On Being a Psychologist

As a psychologist/psychotherapist, I have always found it fascinating the ways in which strangers react whenever I inform them that I’m a psychologist. To avoid awkwardness, I know many psychologists lie about their profession to total strangers. It is interesting to note the ways in which strangers respond to my disclosure. I also think it opens up a window into the ways in which Americans thinks about psychotherapy.

One of the major responses I hear from people is “well, we’re all a little crazy, right?” Cue the nervous laughter. In these moments, the stranger is often dreading some sort of mini psychological evaluation and attempting to avoid my (fantasized) all-seeing eye by demanding that I give him/her a clean bill of health. Here I am being placed in the position of the subject supposed to know. While I do have a honed mind based on experience and study, ultimately it is the patient’s unconscious that “knows”. This projection of unconscious knowledge leads to all sorts of interesting social interactions. Returning to the stranger’s questions about craziness, the stranger seems to be communicating, “I’m very uncomfortable in your presence and anxious about my unconscious. Could you please set aside your “psychological hat” so I can avoid my punitive superego and unconscious?” At the same time, other strangers (perhaps the more hysterical and less obsessive individual) takes my disclosure as some sort of ‘green light’ that s/he might be able to get some free therapy. I had this unfortunate experience recently while on a plane. I try my hardest not to talk to strangers because I generally find books more interesting than people, especially because plane rides are excellent opportunities to catch up on reading. Given that these are the typical responses, it’s no surprise that most psychologists often lie about their profession.

Another major response I’ve encountered is “can you shut off your psychological mind when you’re not doing psychotherapy?” While this is a moderately interesting question about drawing boundaries between the personal/professional, the underlying fantasy seems to be in alignment with the first response wherein the stranger appears anxious that I will be able to peer into their very soul. Often, when the stranger is more honest, s/he will say, “I hope you’re not analyzing me.” Again, cue the nervous laughter. In my more aggressive moments, I often respond, “sorry I only analyze people who are interesting.” Over time, I’ve become impressed with human narcissism and the belief we all have (myself included) in our inherent interestingness. This belief is hiding behind the stranger’s belief, as s/he appears to believe that I would want to analyze their mind.

These first three responses are largely positive and betray a belief in the inherent power of the psychologist. The major takeaway from these interactions is that the psychotherapist is an omniscient figure from whose all-seeing gaze there is no escape.

Another major set of social responses is largely negative. First, I have encountered skepticism. “Does psychotherapy really work? Can people even change?” Assuming that the stranger is not really interested in psychotherapy efficacy research (spoiler alert: it does work), we can assume that the stranger is clinging to this rigid belief because of fears that s/he could change some self-destructive pattern or personality trait that is causing suffering. Next, we have all these weird fantasies about the devious and insane nature of psychologists and psychiatrists. “You have to be pretty crazy to listen to crazy all day.” Just think of the ridiculous ways in which psychologists and psychiatrists are portrayed in pop culture. Barring the psychoanalyst off the Sopranos, most depictions are completely bizarre. In many cases we have therapists with terrible boundaries who seduce their patients. Or we have the sadistic psychiatrist who gets off torturing his (note: this season of Dexter is doing female psychiatrists a service by making both male and female and psychiatrists appear psychopathic) patients. It makes one wonder how many movie directors have acted out their frustrated erotic and aggressive transferences towards their therapists by creating absurd caricatures on film. Another major response is perhaps the most annoying. This is the “tough guy” attitude which envisions that psychotherapy as some sort of hand-holding, coddling exercise wherein the patient blames everything on others. In their mind, psychotherapy is for “pussies”. This weird feminization of psychotherapy is probably driven by the anxiety that the “penetrating” all seeing eye of the psychotherapist might be able to see something that is anxiety-producing for the stranger. As a result, the psychotherapist is castrated in the stranger’s fantasy as to way to defend against this anxiety.

After reviewing all of these fears and fantasies, it is obvious that being a psychologist is a very weird profession. We are both respected and dismissed. Desired and feared. It’s a wonder patients are able to push past these fears and fantasies to even enter into the consultation room. More and more, I’ve become impressed with the patient’s capacity to speak and act honestly in the face of overwhelming anxiety and fear, which I think is a good definition of courage. Psychoanalysis and psychotherapy are interesting human endeavors. When someone enters into treatment, it is usually safe to say s/he is suffering. This individual also knows that psychotherapy will produce more suffering. The trick for the psychotherapist is to somehow convince the patient that the suffering that s/he will experience in psychotherapy is worth it.

