What may the Dr. Phil phenomenon mean for psychotherapists?
In one sense, nothing. Patients walk into your consulting rooms every day beset by illusions (as I certainly have), and Dr. Phil, if he comes up at all, is just one more illusion you need to help them through.
In another sense, a lot. Dr. Phil is the opposite of you. With, according to his website, 22 million books in 37 languages, countless hours of internet log-ons, plus (when you include reruns) an infinite number of television hours worldwide, he takes his viewers and readers to the limits of simplification. If they need to go beyond the banal and simple, they need you. Which is to say, they need the patience to be patients--they need the gradual fix, the personal touch. The working therapist is everything Dr. Phil isn't.
So the most famous psychotherapist in the world is the most famous therapist in the world precisely because he doesn't do therapy. And therein lies the secret of his phenomenal success. Therapy is personal, and messy, and takes time. What Dr. Phil sells is standardized, and efficient, and takes eight minutes. Therapy is expensive, and insurance covers less and less of it. Dr. Phil's website and TV show are free, and you can purchase the books at a discount at Border's. You can buy Dr. Phil, or click him on your remote. Your assumptions and defenses can remain intact, because, unless you're one of his unlucky guests, you're always at a safe distance from him. Therapy is serious work. Dr. Phil, by his own disclaimer, is entertainment--given that you're entertained by the heartbreak of strangers.
"Get real," counsels Dr. Phil.
But, alas, those two words take us back to where Dr. Freud began: What is the nature of human reality? What does it really mean to "get real"? And then the complications start. And where complications start, Dr. Phil stops.
Dr. Phil--the Anti-Therapist.
Michael Ventura's biweekly column appears in the Austin Chronicle . Letters to the Editor about this article may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.