We’ve Become Obsessed with Therapy, But It’s Not All That Great

From the Anash.org Inbox: As a parent of young children, I am always on the lookout for how to improve my parenting. But the recent obsession with therapy and secular methods has become overrated and oftentimes destructive.

By Rochel B.

Recently, an article was published on Anash.org by R’ Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin about the importance of taking guidance for life exclusively from Torah.

Following its spirit, I would like to bring attention to two practical issues facing even “Chassidish” Lubavitch today:

As a parent of young children, I am always on the lookout for how to improve my parenting. So when a Chassidish acquaintance excitedly wrote on a group about a WhatsApp support group for parents using the “Nurtured Heart Approach,” I curiously clicked on the invite.

Before I had a chance to open it, I was greeted with a warning that nothing connected to religion could be discussed. This was clearly not a Jewish group that had adopted some techniques from a method that worked for them, but rather a secular group where nothing pertaining to Hashem could be mentioned. How had my acquaintance become so desensitized as to take this course for her children’s chinuch? 

If the reason she chose that was because there was nothing available for chassidishe parents, it isn’t so. There are thankfully quality courses based on Chassidishe values, which I found much more relevant and practical.

I am not saying that there aren’t any other methods that work. But we are selling ourselves and our children short if we educate them with secular methods. We will be raising nice people, but we won’t be reaching their neshama. You can train a horse to run, but you can’t teach him to play chess. The Jewish ‘nefesh habehamis’ is a different animal, never mind the ‘nefesh ha’elokis.’

Therapy has become a big word nowadays. People everywhere are looking for therapists to deal with traumatic experiences, marriage problems, self-image problems, anxiety, OCD, life guidance, and on and on.

Of course, someone who was affected so strongly by an experience that they can’t function to execute decisions may need special treatment to help their mind work. But a regular person with normal hardships should not need to go to therapy to deal with it. For that, we have, as the Rebbe would always say, “Toras Chaim,” a Torah of life.

I would like to share with you my own experience:

At some point, a medication I was taking was causing depression. I was feeling low, and feeling even lower that I had to step back from my happy, active life.

I visited a therapist, but I did not find it empowering. I found my mashpia a lot more sympathetic and uplifting. She spoke about nisyonos, sharing some of her own experiences, instead of the clinical approach of the therapist.

My next therapist experience was when I did some research and found out that psychological tools could help my condition so I wouldn’t need medication. I went to a frum Lubavitch therapist, who assured me that I could use their tools to avoid anything unwanted and go off my medicine. I diligently used the tools I was taught, until I started noticing symptoms that things weren’t right.

When I messaged my therapist about it, his response was, “We’ll talk about it at the next session…” Well, there was no next session since I had to be hospitalized. My poor husband called the therapist to find out what I had last discussed before being hospitalized. As he was about to hang up, he was told he would be billed for the call…

When I was BH released from the hospital, I was resolute to grow. I would serve Hashem with Simcha, and consciously smile and express gratitude, even if there were tears in my eyes. Things quickly began to change for the better, and I was back to giving to others sooner than I had ever dreamed.

I am so grateful to Hashem for changing my situation, and I realize how much I had grown. I felt empowered and saw the changes in myself and my life. By contrast, those I know that are in therapy are not above their challenges; they are wallowing in them.

At one point when I was down, a doctor asked me how I spend my time. When I listed a few communal activities I did, the doctor commented, just make sure you have enough “ME time.” Unsure of what he meant, I asked, “What would you advise I do during ME time?” His response was that I should play games on my phone… 

This epitomizes to me the secular approach: Focus on yourself. Don’t do too much for others. If you do something for others, make sure to refocus on yourself at regular intervals.

This seems to me like plain stupidity. If I need to take a step back, I will certainly do so, but my intention in stepping back is IN ORDER to come back to serving Hashem and others with better energy. I won’t waste time on games which won’t help me. I’ll take a nap or something beneficial for my health.

