Less TikTok, More Screaming
social media therapists & feeling nothing as an epidemic
Like many, many others, I am hopelessly addicted to my phone. Years ago I had a boyfriend turn on the screen time alerts feature in an effort to help me curb my phone usage—to this day this has done nothing but help me track my steadily increasing dependence. When I’m caught in the endless scroll, I’m aware that my dopamine receptors (or whatever) are being manipulated by the consistent stream of novel stimuli—memes and pictures of hot people and videos of beautiful products blinking at me like a slot machine, and this is likely why I have such a difficult time snapping out of it. At the same time, I’ve successfully dodged most other addictive behaviors, despite possessing a not-insignificant genetic predisposition and a personalty type that leans escapist. So when I find myself actively willing myself not to open TikTok, an app I patently do not enjoy but inevitably spend hours scrolling every time I use it, I have to wonder why this shit has such a hold on me. Like, I’m just laying in bed, not even having fun or feeling joy in any capacity. Why can’t I stop doing it? And how is it that the absence of feeling feels so fucking good?
I return to Max Read’s 2020 Bookforum review of The Twittering Machine often, because it makes a compelling case for the collective addiction to social media that goes deeper than the “dopamine addiction” model. In The Twittering Machine, writer Richard Seymour suggests social media addiction (and subsequent negative behavior on these platforms) is connected to the death drive. We don’t just check our phones incessantly and spend hours scrolling TikTok because our brains are on a dopamine high; we do it because we have a passion for wasting time. Halfway through the review Read wonders, “what if the reason we tweet is because we wish we were dead?” and my brain can’t help but echo the popular TikTok comment section refrain: real, real, real.
It’s easy to make the case that we use social media in order to address some sort of lack in our lives. It’s a way to reach out to others, share ourselves, maybe even achieve fame or creative success. However, most of us know by now that this is rarely the true result of devoted social media usage. Seymour contends we continue to use these platforms even as they actively stand in the way of connection, productivity, and inspiration because self destruction is our actual, unconscious goal. Real life is disappointing, but for most of us not overtly, unbearably tragic or painful, and so we quietly resign ourselves to microdosing death in order to break up the aching monotony. The endless scroll allows us to access the same trancelike, death-adjacent space we enter when we sleep, or daydream, or, I don’t know, orgasm. The primary difference is while these petite morts tend to function as gateways into or out of deep feeling, the trance that accompanies being on your phone makes feeling impossible, and that’s the point.
Our collective surrender to the brain-numbing infinite scroll has fostered an addiction to taming and/or eradicating real human feeling. This obsession is demonstrated by both the widespread usage of these platforms and the actual content that becomes popular within this context. The proliferation of social media therapist-influencers and the particular brand of prescriptive, toothless self-help they peddle is one example of this phenomenon that I feel is worth exploring here.
The ethos of contemporary therapy is highly questionable to begin with, and this has to be addressed before unpacking the implications of disseminating its principles in a highly gamified, fundamentally consumerist online sphere. As it stands, access to therapy hinges on class privilege, adherence to existing social norms, and a whole host of other factors that favor those who already have a safety net. Additionally, mainstream therapy tends to bolster the collective interest in individualistic self-optimization, worsening many of the issues it seeks to resolve in the process. We attend therapy to become our “best” selves, lead our “best” lives, and to signal to others we have done so. We savor the delicious superiority that coincides with telling someone who hurt us to go to therapy and advertise our own attendance on our Hinge profiles to signal our own immanent perfection. Therapy has become a litmus test for social belonging and inherent goodness, a sign that one is aware of and has adapted to the newest standards of how to behave.1
Even without this social signaling, the lessons we learn inside of therapy favor a sort of hyperindividualistic self-sufficiency that encourages clients to prioritize personal growth over communal welfare or institutional change. When you imagine yourself to exist separate from the world around you, and therefore seek to change yourself independent of it, the project of self-improvement becomes about adapting to oppression, rather than working toward a less maddening world. Therapy that prioritizes individual self-improvement with little other context functions to create hypernormal, docile subjects that live in service to power. We become our best selves, not in ways that allow us to find personal peace and better serve the world around us, but in ways that make us better workers and citizens. Even if the system is contributing to our pain, we are actively encouraged to find ways we can fit better into that system. The subtext is always that we have no other option.
