I’d never thought of myself as a voyeur. Yet there I was with my ear to the door of a couple’s therapy session. A straight couple, they had both cheated in their previous marriages with each other, then left their spouses to be together. The man now cheats on her compulsively.
“You like the fact that she's kind but in fact you look down upon the fact that she's kind because you think if she was really strong, powerful, and confident, she would have already have said, ‘Get the fuck out of here’,” said the therapist.
“Yeah,” replied the man.
So this is therapy, I thought.
In reality, I wasn’t crouched down outside a therapist’s door, no, that would be creepy. I was walking to work. Though it felt almost perverse, the couple had consented to letting me, and thousands of others, listen to this therapist read them like a children’s book. So much so that they let the conversation be in a podcast.
Where Should We Begin? is a podcast by the now famous therapist, author, and speaker Esther Perel. In it, Perel places a mic on the table in her couple’s therapy sessions, with short studio-recorded interjections only to help situate the couple’s story. To me, it’s perfect.
I had tried to get into podcasts before, but they either felt too scripted or worse, lacking in any structure at all, leaving me to listen to two strangers banter and laugh at inside jokes for 30 minutes before getting to The Point. No, Where Should We Begin? was different, real—no unbearable podcast nonsense. In fact, I was convinced that listening to it was making me a better person.
Do I look down on the people in my life for being too kind? Am I so quick to forgive that people look down on me? I’ve never been married or divorced, nor have I cheated, and I don’t have a child. But it can’t hurt to ask.
The more I listened, the more I questioned myself about the quandaries facing Perel’s clients. What would I do in their situation? Oh god, I’m not like that, right? The podcast started to feel like a therapy session between the couple, Perel, and me. I’m not the first one to feel like that either. Lifestyle website Man Repeller called the podcast “free therapy.” The New Yorker said it was “excruciatingly intimate.” Perel herself has said that listeners “very quickly realize that you are standing in front of the mirror.”
Like many people, I’ve thought about going to therapy—what it would be like, what I stood to gain from it. Until recently, it was more of a nice thing to imagine than a financial possibility. Even now, though I know I could probably afford it with some budgeting, it’s hard to shake the feeling that therapy is a not-for-me luxury when I think about my student loans, rent, or the cost of doing literally anything in New York. I tell myself I’ll go to therapy eventually. For now, I have podcasts.
I flew through every available season of Where Should We Begin? before desperately searching for podcasts fitting the very specific fly-on-the-wall therapy session formula until I found one called Other People’s Problems.
Other People’s Problems was great because it focused on one-on-one sessions, rather than couple’s therapy. Clients are recurring so you get to follow their progress—and their goss. “Sloane” has a traumatic relationship with her mother that keeps interrupting major milestones in her life. “Maggie” is a stay at home mom trying to figure out why she can’t stop stealing prosciutto.
Without a partner in the room, you can feel people let down another wall, putting a different kind of honesty on display. The questions I asked myself changed in nature too. Instead of posing questions about myself through others— Am I so quick to forgive that people look down on me?—they felt more centered: How do I react when I learn things about myself I don’t like?
Hillary McBride, the host of Other People’s Problems and a therapist specializing in feminist therapy, told me that many people have found the podcast therapeutic. According to her, people often react to the podcast by realizing that they’re going through a similar problem as the client and find that listening can give them options for how to deal with it. “Even without necessarily intending to, what happens when we are in the presence of or even just observing other people's vulnerability is it tends to invite us into self awareness, self reflection, and vulnerability ourselves,” she said.
So this is what therapy must feel like, I thought after applying McBride’s questions and guidance from each episode to my own life. McBride, however, in the same gentle tone she never breaks from in Other People’s Problems, kindly told me what I’ve figured by now: I’m wrong. No podcast is a replacement for therapy. Her reasoning however, surprised me.
“The most important thing that happens in therapy is not actually the exchange of information,” she explained. “It's the experience of being felt and held and seen by another person without judgment, even without the need to change in order to feel valuable.”
It’s true that though there were relatable moments, listening to Perel and McBride on their respective podcasts did not exactly make me feel held or seen. Still, it did make me consider things about myself I wouldn’t have on my own. McBride acknowledges that too.
“There's something that's kind of mystical and sacred about this process,” she said, “and the vulnerability and the exchange that happens there, which, even if we're just seeing it voyeuristically from the outside, has the power to transform us. But it will never be the same as someone looking you in your eyes while you tell them something you're feeling shame about and realizing that they're not judging you the way you expected them to.”