It’s a Hashem-centered approach vs. a selfish approach. Honestly, my limited communal activities were a lifeline, which allowed me to forget about myself and experience the privilege to do for others, using the talents Hashem gifted me with. Afterward, I would come back home fulfilled, feeling the afterglow for some time.

A final thought:

One advantage that therapists offer over Rabbanim and Mashpiim is the time they give to their clients weekly. The reason is simple: They are paid for their time. Rabbanim and Mashpiim have other occupations, and simply cannot afford to give up that much time. Of course, this is a significant advantage, since people gain from the personal attention, weekly check-ins, as well as discussing whatever obstacles arose that week.

We could easily correct this advantage with the following:

If you’re looking for an occasional mashpia session, where the mashpia hears you out and gives you guidance to take home and implement, you can find mashpiim who will gladly give their time to you here and there.

But if you’re looking for the more immersive “therapy” feel, why don’t you book sessions with a mashpia and pay for them, so they can drop a different paying project, and give you that time? You could have the benefits of “therapy” with Torah wisdom. It’s a win-win.

If one wishes to contact the author of this piece, they can reach out to [email protected], and we will put them in contact with the author, pending their approval.

NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Anash.org.

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  1. The author seems to have a very black and white world view. Yes, the selfcare, self obsessed movement has been taken too far and its leaving people empty and depressed. its true that the culture’s worship of self is causing a deep self loathing an array of mental health problems. However, even in the mental health community there are different approaches and modalities, some of which were proven to be quite helpful and effective. The fact that the author had a bad experience doesn’t mean all therapists are like that. You most definitely have to make sure youre going to the right person. Its a very sensitive area and youre playing with fire. I’m glad that she was able to find healing in torah, but not everyone has the energy to take it and make it practical. Some people are in such a dark pit that they need to be schlepped out of, and only then they can start working.

    1. My point in only bringing negative experiences, was twofold (besides for that being my only experience):

      1) to debunk the myth that Mashpiim generally give advice that is out of touch/ destructive while therapists are wonderful and untouchable

      2) instead of first reaching out to a therapist to improve marriage/ parenting/ deal with a crisis emotionally, reach out to a mashpia first. A good mashpia will be able to help you understand that this challenge is ultimately in your best interest (as crazy as that can sound in the moment) and help you use it as a springboard for growth. This is something only Torah has. Of course if the condition requires medication or you aren’t sure what you need, see a psychiatrist etc…

  2. Everyone needs to have a mashpia. Not everyone must see a therapist. However, if someone has OCD (as the author listed as a condition that people see therapists for) he or she needs to see a licensed professional who SPECIALIZES in treatment of OCD and is able to honor our Hashem centered approach.

    1. If the person is OCD because they are afraid of getting something wrong, a mashpia can help them internalize that “Ain HKBH ba bitrunia al briyosov” thereby addressing the cause. Of course if the mashpia sees this is something to see a doctor for, they can/ will refer.

      Ultimately health is seeing what works for you (not putting your trust in any one person) but Torah has amazing tools/ wisdom that can completely uplift the person beyond the situation that you can’t get elsewhere. Also, when you tap into Torah and use its wisdom in your life, you feel inner joy resulting from your connection to Hashem. Everyone I know in therapy, including the people that like their therapists, are not happy, and not beyond their problem.

    2. I know of a professor in SUNY downstate expert on OCD who wrote that in Jewish culture the signs could show up as someone who davens too much. He may be an expert but his grasp of religous behavior is ignorant and unethical. A mashpia who isn’t biased to generalize would be in a better position to decide for himself and client what religous behaviour should be considered unhealthy. Expertise is not a right to disrespect a clients religous needs.

  3. There are several things that the writer here gets right, but is just saying so in words that could easily be misunderstood. I just want to focus on one of them.

    The idea that “if it’s frum, it’s good, and if it’s goyish, is bad” is subject to wild misunderstanding. If a good and practicable therapy concept is developed in the goyishe world, replete with titles and labels, and frum Yidden go to it and find it helpful, chances are the concept–not the title and labels–come from the Torah and our Mesorah.

