Therapy Memes Are Transforming The Way We Talk About Mental Health

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost and Yukai Du for HuffPost

Alyssa Limperis, a 29-year-old Los Angeles comedian, did not always joke about therapy. “Mental health can be a real secret,” she said. “I remember being so scared to talk about it and joke about it for the first time.”

Limperis said she was “not living fully honestly” until after her dad died following a cancer diagnosis. “It pushed me to go do it, because you don’t get another shot,” she said.

Through that experience of her dad’s death, she said she didn’t have a choice but to talk about her emotions. Once she started making jokes out of them, she said she felt, “Well, now it’s not a secret. It’s out there. A lot of people relate to it. You don’t have to hold onto it just by yourself.”

Her recent therapy meme, which went viral on Twitter and was reposted on various meme accounts on Instagram, was rooted in a real-life deep conversation she had with her college friend.

“It’s funny how [with] your friends ― and your female friends in particular ― the older you get, the more emotional support you need and how you can kind of be that for each other,” Limperis said. “It’s also funny because like, oh, my God, we used to have so much fun and be so young and now we’re like talking about … dialectical behavior therapy and co-dependency and stuff.” 

Behind her humor was also a real vulnerability being released for all to see.

“I was kind of going through a tough time when I posted that,” Limperis said. “It takes a little bit of the heaviness away from it, and it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, 70,000 people also do this with their friends. I’m not the only person in the world who has feelings. Look, there’s all these people who are relating to this.’ It can make you feel a little less alone.” 

What’s in a meme? 

In his 1976 book, scientist Richard Dawkins coined the word “meme” from the Greek word for “mimesis,” meaning to imitate when describing the natural selection of transmittable ideas. Since then, people on the internet have appropriated the word to create a new language that tells your audience how you are feeling or what you believe through a wry, satirical voice. You can emote at a distance.

To be successful at spreading their message, internet memes must get to the punchline quickly. That often means juxtaposing a line of dialogue with a familiar viral image or a scenario you’ve seen before.

“Memes are defined in literature as specific, fundamental cultural traits that are floating in their environment together,” Michele Coscia, who wrote about memes for the International Conference of Weblogs and Social Media, said in 2013. “Just like genes carried by bodies, memes are carried by cultural manifestations like songs, buildings or pictures.“

For therapy memes, that cultural manifestation is the rising trend of your therapist being a mental health professional you are more comfortable mentioning out loud. Therapists are out of the shadow and onto your screens. They’re portrayed on TV. They write advice columns and post notes on Instagram. Their use has become a symbol of our anxious times in need of reassurance. During the 1690s, people writing to British periodical The Athenian Mercury’s advice column publicly questioned how to communicate and whether it was OK to lie. Now, we can grapple with these questions about how hard it is to be a person in the world through a therapy meme.  

There’s a history of people being sad on social media 

Like many memes, therapy ones have been remixed and shared so many times that I cannot trace them back to a singular origin point to explain their popularity.

It may be because more digitally savvy young people are receiving mental health help now. According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State University, which compiles data on dozens of college and university counseling centers, the number of students seeking treatment has increased from fall 2009 to spring 2015 by an average of 30% to 40%. I would also suggest that the memes’ existence was helped along by the people willing to first display sadness online on platforms like Twitter, LiveJournal and Tumblr.

“When i have a panic attack at therapy i never tell the therapist, because i don’t want to make her feel like she isn’t good” reads one of Melissa Broder’s tweets via @sosadtoday in 2016. Broder, a writer, has been tweeting from the handle since 2012 and was on the frontier of people vulnerably talking about their mental health in a social media format.

In her work called “Sad Girl Theory,” artist Audrey Wollen argued that talking about female sadness online can be empowering. “Girls’ sadness isn’t quiet, weak, shameful, or dumb: It is active, autonomous, and articulate. It’s a way of fighting back,” she said in a 2015 Nylon interview. 

It’s also easier to share a therapy meme if you notice that people on big stages are doing it too. As celebrities with large followings openly discuss going to therapy, their public platforms help to normalize treatment. Rapper Snoop Dogg is sharing therapist memes about not following a therapist’s advice. Singer Ariana Grande’s post that “therapy has saved my life so many times” has been retweeted over 88,000 times. 

