Just a reminder!

PSA: TikTok Is Not Your Therapist

Don’t be fooled by the dances and the gorgeous cheekbones.

by Kim Brooks
Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Shutterstock
TikTok Trends Debunked

A few months ago, I became bored with the content of my typical evening TikTok fix. Since the pandemic, I’d been turning to the wildly popular short-form video app for a few minutes (okay, sometimes an hour) of mindless relaxation before bed. I was in school to become a therapist and after a day of thinking and reading about very heavy stuff, it was fun to learn about eye-liner application strategies for the mature woman or decluttering hacks for the busy mom, or occasionally, very weird and oddly satisfying tutorials on things like how to trim a horse’s hoof.

Then one evening, the algorithm started sending me a different sort of content —content from therapy TikTok. Perhaps my phone had been spying on me in my clinical assessment class? Or perhaps it had eavesdropped on an argument with my boyfriend. Suddenly, instead of videos about preparing tasty, low-carb casseroles on a budget, I was consuming clips of psychologists and counselors and clinical social workers and various other coaches and gurus, telling me the five signs of an unhealthy relationship, and the five signs that you may be anxious or depressed, and the five steps to banishing negative self-talk with positive affirmations, and the five clues that your partner may be cheating.

“Is your partner suddenly dressing better?” an appealing redhead in her late forties asked me from a luxurious-looking velvet armchair.

He is! I thought. Of course, he had also just started a new job that required him to go to an office, whereas before he’d been working from home in his sweatpants.

“And you’re satisfied with that explanation?” I imagined the TikTok therapist probing.

“Whenever there’s trust issues in a relationship,” she continued, “I recommend that couples move to an open phone policy. Both partners should make their phones, their computers, their email accounts an open book to one another to build trust. Show each other that you have nothing to hide.”

The next day I told my partner about the video. He is also a therapist in training, and he seemed a bit disconcerted by the advice. “That seems a little….invasive?” He suggested. “And not particularly healthy.”

“Yeah, but the woman on TikTok seemed really smart and charismatic,” I said. “She had a bunch of degrees on the wall behind her. Also, great cheekbones.”

He raised an eyebrow.

A few days later, I mentioned the idea to my actual therapist, whom I’ve been seeing every week for a couple years. She was familiar with this idea of an open policy. In addition to individuals, she has treated some couples, including a few who’d also heard about the idea on TikTok. She felt that while it might work for some, it could be disastrous for others. Like most licensed therapists, she understood that there is no one-size-fits-all relationship advice. How we choose to conduct our relationships and, more broadly, live our lives, is a highly personal matter one comes to through self-exploration, guided or otherwise. A relationship isn’t a low-carb casserole. It doesn’t come with a recipe you can download on your phone.

But the TikTok therapists are here to stay, at least for now. As the world grows ever more interconnected through social media platforms, we’re seeing a rise in mental health practitioners who are moonlighting as social media influencers not just on TikTok but Instagram as well. While there certainly may be some benefits to this trend in its most benign form — professionals offering basic psycho-educational content about depression or anxiety, or countering the stigma around seeking treatment — a recent New York Times article details how on Therapy TikTok, it’s not so easy for therapists to maintain the persona of a blank slate. As Dani Blum writes in the piece, “the line between content creator and licensed professional blurs often in TikTok’s frenetic ecosystem. For therapists in particular, often pegged as stoic, notepad-clutching intellectuals, showing off social aspects of their personalities can feel like rebellion.”

As a future therapist myself, I’m equal parts fascinated and disheartened by the trend. On the one hand, I understand that it was likely inevitable. A friend of mine, Yelena Akhtiorskaya, who works as a psychoanalyst in New York, felt the same when I asked her about the trend. She saw the rise of therapy TikTok as a small part in the larger trend of celebrity therapists such as Esther Perel, Orna Garalnik of Couple’s Therapy on Showtime, and Phil Stutz, the famous psychiatrist and subject of Jonah’s Hill’s documentary about his experience in treatment. As a novelist herself, she understood that therapists, like all people these days, must sometimes curate multiple public personas on social media. She wondered, however, how the self-disclosure many TikTok therapists engage in would affect a client’s ability to project onto a therapist.

“The therapeutic relationship,” she said, “the transference and counter-transference that take place between therapist and client, are essential to the process, but it happens slowly over time. How do you build a relationship with someone you’ve been watching walk around their apartment or play with their dog while they offer mental health hacks?”

Other therapists expressed similar skepticism. Steve Thorpe, an LCPC in Chicago who works both with couples and individuals, told me that “any time you’re trying to package something for social media, you’re not really tailoring it for a specific person. It’s hard to offer pre-packaged advice without really knowing a person or both people. And even if you could, therapy is not advice-giving. It’s not the same thing as coaching.”

While it seemed plausible to him that some info about, say, coping strategies or communication techniques could be helpful to viewers, and that there was likely little harm in a potential client getting a glimpse of a potential therapist’s style to see if it resonated for them, there’s no replacement for actually stepping into a room with someone, be it virtual or real. “The process of helping someone starts with getting to know them. You have to learn about the contexts of their relationships, their family of origin, their attachment style, their psychological and social history. And in the long term, a lot of psychodynamic healing comes from re-parenting, being with someone who sees you, lets you be neurotic and chaotic and sticks with you. There’s just no quick and easy substitute for that.”

Unfortunately, there’s no eyeliner hacks or hoof-trimming shortcuts for therapy.

Kim Brooks is the author of Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear. She lives in Chicago.