    A simple example of how “Torah-based” and “science-based” are not mutually exclusive is “talk therapy” or “cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT),” which–like much of therapy–is based on letting the patient simply “talk away” his/her problems and/or pain. But the Torah, via our Chachomim, said that thousands of years ago: the Gemara says, “Daagah b’lev ish, yisichenah [or however you pronounce it]”–if a person has worries, converse over them.”

    Same thing for “Nurtured Heart Approach.” This philosophy is based on never criticizing or saying anything negative to a child–but just to love them so much that they will love you back in return (which is the concept of Ahavas Hashem, by the way) –and then be afraid to do something that will upset someone who loves them so much (which is the concept of Yiras Hashem).

    There’s no stira here.

    1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is not typical talk therapy. It’s more like the Tanya’s approach of mind over heart. It’s a relatively new advance/blessing as we get closer to Moshiach.

    2. Yes everything good is Torah based but regarding your examples:

      1) talk therapy- ultimately, when people finish talking it out, they want some tips/ pointers on how to do it better next time (hopefully) if they haven’t found it all within. So if your therapist is a goy/ even a yid who doesn’t learn Chassidus, they cannot give you wisdom they don’t have. The current theme is “Whatever makes you happy…” and that doesn’t lead to happiness if the person has no clue of the Torah/ Chassidus path to happiness in their situation.

      2) NHA-never criticize a child- that is not Torah (unless you can show me otherwise.) if you never show a child where they went wrong (gently and lovingly) and how to do better next time, you are not educating them. Besides for the fact that Kabolas ol is an important part of chinuch, (in an educative manner). It’s not all about do whatever you like. Rabbi Michoel Gourarie gives a fantastic parenting course, all Torah and Chassidus based. He teaches this point on combining discipline with love.

    3. You are correct that CBT doesnt hurt anybody. But self confidence boosting for LGBTQ does (according to our religon). Anger and hate expression and journaling also does. AFAIK therapists deploy all the above.

  4. We go to a Doctor or to work in addition to spiritual help when w ware sick or need money because we understand that although everything is about our relationship with Hshem, he works with nature and nature we know through statistics which is what a Doctor works with and this how the medical field keeps on improving, mental health is very much the same, we don’t need to go to a Doctor or Boss who is a Oived, why should therapy be different.

    1. Not every person with a stomach ache needs surgery. The number of people being sent to therapy has gotten out of hand.

      Besides, most aren’t even getting the help they need. They are told that they need to do “more work” and then they will find peace. What they need more than anything is purpose and a mission. That, a therapist does not (cannot?) offer.

    2. Because many people running to therapy today are running for: inner happiness/ fulfillment, / how to cope with a shock/ unexpected event in life/ relationship advice.

      All of these can and should be addressed by a Torah professional (aka mashpia) who lives by the concepts s/he is advising.

      That’s even if the therapist could give useful coping mechanisms. However, many many therapists today give silly advice (such as condoning/ encouraging victimhood, or gender conversion because it makes you happy (not) etc, that is really the opposite of helpful. Meanwhile, just look at Sholom Mordechai who emerged radiant from 8 years in jail…

    3. Natural statistics in the feilds of biology, psychology and sociology and do not account for the needs of our religon. For example if killing the fetus resulted in happyness 98 percent of the time, its still against the religion. We dont say ‘tora commands to listen to the scientists’

  5. Yes many therapist are no good. Just like many other kind of doctors are no good. Not all GPS are good. Not all brain surgeons are good. Some are pretty bad and are killing people. Does that mean that if someone needs brain surgery he should visit a mashpia? Or he better do some good research and find a good brain surgeon!

    The fellow writing this article seems to have had some bad therapists. There are lots of good ones too. If someone needs one, get help.

    1. You wouldn’t go to a mashpia instead of a brain surgeon because one is for psychological/ emotional/ spiritual growth while a brain surgeon is an entirely different field. My point in writing this article was to point out that in many cases, the need to turn to a therapist for help can much better be addressed by a mashpia (many times the same field).

