Politics & Policy

Go Ahead, Be Repressed

Talk can be dangerous.

No sooner had the Indian reservation of Red Lake, Minn., suffered a horrific school shooting than the grief-related clichés began rolling in. The school’s principal described a meeting as a chance to “share our feelings.” One of the many counseling experts on the scene advised teachers to “encourage students to talk about their emotions.”

The bereaved, it turns out, weren’t so eager to “share.” The Washington Post reported that some grief counselors were sitting alone at the makeshift grief centers, because tribal members wanted only to talk in private, with loved ones. The counselors have the best of intentions, but whenever such a tragedy strikes, it brings to mind an old New Yorker cartoon. Two cowboys look at something in the distance. “Hard to tell from here,” one of them comments. “Could be buzzards, could be grief counselors.”

The descent of the counselors on Red Lake is in keeping with an article of contemporary American faith: The talking cure cures all. Expressing or dwelling on your emotions eases grief, cures cancer, lifts your spirits and enhances self-understanding. Yes, many people benefit from therapy, and the depressed and mentally ill should seek help. But our belief in the miraculous power of talk is as unjustified as it is pervasive, according to Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel in their new book, One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance.

“The universal prescription for trauma [is to] talk about it with any trusted person who will listen,” writes one psychologist, capturing the therapeutic conventional wisdom.

But it’s not so. Studies of earthquake victims and Gulf War veterans show that talking about their experiences didn’t have any effect on their trauma-related anxiety one way or the other.

Such is our faith in talk that it has become widely accepted that if cancer patients attend group-therapy sessions they are likely to survive longer. If only it were true. An extensive 2001 study by Pamela Goodwin–an oncologist worried that patients felt obliged to participate in group therapy–found that “expressive group therapy does not prolong survival in women with metastatic breast cancer.”

Those disinclined to share their emotions might actually be harmed if forced to participate in therapy. In a Montreal study, heart-attack victims with a repressive coping style–i.e., they just don’t want to talk about it–who received monthly phone calls to monitor their “psychological distress” became more psychologically distressed. They were more likely to visit the emergency room or be prescribed tranquilizers than repressors who were left (blessedly) alone.

In a passage that will lift the spirits (although they won’t tell you about it) of repressives everywhere, Sommers and Satel summarize the research thusly: Repressors “report less internal conflict, test better at solving problems, exhibit better social skills and have higher education performance. Repressors report less depression, are more popular with peers, are given higher teacher ratings and report better self-image.” In other words, they sound pretty “well adjusted.”

Dwelling on your feelings can be a problem, especially if you’re feeling down. A researcher who compared depressed individuals told to ruminate on their feelings with those not so instructed found that over-thinking tends to “impose a lens that shows a distorted, narrow view of our world.” Indeed, it can “take you down paths to hopelessness, self-hate and immobility.”

All of this means that there is a risk in forcing therapy on the bereaved, who might be perfectly capable of handling their loss on their own (some people, of course, will not).

A 2000 study by University of Memphis researchers found that nearly 40 percent of those “receiving grief therapy actually fared worse than a matched group not receiving treatment.” A 2003 report by the Center for the Advancement of Health found that grief counseling and therapy “may not always be effective, and in some cases may be harmful.”

It is enough to make many of us want to join Sommers and Satel in saying, “Thank you for not sharing.”

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

(c) 2004 King Features Syndicate

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