The memes can put therapists on a stage 

I don’t have an exact timeline of the first therapy memes, but I know what they look like today. Some therapy meme themes have cropped up in the past few years. Popular ones, like the kind Limperis has created, rely on the joke of you going against the good advice your therapist gives.

“If everyone went to therapy and did exactly what their therapist said, it would be like, OK, you can just go to one session,” Limperis said. 

“It’s the smirky smile of knowing you’re doing something that’s not quite right for you,” Limperis said.

Then there’s the type of therapy meme where your therapist becomes the other actor in your one-act play. In a surreal short exchange, the therapist becomes the aggrieved observer who is politely judging or pushing back on your life choices.

Limperis said the therapy meme formula of “Therapist: Blah. Me: Blah. Therapist: No” has similarities in how she jokes about not drinking enough water on Twitter.

“My body: I want water. Me: What about coffee? My body: No, please no. Me: OK, lemme give it coffee. There is humor in going against something that is good for you,” Limperis said. “We all seem to do it. We’re all on the internet, which even that alone feels like, we know it’s not great for us, but we’re all here.”

In a therapy meme, there is also no grand context. A meme typically travels by others sharing or liking the post, a quick one-step method that allows the meme to gain traction without a big setup to the punchline. We do not know where we are, who we are with, or what kind of therapist we are talking with in these fictional scenarios. Those broad options make it easier for you to insert yourself into the joke. 

It is not all laughs, though. There are hidden vulnerabilities in sharing a therapy meme, because it suggests that you can relate. You can see how humor can become a shield in @mytherapistsays, an Instagram account that does not curate actual advice from therapists but does aggregate and post memes reflecting the anxieties of the 20-something women, Lola Tash and Nicole Argiris, who manage the account. 

A therapy meme lightens the heaviness of these topics. Sharing a meme could raise the idea that you have gone to therapy or have experienced mental health struggles. But by sharing this potential disclosure through a joke, it allows you to be vulnerable in a controlled way. 

If you mentioned how you needed help or were struggling in a social media post, the message would be more sad and urgent. Unlike simply mentioning that you are sad and anxious online, a therapy meme’s humor crucially puts its creators in control. In this way, mentioning therapy through a meme can even be a flex that you’re working toward self-improvement, that you may not have all the answers but you’re getting help. 

But what do therapists think of therapy memes? 

When I explained therapy memes to therapists, some laughed, although the ones I talked to wanted to make it clear that therapists all have different styles and that these funny exchanges are not exactly how a real therapy session is supposed to go.

For one, your therapist is not going to bring up your dad in the way they might in a meme.

“Sure, I talk about how patterns of what you experience when you are younger impact how you are today, but I’m not like, ‘It’s all about your dad all the time,’” Elizabeth Cohen, a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist said after I explained this meme. “I feel like that keeps people from therapy.“

Tanisha Ranger, a psychologist based in Henderson, Nevada, said there can be truth in the therapy memes: “I look at it from the therapist point of view. The one with ‘Sometimes it be like that.’ As a therapist, I can see that as a person in therapy learning how to cope with their emotions.” 

Ranger added that there can be therapeutic power in sharing your therapy experience through a meme. “You’re starting to be more self-aware. And you’re starting to recognize these self-destructive patterns. And if you can make them a little bit more funny, you can take away some of the power that this is who you are and there is nothing you can do different,” Ranger said. 

There are also therapy memes that are not about putting your therapist on a stage, but use humor to talk about the therapy experience itself. 

Adriana Alejandre, a Los Angeles-based therapist who runs the Latinx Therapy Instagram, said the memes she shares like the ruffle-bird one can create connections of “This is exactly how I feel. I can relate to this image.”

A meme can pack a lot of emotional information in seconds. That’s a power you cannot get when you try explaining one out loud.

“They’re opportunities to self-explore emotionally,” Alejandre said about therapy memes. “A lot of humans lack emotional intelligence. And by having these memes, they are having us be more attuned with potential thought patterns, behavioral patterns.” And sometimes people “don’t understand what it is they’re doing until they visually see it,” she added.

You Should See Someone is a HuffPost Life series that will teach you everything you need to know about doing therapy. We’re giving you informative, no-B.S. stories on seeking mental health help: how to do it, what to expect, and why it matters. Because taking care of your mind is just as important as taking care of your body. Find all of our coverage here and share your stories on social with the hashtag #DoingTherapy.

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