Enter Dr. Phil
In the '70s and '80s, for the first time in the history of recent civilization, it became acceptable to speak openly of the terrors in the family closet. The women's movement, the men's movement, Adult Children of Alcoholics, and various survivor movements outed the all-too-common agonies that had previously been terrorized into silence. Every conceivable variety of incest, abuse, addiction, and destructive relationship became part of our daily dialogue.
This phenomenon represented a tremendous breakthrough for psychotherapy. After nearly a century, its insights and practices had finally filtered into the general culture to the extent that lay people, many of whom hadn't had direct contact with therapy and therapists, incorporated the language of the consulting room into their lives. Psychotherapy served as a powerful ally to this self-disclosure movement, giving it legitimacy and authority. Secret shame was publicly confronted, taboos were swept aside, and what had been unspeakable was not only spoken, but shouted from the rooftops, and from our radios and televisions.
There can be no denying this movement's fundamental benefits. Millions have been helped and healed, abusers have been held to account, and the onus of shame has been at least partially lifted from sufferers and victims. But it's just as undeniable that things went too far. For many, traumas were enshrined and victimhood became a central source of identity. What began as curative became a new kind of malady.
For many people, including therapists, it became obvious that identifying trauma is valuable, while identifying with trauma is destructive. Victimhood devolves into whining, and whining is tiresome, solves nothing, and leaves people stuck in their traumas. It also became obvious that new strategies were necessary--strategies that focused on coping in the present, while not denying the past.
Many therapists worked hard developing and refining new ways of helping clients deal with a traumatic past. But many outside the circles of therapy--either through ignorance, financial necessity, or simple distaste for the process--were still in need of something or someone to point the way out of victimhood.
Enter Dr. Phil. Tune him in and you see an affable, vigorous, eloquently plainspoken man, radiating certitude. His presence on screen has a 3-D effect. He looks directly into your eyes, talks directly to you, effortlessly including you in every conversation with his guests. He seems not to be "on television," but rather to emanate from the television. Jay Leno and Oprah Winfrey are in studios somewhere, and you watch; Dr. Phil is in your room, and you react. No man since Walter Cronkite has commanded the television medium with such seemingly effortless intimacy. Authoritative and comforting, Dr. Phil confronts victimhood with what has become his signature phrase, a challenging injunction spoken with earnest concern: "Get real."