I started to notice it in Buenos Aires. Friends would meet me a drink “after therapy”, my Spanish teacher would fit me in around her sessions, and everyone would pepper conversations with “my therapist says…”. I soon realised that nearly every Argentine I met was either in, or had been in, therapy – but more surprising than that was that they were happy to talk about it too.
This isn’t something I’m used to in the UK where, although apparently one in five people have sought help from a therapist, it still has a stigma attached to it. Things have certainly improved since the days when it could only be whispered in hushed tones, but you won’t find people talking about it like they would a trip to the supermarket.
With a little investigation, I found out that Buenos Aires is widely considered to be the psychodynamic capital of the world, rivaling New York for highest number of psychoanalysts. One article estimated that there’s one therapist for every 30 people in the city. It’s one of the most popular career paths to follow at university, and there’s even an area in Palermo nicknamed Villa Freud.
The benefits of therapy
On first impressions, I found this all rather brilliant. I studied psychotherapy last year and, as part of the course, had to be in therapy for the duration. It was a difficult time, full of challenges and realisations, but ultimately it made me more self-aware. I’m learning to be kinder to myself, less quick to judge, and more understanding of others. It definitely left me thinking that, with the right therapist and method, everyone could probably do with some sessions – if only to know themselves better and grow their compassion.
So, as an advocate of therapy, I was delighted to see so many people openly talking about it and seeking help themselves. But still I wondered why? What makes it so popular here? It was brought to Argentina by Europeans but has taken off here more than in its homeland. I started to ask around and found mixed responses. “We’re emotional people. We need help with all those emotions,” explained one friend. “Just listen to the words of tango.” It may be true but that didn’t quite cut it. Other cultures are famously ‘emotional’, yet they don’t seek therapy as widely as Argentines.
Others looked to the country’s long history of political and financial instability. The current situation is a constant source of frustration for Argentines. For example, if you want to buy something like a car or plane ticket, you have to prove where the money you’re buying it with came from. We met a reiki teacher who, because his profession wasn’t recognised by the government, couldn’t buy anything of value; his earning were considered invalid. Throughout the country, we’ve heard stories of similar frustrations. While perhaps a reason for why many Argentines feel the need to seek therapy, it doesn’t quite explain why they do. Other countries have similar financial woes but do not consider the help of a psychotherapist a reasonable option.
Birthday boob jobs
Another theory people had about the popularity of psychotherapy was linked to a different national obsession – plastic surgery. I asked a friend about it, only for her to divulge that she had her lips done every few months. She wasn’t embarrassed, but instead said: “I have small lips, of course I make them bigger.” Collagen lip injections are a tiny example of a huge menu of alterations Argentines opt for. Breast implants are a common birthday present for teenagers, and women with face lifts can be seen everywhere. One student told us that his friends get one surgical procedure free with their health plan each year. If they make it to December without needing to use it for anything medical, they use it for plastic surgery instead. Physical manipulation is as accepted as psychotherapy. For me, this definitely isn’t so brilliant. Society’s obsession with image is something that saddens me and seems like an inevitable cause for unnecessary suffering. It is perhaps unsurprising to hear that Argentina also has one of the highest rates of anorexia in the world.
In relation to therapy, friends suggested that the national desire for, and obsession with, physical perfection could suggest a desire for emotional perfection too. And that’s where therapists come in. As a ‘chicken or egg’ situation, a preoccupation with image may also drive people to therapy. And to bring it full circle, some blame therapy for Argentines’ negativity in the first place. In fact, in the 1970s, a right-wing military junta singled out therapy as a cause of Argentina’s problems, including excessive navel-gazing.
There’s clearly no single answer to why psychotherapy thrives in Argentina, but there was one final theory that interested me. Gaston, a psychology student we couchsurfed with explained the unique history of Argentine culture and its potential impact on the national psyche. It’s a country that was once inhabited by indigenous peoples, but is now dominated by a majority of Italian and Spanish descendants. Nearly all the original inhabitants were killed during colonisation and the Conquest of the Desert (an event which is oddly heralded on the 100peso note). Argentina is unique within South America for its lack of indigenous people, and clear European influence. Gaston explained that this has created a nation of people disconnected with their land – with no concrete sense of place, home or identity. Therapy is an obvious reaction to this as it offers a way to connect with the self and explore one’s identity. Whether or not this is a reason for the proliferation of therapy in Argentina, we found it interesting to think of the country’s make-up and foundations. Indeed, our one question – ‘Why are so many Argentines in therapy?’ – may not have provided us with an answer, but it did lead us down many intriguing paths of inquiry and insight.
Let us know if you have any of your own theories.