      Also, that even a severe situation such as the one I went through, can be helped by a mashpia better than a therapist, ie a mashpia should not just be relegated to little, minor things, but can make a huge difference in the way they help you process and grow from major life situations.

      1. There are stuff that mashpiahs don’t know much about, sometimes it’s only ok and appropriate to speak with qualified professionals. Ie addiction/abuse/suicide. There’s ways to deal with these things, someone being told “man was made in the image of G-d and therefore you must stay alive” isn’t going to help, speaking to mashpiahs is a good thing to do, but sometimes it must be a therapist.

        1. Yes if there’s any risk to life/ danger etc, professional help will be the first point of contact. However, if a person had had a mashpia in the first place, in many cases it could have prevented the situation from getting as bad as it did. Having a mashpia and looking to grow is preventative care as well.

          For example, if someone hears something shocking, and then tried to think how Hashem is in control, it won’t help them calm down necessarily. But if they’ve lived with this concept, then automatically, when the situation strikes, their first thought is that there’s no reason to panic because Hashem is in control. And they won’t panic

      2. As a Lubavitcher therapist who specializes in working with teenagers, I find this article deeply concerning. As a devoted Lubavitcher chossid, I strongly believe in the importance of having a mashpia, particularly when it comes to matters of avodas Hashem (serving God) and important life decisions. However, when it comes to mental health issues, it is crucial to seek help from a qualified mental health professional.

        A mashpia typically lacks the necessary understanding of various disorders and how they should be properly treated. Relying solely on the guidance of a mashpia in such cases can have detrimental consequences. I have unfortunately witnessed cases where individuals solely consulted their mashpia and ended up in the hospital, experiencing panic attacks and mental breakdowns.

        It is essential to recognize that mashpiim and Chassidus are valuable resources in assisting individuals who are emotionally and mentally healthy. However, it is misguided to suggest that they should be the sole avenue for addressing all types of issues. It is disheartening when inexperienced individuals spread their naïve perspectives online, presenting them as universal guidelines that every member of the Chabad community must follow.

  6. This article really says it all!!! It is so sad that we, as frum Yidden have become obsessed with therapy and therapists. And especially in our schools- the solution to any issue a child might be having- has become therapy!
    Kudos to the author!

  7. How To Choose a Suitable Therapist

    In response to a previous WhatsApp message about how to choose a therapist, a Derher reader (who wishes to remain anonymous) sent us the following story that occurred with him:

    In 5736 (1975), I had a _yechidus_ with the Rebbe and in response to one of my questions, the Rebbe said:

    “עס מאכט נישט צי ער איז א איד אדער א גוי, אבער ער דארף זיין א בעל מאמין.”

    “It makes no difference whether he [the therapist] is a Jew or a gentile, but he must be a believer.”

    The Rebbe did mention as well that the therapist should be “qualified,” though I don’t remember exactly what word the Rebbe used in that context (our conversation was in Yiddish).

    A Chassidisher Derher

    1. We have no idea what this person was suffering from (eating disorder, a phobia, bipolar etc.) and what kind of doctor it was (psychiatrist for meds).

      People do this all the time and take select mainos of the Rebbe and apply them with one broad stroke, going against everything we know from Chassidus and Jewish tradition.

      People suffering from real illness should of course go to doctors. But everyone else should look for meaning and purpose in Torah and Yiddishkeit.

    2. Firstly those were the days before foreign governments began using therapists to propel their anti Jewish agenda, when they were actually helpful.

      Secondly a monotheistic belief has nothing to do with good medical treatment.

      Rather, based on other letters, the Rebbe meant “believer” as in a practitioner who follows Victor Frankl’s approach (from the Rebbes times) which respects religion as opposed to the approach of the rest of the field that religon is the antithesis to healthy mental functioning.

      Practically this means find a practitioner who is also trained in cultural sensitivity. Most frum therapists are not. I find the gentile therapists more respectful of my religious needs.

      That’s what the rebbe meant by “believer”.

  8. “There are thankfully quality courses based on Chassidishe values, which I found much more relevant and practical.”
    It would be of great help to the readers of you can please specify what they are. (you mention Rabbi Michoel Gourarie in your comments, what else?)
    Thank you!