As therapy shapes us into obedient subjects, we internalize the idea that a “healthy” person is in control of their emotions, which they demonstrate through following increasingly narrow social scripts. There are countless infographics circulating about the “right” way to deliver an apology, for example. Falling in love with someone too quickly is “toxic,” or “unhealthy” but falling in love too slowly or struggling to connect with others is a problem too, and potentially a sign of narcissism. We make fun of the casually cruel, HR-ified social scripts that circulate the internet every few months, but I think those scripts are just extreme manifestations of a more subtle and insidious belief system that we’ve already bought into: we are supposed to be going to therapy to learn how to control ourselves. No more yelling, public crying, or any version of making a scene. No more being in a bad mood at your stupid fucking job. No more falling madly, deeply in love. The world has rendered you so fragile you might break at any moment under the weight of its cruelty. And you’re too weak to change the world (shh, you are) so you have to live in fear. You must be careful, and quiet, and good. This is how you survive.
When we combine this ideology with the addictive, hypnotic mechanisms of social media, shit starts to get very, very bleak. The Holistic Psychologist Instagram account, run by Dr. Nicole LePera, is a case study in the many ways therapeutic content creation can go sideways. I followed Dr. LePera years ago, intrigued by her trauma-informed therapeutic approach. At the core of Dr. LePera’s methodology is a belief that trauma deeply transforms the nervous system, creating what we think of as mental health disorders. She teaches that we can achieve personal freedom through healing our nervous systems and making changes in our lives that support this healing journey. For this reason, she calls her followers “self healers.”
At the time I found Dr. LePera’a insights to be occasionally helpful, affirming, and thought-provoking, and I still do. Over time though, I began to observe troubling cracks in her ideology and online presence. For one thing, Dr. LePera produces a very high volume of content, posting to Instagram every day and Twitter upwards of ten times a day. In order to accommodate this content schedule, it is necessary to construct new and interesting ways to discuss trauma—how we accumulate it, how we heal from it, who stands in the way of this healing, and on and on. I don’t follow Dr. LePera on twitter, but because I tapped on one of her tweets one time to read the comments, I began seeing truly jarring tweets from her account such as “when’s the first time you remember feeling heartbroken as a child?” in my feed almost daily. Due to the sheer amount of content and the high engagement this content encourages, any engagement at all with The Holistic Psychologist renders her omnipresent, waiting patiently every time you open your phone to remind you that your childhood sucked.
Dr. LePera’s excessive content enumerates the many ways you could have been traumatized as a child, as well as what you may feel as you undergo the sacred process of “self-healing.” Followers of these accounts are told across numerous posts that they are on a “healing journey” that most people in their lives won’t understand. Because they have experienced a “spiritual awakening” they are now inhabiting a superior form of reality that their unenlightened loved ones just won’t understand. Post-awakening, small talk becomes boring, and so do people who don’t directly contribute to our healing. It might be lonely being spiritually superior, but it’s worth it. Even if you’re alone, you will be healed.
The overall tenor of individualism and glorified isolation throughout Dr. LePera’s content is troubling. I understand that there are many, many people for whom going no-contact with family, friends, or ex-partners is a matter of safety and emotional wellbeing. Abuse is no joke, and the harm that can be inflicted between human beings is absolutely real and often devastating. But the frankly overwhelming number of posts about isolating oneself from family and community, considered alongside the persistent messaging that the healing journey fundamentally separates one from others doesn’t sit right with me. There’s something off about an Instagram infographic declaring it’s “valid” to end a lifelong friendship, or not be close to their sibling. While these things are of course “valid,” (at the very least, they’re certainly common) they’re also deeply personal choices that should be carefully considered and regarded with a certain amount of gravity. When we “normalize” something, we are communicating that it no longer needs to be considered. This type of post treats the complex relational dramas that constitute real life as a simple matter, something “valid” and “normal” that we don’t need to think deeply about or truly experience for ourselves.
This push for “normalization,” the need to deem every experience as “valid,” intends to dissolve shame, but instead discourages real human experience and feeling. Once again, we are encouraged to deaden ourselves. I want to work through my complicated feelings about certain friends and family, pursue the question in the books I read and the things I write. I want to talk about it with people. These are real human problems, and it’s not supposed to be simple. I resent the idea that we can deem any such feeling “valid” or “normal” and call it a day. Let me grapple! Let me exist!
Dr. LePera has turned healing into a religion, a lifestyle, and above all, a brand. Surely this woman, possessing a doctorate in psychology and years of clinical experience, doesn’t believe that it’s good for her clients to consume new information about trauma every day of their lives, so much so that they make it a part of their personal identity. And nevertheless she persists! Making new infographics, tweeting, creating memes, because it benefits her to do so. Dr. LePera’s group of “self-healers” are no different from Swifties; they’re fucking stans, a group of consumers easily manipulated because of the emotional relationship they have to the person-as-brand. At least Taylor gave us a few good songs to cathartically cry to before shoving her red scarf down our throats.