Have you ever taken a piece of advice? I’m not asking a rhetorical question. Have you ever once in your life been given a piece of advice that you’ve then acted on? I ask this question a lot at parties, and generally find the answer is: ‘No, not that I can think of.’ It may be that when we take good advice, we begin to imagine we came up with the idea in the first place. It may be that we always just do whatever it is we were always going to do. All I can say for sure is that if you ask: ‘What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever given someone else?’, people will keep you there all night.
Best Friend Therapy bills itself as a chat between two best friends that will impart the blessings and insight of therapy. The hosts are, per the name, best friends: Elizabeth Day, a broadcaster and author, and Emma Reed Turrell, a therapist of an unusually private and introverted persuasion. The idea is that Day has been benefitting from Reed Turrell’s expertise for years, and now we all get a chance to experience the same.
The slight problem is that the show often boils down to advice, which comes for free and no one values, rather than insight, which is hard earned and tightly guarded. The first episode takes up the problem of boundaries: personal, private, professional. How to set them and insist on them when we would rather please people. ‘We think of boundaries as dividing lines rather than points of contact,’ says Reed Turrell, who suggests we conceive of them as a ‘mutually respectful point of contact’.
It’s a nice idea, but it feels more like a metaphorical work-around than a breakthrough. I can see that boundaries must be important for Reed Turrell, who stresses her privacy and preference for her own company at almost every turn. She feels dubious about group events. She feels dubious about going home for Christmas. She prefers not to pick up the phone when friends call. ‘It really does enrich a relationship to have a boundary,’ she says. I can almost believe her.
In another episode, we learn about ‘games’. The idea goes like this: if you and your partner always end up having the same row, and don’t know why, what you’re actually doing is playing a ‘game’. (Those of you who have done family or couples therapy can skip to the next paragraph.) Games stem from our inability to voice, or even mentally articulate, what we really want; couples who end up arguing for hours about what to have for lunch are a classic example.
Games start out harmless but often end up somewhere else, and a key tenet of the theory is that a game is only a game if you don’t know you’re playing it. I like that notion – it’s perceptive, vaguely Freudian and flatters my sense that human relations are ruled by eternal, hard-coded discursive patterns rather than individual desires. But over an ambling 40 minutes we never land on anything solid. The best friend hook is cute, but one feels the absence of a real patient.
This podcast will please the crowd looking for something bland and chatty to have on in the evening, but it’s too woolly, too nattery, too nice. Somehow, the plaintiff in Best Friend Therapy is always right: they undervalue themselves or give too much or put their own desires aside too frequently. For something with a bit more bite, you might try the wonderful Where Should We Begin, Esther Perel’s podcast about failing relationships that proceeds with Strindbergian brutality. For something with a little more emotional heft, you could try Siblings in Session, Philippa Perry’s new Audible show about sibling relationships.
The set-up is simple and rather brilliant. No one would deny that sibling relationships are among the most important in our lives – but somehow we never really talk about them with the depth or seriousness we apply to romantic entanglements. Perry, an author and longtime broadcaster (and the wife of the potter Grayson Perry), has a genius for opening up the heart of things. In each 40-minute episode, we hear first from one sibling, then another, before finally talking to them together. My initial scepticism was quickly washed away in the flood of emotion that Perry brings out of her subjects.
She’s a slow, thoughtful talker. Her most remarkable talent as a broadcaster is her comfort with periods of silence, sometimes long ones, that feel replete with thought and revelation. In fact, Siblings in Session doesn’t feel broadcast at all. It feels contained and private and powerfully real, the biggest podcasting surprise of the past six months. I recommend listening to it. Even better: I advise it.