    1. Those who have gone through the bulk of Tanya or shar habitachon (or even Gemara) have accrued the dispersed principles applicable to self improvement, the Torah way. I keep a notebook for this purpose. However for the rest of us who don’t progress in daily Torah study, I think you are correct that there’s not much guidance out there.

  9. After reading the article I understood that the author understands the importance of therapy albeit that the therapist should be a mashpia. And because there’s no way for a mashpia to be able to offer their services for free, we should offer to pay. In short, the author is pro therapy, understands the importance of the therapeutic importance for healing and transformation but would like that the therapist be a specific person.

    1. Just to clarify: as stated in article, Mashpiim are generally happy to listen and give advice for free. However, one must be sensitive not to abuse their volunteering their time. So it may happen, that someone goes to a therapist instead of a mashpia because they don’t want to take the mashpias time, and they need lots of time on a regular basis. So that’s where the “pay the mashpia” solution came in.

      Yes if someone cannot figure out a better way forward for themselves, they need both a friend and mashpia, to speak with, get a neutral opinion (as opposed to biased/ in the situation), and learn a better way forward, as well as clarify what is really bothering them. This is straight out in pirkei avos and having a mashpia is a bakasha Nafshis (soulful request) of The Rebbe

  10. No to therapist. Yes to mashpias. What is the difference between the two? The therapist uses goyish ideas and the mashpia uses chassidus? That is not nesesarily the reality.
    It’s incredible to have a Mashpia who can give advice on everything, all based of torah and knows their boundaries and when to reference out. Oh and has time and patience for you. If you have any recommendations please share.

    1. Ideally yes, the mashpia applies Torah and Chassidus to help the person spiritually/ emotionally etc. If one mashpia doesn’t work, you can try another until you find the right fit. (Just like people do when the therapist isn’ta fit.)

      Another idea if you can’t find everything in one person, is to have both a mashpia and therapist, and bounce everything from one off the other one until it is clear.

      Personally, I like to find a mashpia locally so that she sees me as a whole person doing what I do in the community day to day, and so has a holistic view of me, and also so that I can drop in if needed at a mutually convenient time. I find someone who excels in the area I’m consulting with them for (I have a separate marriage mashpia and general one), has more yiras shomayim than me, and is a good listener, and whose advice I find helpful. I’ve had at least 5 Mashpios so far, and have found 4 out of give to be a great fit. The one I didn’t click with I simply didn’t call again for advice.

      Additionally, I’ve just started helping a student and friend apply Torah/ Chassidus to their own issues, whereas before I would’ve shut off my mind to that path, because I would’ve automatically referred them to therapy, like we’re all inundated in many ways to do.

    2. I guess the key to helping others is if you’ve applied it yourself in your own life, or work on yourself using Torah tools in general. It’s very different than just quoting a sicha at someone without helping them apply it to themselves (because you’re saying it as an academic but not from experience). It should be pretty apparent if someone lives by what they teach, and if not, you can always move on to someone else

  11. Anecdotal evidence is insufficient to draw conclusions. This is one example of the value of evidence-based treatment – the kind provided by therapists using methods like CBT – because it’s based on actual, verified, repeatable research, and not personal opinion. I’m all for using mashpias. But mental health should be approached with a similar attitude to physical health – the Torah says to rely on doctors and trained professionals. The Rebbe made this clear in many letters and also referred people to therapists. Many factors can improve a mental condition like depression or ocd, which a trained therapist will be first to acknowledge. A therapist can encourage the use of a mashpia as an additional support. And a responsible mashpia should encourage the use of therapists, imo.

    1. I think that often people dont value or understand the intense training that it takes to become a therapist, and the skills that one learns while working hours on end with clients. There’s a difference between ideas and implementing ideas in a session with a client. In a perfect world, if we had the right mashpia, the right parents, the right friends, the right job then life would be good. But that’s not how life works. We often do not have the right mashpia or the right people around us and we often have to think out of the box to come up with solutions.

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