- We are increasingly subjected to messages meant to persuade rather than inform.
- This current of persuasion exists intra-psychically, often unconsciously, and with negative consequences.
- A compassionate, relational concern with "what is real" is the primary task and the ultimate point of all good psychotherapy.
“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” So begins Harry Frankfurt’s 2005 essay, “On Bullshit.” Frankfurt differentiates the liar from the bullshitter. While a lie exists along a continuum that contains the truth and thus, in a certain sense, honors the idea that there is a truth and that the truth is important, bullshit is entirely independent of any consideration of the truth. Bullshit may be factually correct or not, but whether it is or isn’t is beside the point. The point of bullshit is simply to persuade.
Frankfurt’s essay, which I encountered only recently though he published it in book form almost 20 years ago, has clarified an aspect of my personality for me. I have always been enervated by bullshit and drawn to what is real. This is, I think, what has pulled me toward many of my most cherished pursuits. Of course, I bullshit plenty, typically playfully but often with an agenda to avoid or reassure; sometimes consciously, often (I’m sure) not; as Frankfurt wrote, “Each of us contributes his share.” Yet I am most alive when I am in pursuit of what is real–really felt, really deeply thought, most wisely known. This, perhaps, most succinctly captures why I have chosen to do this work as a psychotherapist.
The psychotherapy consulting room can be–should be–a haven from all the bullshit. And in our culture, there certainly is quite a lot of it to take shelter from. Much of the bullshit flying around is obvious. To our modern ears, virtually any advertisement now is transparently bullshit, presenting a serious problem to marketers. If bullshit is too obvious, it tastes very bad and simply won’t go down all the way. So the turn towards irony in many ads these days is a skillful jujitsu maneuver to keep us engaged in what we would otherwise immediately recognize and disrespect as bullshit.
Imagine for a moment an earnest proffering of property insurance. This obviously wouldn’t fly. Instead, we’re in on the joke with the rascally likable guy playing Mayhem; if we’re genuinely amused, on that level, we can experience the ad as real, and we can rest assured that we are not being duped and our attention is justified. Of course, we’re being duped because the joke, while maybe legitimately amusing, is sleight of hand, successfully persuading us to pay attention to the proffering of property insurance, which we almost certainly really don’t want to do. In the project of bullshitting, irony has become one of our culture’s sharpest tools.
That politician's bullshit is axiomatic. We are so exhausted by this that when a candidate doesn’t bullshit for a moment, or at least doesn’t seem to, he or she has a legitimate shot at an election, almost regardless of anything else that’s true about them (provided of course they are sufficiently bankrolled). But our everyday culture greases the way for the performative poses of our leaders; throughout the day, we often perform for each other.
A recent trip to Iceland initially left me feeling distinctly disliked by the locals. Why was no one glad to see me? It took me several days to realize that they were simply indifferent to my presence, as, of course, one would assume they’d reasonably be and made no effort to reassure me otherwise. They were perfectly ready to laugh at my joke if–and only if–they thought it was funny. They felt no pressure to bullshit me, a cultural freedom that I came to appreciate greatly.
But in our culture, we spend a great deal of energy reassuring each other that we like each other (even when we don’t), that we’re glad to see each other (even when we’re not), and that we’re amused even by each other’s lamest quips. A good deal of this is just good old-fashioned friendliness, which I happen to value and have no desire to exterminate. But when does it become all too much bullshit? When is the volume of bullshit in our lives a serious problem, keeping us from a more honest, meaningful, and satisfying life?
And how do we know if we’re bullshitting even inside our heads? Again, the purpose of bullshit is to persuade, and we are enormously motivated to persuade ourselves of all kinds of things we would much prefer to be true. This persuasion is successful only in the absence of any real inquiry into how true that thing actually is. Often the bullshitter is unaware of his bullshitting, particularly if the bullshitting began long ago and only becomes apparent (if it ever does) at some point down some unfortunate road. This is commonly a point when people enter my therapy practice.
In my first session with folks, I’ll typically begin by asking them why they’ve come to see me. Some years back, a client responded to this question with a very long pause before locking her moist eyes with mine and saying softly but clearly: “I need to be in the real.” Years of bullshitting herself and others (largely regarding a terribly dissatisfying marriage and the narratives that led to her choosing it) had left her utterly out of touch with her true experience, wants and needs, the truth of the compromises she had made, what it all had cost her, and ultimately her self-respect. In the years since, this pursuit of the real has become a touchstone of our work together and increasingly a north star in her life.
We yearn for a life of connection and meaning, a place in human relations and affairs that feels like some authentic expression of who we are. The realization of this yearning is contingent on congruence between our actual needs and the narratives that guide our choices. All too often, we can bullshit ourselves into narratives that would offer convenience if true but in the end, derail our efforts at satisfaction because they are not.
The mandate of good therapy is that we will not bullshit each other, and if we do, we are free to call each other out, hopefully with a twinkle in the eye. We may not ever know what is “true”–such ground may never be reached or may not even exist in the way we might wish it does. But with the right intention and a useful degree of humility, patience, and compassion, we might reliably exist and perhaps even travel along a continuum that is oriented by the idea that to be more fully alive, to be real, we need rooms–in the world and within our psyches–where we leave the bullshit at the door.
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