or any serious life trouble, who have the money, the time.
As a shrink myself, I’ve been in therapy more times than I can count. The most recent began after my daughter died in 2004, and in the immediate aftermath you can be damn sure I wanted my therapist to give me advice if I needed it, and quickly. Eight and half years later, I still go sometimes – but I am aware that it’s a luxury I give myself, the luxury of having a smart person who I love unconditionally and who feels the same about me, who shares many of my values, who knows me inside and out – and yet has no stake in the outcome of my life other than that I be happy. What I do now in therapy resembles Gottlieb’s vision, I suppose – but it’s not why I started therapy.
And so yes, people coming to therapy today want problems solved, they want direct advice – they want coaching and life strategies, and they want it fairly rapidly. Why not? If I can give a client useful advice – I think the psychobabble for this is ‘psycheducation’ – why make them wait weeks to figure it out themselves? Any seasoned therapist will know therapy already IS a mix of insight, techniques aimed at symptom reduction – and life coaching.
And people also want to know about their therapist- and why should they not have that right, as well? One could argue that for many professions a persons beliefs, values, lifestyle and preferences are largely irrelevant. Not so for psychotherapy. I WANT to know my therapists beliefs, particularly as they relate to gender issues, appreciation of diversity, and social justice. A few months ago I nixed a therapist I was strongly drawn to working with after I learned from his Facebook page that he is a rabid Rush Limbaugh fan. I would have felt very betrayed if I was working with this long-haired hippie-looking guy and he spouted out one of the racist and classist beliefs I saw on his page- I was relieved I found out in advance.
Personality, background, lifestyle, beliefs and values are important because they influence therapy whether or not we want it to. That’s why women often want to work with female therapists, black with black therapists, gay people with LGBT counselors. We see that as legitimate, for the most part – why not choose a therapist on other things you have in common? All things being equal, I’d rather see a therapist with children if I want family therapy, because it’s hard to appreciate the role of a parent until you have been one. And I’d rather work with a female therapist who has had a strong career as opposed to one who has been mostly a stay at home mom, because the former is more likely to understand the never-ending struggle to balance home and work that have been a theme of my life.
And if you read all the examples of ‘branding’ suggested to Gottlieb – they amount to self-disclosure, revealing one’s character as a therapist – and describing the kinds of real-life problems you can help people with. What’s wrong with that kind of ‘branding?’ I’m sure she does not intend this, but Gottlieb’s view is a bit paternalistic – we therapists know best what to reveal and not, what to tell you and what to hold back – in short, we know what is best for you.
As for the ‘crass’ business aspect of branding and marketing – get over it. Therapists often get a bit self-important. We are not pursuing a holy calling. If we are taking money for what we do, we are business people, and if we are in private practice we are entrepeneurs.
I know my colleagues will be buzzing about this article, and most will agree with Gottlieb, bemoaning the good old days when clients lay down on couches and didn’t even see the therapist. As for me, I see this trend, paradoxically, as a chance for therapists to be more authentic, to reveal more of their true selves. And an opportunity for prospective clients of therapists to act like informed consumers and thereby become increasingly empowered.