The Shrink Society

02/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I am a disillusioned shrink. A shrink who hates shrinks. Or at least a shrink who thinks we have become too dependent on psychologists and psychiatrists to solve our problems. This week alone I was told to go see a shrink, was asked to be someone else's shrink, and was turned to for a referral to another shrink.

In my own case, a therapist was recommended because I asked the existential question of what it means to love and be loved. In the second case, I was asked to be someone else's counselor who had just lost his wife to cancer, and who needed help "working through" his grief. The third case involved my 18-year-old friend whose first love, and long-term boyfriend broke up with her after three years of being joined at the hip.

How did these normal, every day matters of the heart become pathological and in need of professional help? Why are we incapable of helping each other with our problems? We have become a shrink society and it is not serving us well.

Going to a therapist for every day, normal, problems is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we go to therapists to deal with our issues, the more incapable we become of dealing with our problems, and the more intolerant we become of others suffering. It used to be that the three little healing words we heard from our friends and our family members was "I love you". Today, it's "see a shrink" instead.

Psychologists don't have any special powers. They can't wave a magic wand and make things better. The research on the effectiveness of psychological counseling is unanimous that what makes therapy work is the quality of the relationship you have with your therapist. It's called the Dodo Bird Effect. After reviewing hundreds of psychological studies that used all kinds of therapeutic techniques, researchers concluded that the type of therapy is irrelevant. What matters is that your shrink is warm, friendly, respectful, and a good listener. You don't need a PhD to offer this kind of support to your friends and family. For most people, listening without interrupting or trying to fix the problem is healing enough.

Not only does going to a shrink for every negative feeling and thought we have distance us from our loved ones, it also sends the message that unhappiness is a disease that needs to be treated. Americans are notorious for wanting band-aid solutions to their sadness and grief. We want to rush through our pain, medicate it away, or get through it as quickly and efficiently as possible. What is missing from this approach is that sometimes pain and suffering is a part of life, and that going through it may even have benefits. Our trials can give us perspective, wisdom, and experience if we don't rush through them.

I have nothing against therapy. I spent eight years slugging through graduate school because I believe there is value to our helping profession. I am a researcher who deals with grieving people every day. I have seen patients so destroyed by their sorrow, they cannot get out of bed, or imagine taking another breath. Denying them the emotional and psychological help they need would be cruel and counter-intuitive. But that does not mean that every sorrow or bad feeling needs professional intervention.

In all my years working in the field, I have learned that every being simply wants to feel loved, acknowledged, accepted, and validated. The cancer patients I work with, my friends who I adore, their children who I look after, my colleagues across the world, the neighbors next door, they -- we -- I -- all want the same things. To be seen and acknowledged, to be listened to and cherished, to be loved and appreciated.

To be receptive to this simple human wish does not require a professional degree or years of experience. All it takes is some time, some patience and a commitment to be open to the other. It's what everyone really wanted for Christmas, and the best part is that unlike therapy, it's totally free.

Leeat Granek earned her PhD in Psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada. She is currently working at Princess Margaret Hospital and Sunnybrook Odette Cancer Centre in Toronto, with cancer patients and their families.