I'm Not a Hypochondriac, I'm Just a Jew

Some people, including therapists and humorists, think being Jewish and being a hypochondriac go together. They think of Jews and conjure up a neurotic, therapy-going, compulsive, worrying Woody Allen type. In fact, Allen writes in a recent New York Times article, "Hypochondria-An Inside Look," "I am always certain I've come down with something life threatening... Every minor ache or pain sends me to a doctor's office."

However, while I enjoy a good joke, even about Jews (in fact, I have happily watched and re-watched many Woody Allen movies) there is a darker side.

First, for the purposes of full disclosure, let me say that I am a Jewish therapist (not that there's anything wrong with that). Second, Allen never directly connects Jews and hypochondria, but he didn't need to because we all get it. We know he's Jewish despite the fact that he specifically says he is not religious -- a statement often made by Jews who do not want to identify with being Jewish, not only religiously, but culturally as well. (I hear my Jewish grandmother saying with her Russian Jewish accent, "Why not say he's Jewish?") Moreover, the title of his article alone may have readers, Jew and Gentile alike, imagining they are getting let in on a peculiarly Jewish "illness."

Piqued by Allen's article in specific, and the stereotype in general, I called a Jewish colleague of mine who is an expert on Jewish psychology. He noted that some Jews have a penchant for worrying about, or expressing greater concern over, their physical symptoms. However, he found that when the symptom and worry were taken seriously, particularly by helping the client see themselves as connected to their Jewish history, they felt better. In these cases the "extra worry" was a symptom of not having had historical fears, traumas, and the consequences of that history on the human psyche fully acknowledged. Further, he learned that validating those worries was part of the process of healing from historical trauma. I have witnessed the same remedial impact working with Jews in my own practice. In short, treating Jewish clients as if their worries were valid and connected to their Jewish history, instead of a figment of their imagination, had a curative effect.

Actually, most symptoms that go unaddressed naturally amplify whether they are physical, psychological, or social. In essence, our symptoms grow more disturbing until their power cuts through the walls of denial and reaches our awareness, making their meaning known, and allowing us to take action. While some mainstream psychologists (as well as bloggers and humorists) may consider the amplification of our fears and worries a form of hypochondria, this kind of thinking treats the individual as if their pain and concern are illegitimate -- a function of their faulty psychology as opposed to an unrecognized history and trauma. In this way, the label and diagnosis may add insult to injury by dismissing the deeper issue. It can be far more useful, compassionate, and instructive to understand Jewish "hypochondria" as a symptom of the relatively unseen, unexplored, and denied trauma that emanates like a wave for generations to come.

The same kind of psychological twist happens with all marginalized groups -- people express aspects of their trauma in ways that are confusing, and then are looked at as if they have an internal problem or sickness.

Being sensitive to humor is a tricky business; there is always a way out for the humorist -- "It was just a joke." However, associating Jews with hypochondria risks pathologizing Jews for taking their pain, trauma, and fears seriously. At the risk of going too far and pushing my argument too strongly, the association just might fail, again, to bear witness to a Jewish trauma. It risks being psychologically a form of Holocaust denial.

OK, perhaps I am making too much of this; perhaps I have gone too far. Perhaps comparing a relatively innocent, even benign, stereotype to Holocaust denial is just too much.

Or is it that I'm just a Jew who worries too much?

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