Why are so many Argentines in therapy?

Wax Freud

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.

Cien Pesos

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.

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  1. says

    When I moved to NYC, I was shocked by the commonality of people talking about their therapists in normal conversation (even people I had just met!) Fascinating that there is another culture where this is just as common!

    • Victoria says

      I haven’t been to New York yet so this was my first experience of such openness about therapy. I like it that way. I don’t think it should be something to hide. Pleased you enjoyed the article :)

  2. Guillermo says

    Comparto la visión de Gastón. La historia de Argentina está plagada de genocidios (al igual que la historia de toda América), y a eso habría que sumarle el hecho de ser en un 90 por ciento descendientes de inmigrantes escapados de las guerras. Estos traumas deben ser tramitados en algún momento. Si no lo hizo la generación que lo vivió, inevitablemente lo harán generaciones posteriores.
    Más allá de esto, también hay que reconocer que en Argentina es tan común la terapia porque fue una tierra fértil de muy buenos autores y psicoanalistas.

    Saludos desde Argentina!

    • Victoria says

      I agree. I found Gaston’s view the most interesting. I had no idea about that side of Argentina’s history before I came here.

      And yes, you’re right you have awesome authors – Borges is Steve’s number one favourite.

  3. says

    I had no idea that so many people had therapy in Argentina. This is so weird but just shows that if you spend a little while in a country and chat to the locals you find out so much more!

    I think it’s great that people talk about their emotions but I don’t really get why they don’t just talk to their friends and family (unless they have a serious problem). And the boobs for birthdays is just weird!

    • Victoria says

      It’s true, you can find out a lot if you just ask. I like that one simple question led to so many insights. I found the whole boob jobs for birthdays quite sad. Our obsession with physical appearance seems to cause so much suffering. It’s something that drives me crazy about the media in England as so many of the magazines encourage it.

  4. says

    I saw a therapist myself for a brief period to help me deal with my issues surrounding my debt, and the guilt and shame attached to that. I truly believe in the power of self-expression, and how healing therapy can be.

    In response to Monica’s previous comment as to why people don’t just talk to friends and family – this isn’t always an option, and a trained professional can usually offer you a much greater insight than a friendly ear. Even though I don’t feel that I had a ‘serious problem’, I still felt the need to examine things more deeply, and am forever grateful that I did.

    I really enjoyed this post Victoria – it makes a welcome change from the usual travel blog posts and your writing skills are impeccable as always :)

    • Victoria says

      Hannah, lovely to hear from you. Thank you for your kind comments :)
      I agree that a trained therapist can offer something different to friends and family. I think it’s having a disinterested party that makes a difference. And of course, having someone who is trained to help you see things clearly for yourself. It’s a huge subject that I might explore further in another post one day.

  5. Kat says

    Great post! This was something I wondered about when I was in Argentina. I think the Argentine attitude towards therapy is quite enlightened – hopefully other countries start to catch on

    • Victoria says

      Thanks Kat. I agree. I think it can only be a good thing to get to know yourself better. I think it’s a shame people often see it as a weakness of sorts, when really it’s very brave.

  6. says

    I’m an argentinian, living in Mexico.
    As you can imagine, I used to go to therapy back in Buenos Aires.
    Here in Mexico I’ve told a couple of persons about it, and they didn’t take it so normal.
    There is a tricky part in all this.
    I know a lot of people that have more than 5 or 6 years going to therapy. People with no serious problems. It’s like a routine. Relations in Argentina are shallow most of the times. Someone will tell you a quote their Therapist told them on a session, and maybe why they go there. People talk about it anytime it jumps in a conversation, and that’s because they don’t care what the other people think about it. Psychology isn’t taboo when you have nothing to be ashame of.

    • Victoria says

      Thanks for your comments Alex. It’s great to hear from an Argentinian on the subject. I agree that therapy shouldn’t be something to be ashamed of. I admire people for seeking help and trying to improve/know themselves.

  7. says

    I majored in Psych briefly in college, and am in a relationship with a Psych major, so it probably comes as no surprise that I think therapy is awesome and people should be more open about it. I went to counseling, both individually and as a couple, for 18 months before deciding to file for divorce, and it did wonders for my level of self-awareness and communication. Highly recommend it for anyone who’s hit a stumbling block in life!

    • Victoria says

      Thanks Bret. It’s great to hear you had positive experience from counselling too. I think it’s something everyone could benefit from – if only to increase their self-awareness.

  8. says

    Therapy can play a big role to make your life easier and it really helps to understand yourself if you confused about something. I went for a couples therapy when I had some issues with my husband and after attending the session, I find myself far more better situation than before.

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