Returning to the “tough guy” attitude, it is patently obvious that these people are defensive and terribly uncomfortable with being honest. They don’t want to think about anything and they trivialize their emotional experiences. In reality, psychotherapy is ultimately an act of courage because, when I interpret, I am drawing the patient’s attention to realities that are extremely painful such as: trauma, madness, death, loss, abandonment, rejection, and self-sabotage, i.e. the darker sides of human nature. As Lacan noted in Seminar VII, psychoanalysis entails an ethics of responsibility, even responsibility for our unconscious. So, it is extremely curious to me why there is this pervasive fantasy that psychotherapy is about blaming others whenever, at least psychoanalytic therapy (which is admittedly no longer in the majority for many complex reasons), is all about realizing the fact that we are responsible for all of our actions. Things don’t just happen. Everything has meaning. This is not to deny that there are actual victims or accidents or things beyond our control (e.g. social realities). However, as long as we continue to tell ourselves that the world happens and we are passive recipients (external locus of control), we are doomed to react. If psychoanalysis is ultimately about a realization of one’s unconscious desire and fostering a sense of agency to pursue those desires, then what is key is helping the patient recognize they have chosen and are unconsciously invested in their symptoms (e.g. pathological relationships, intense anxiety, anger-regulation problems, obsessive thinking, etc.). This is why psychotherapy is an act of courage. People spend their entire lives running away from these truths and many go to their grave never confronting them. No wonder why the psychologist in public is greeted with such manifest ambivalence.

12 thoughts on “On Being a Psychologist

  1. Whenever I meet psycho/logists/therapists, my standard reply is to say, “Really? Intersting. I heard that most people become psychotherapists in order to solve their own problems.” I suppose it’s my way of opposing the ‘subject supposed to know’. The implication of my reply is obviously that they’re the ‘subject already sick and maybe incapable of helping and maybe I can help’. It’s a nice reversal of the expected course of the conversation. Whether this ‘most’ is statistically true or not doesn’t really bother me. Nor does that fact that sickness of itself doesn’t entail inability to help. I just wanted to add one more reply to your anecdotal list of common replies.

  2. That’s an interesting response/fantasy. I think it would be more accurate to say that many people become therapists to solve other people’s problems for two reasons: A) A desire to ignore their own issues and an anxiety about being pathological and B) The person was never able to save the (insert pathological family member) who was very sick.

    It’s funny that people think these sorts of replies are comical. I can’t think of many other common professions that elicit these sorts of responses. For instance, nobody every says to a hospice nurse, “I hear people go into your line of work because they enjoy watching others die.” Of course, psychoanalysis is a response to suffering but it’s also about witnessing suffering. There are undeniable sadistic aspects animating the choice to spend a lifetime in a career where you watch other people experience and encounter unspeakable suffering.

  3. If you’re acquainted with “In Treatment,” how bizarre do you find its depiction of the psychotherapists Paul and Gina, respectively?

  4. That show does a more accurate job of portraying a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. However, Paul does goes over to seduce his one patient (Laura) and unconsciously blocks himself by having a panic attack. Again, we have the notion of the therapist with poor boundaries. Of course, the show put this wish in the context of his loneliness and unsatisfying marriage.

    Paul and Gina’s supervision is well-done and pretty accurate. In general, Paul’s sessions are much more dramatic than normal sessions (especially because the show only ran 30 mins rather than the 50-minute therapeutic hour). Their relationship is a bit incestuous, although this is not that bizarre given the dynamics of many analytic institutes.

  5. You know what would be amazing? If people would ask about one’s profession after learning of it, rather than telling one all about one’s own profession. Probably a little too much to ask!

  6. Yeah. However the thing about psychology and theology is that everyone thinks they’re an expert on the mind and God. So, we did choose professions that readily invite obnoxious engagements with strangers.

  7. On the other hand, at least people don’t mock psychologists and theologians for presuming to name themselves for what they do (unless that happens) — when I tell someone I’m a philosopher they’re liable to say, “that’s a little pretentious, isn’t it?” Or, sarcastically, “what’s your philosophy then?”

    I comfort myself, however, that there is hardly any intellectual vocation that doesn’t suffer daily at the hands of the philistines.

  8. I don’t know. I think theologians are up against a similar bias. Namely, the idea that theologians know nothing about God because God cannot be intellectually understood but can only be experienced. This is a very real prejudice people have against theologians.

    Psychologists do earn more respect from the public than do theologians and philosophers because we help people on a very pragmatic level. I don’t think the general American public believes that academic philosopher or theologians do anything of the sort.

    I was attracted to psychology as it seems to offer a nice balance between theory and practice. I am faced with trying to understand the most complex aspects of human nature (e.g. madness, sexuality, self-destruction, etc) but I am also attempting to offer some sort of understanding or intervention that will help that singular individual relieve their suffering.

    Not to say that philosophy doesn’t have a real impact on the way people live their lives. It’s just that most people won’t be bothered with the kinds of questions that philosophy considers and thus imagine that academics do nothing but sit in the ivory towers of academia writing about things that nobody can understand.

  9. However the thing about psychology and theology is that everyone thinks they’re an expert on the mind and God. So, we did choose professions that readily invite obnoxious engagements with strangers.

    Psychology, theology, philosophy, and linguistics; the latter two are what I study. I never talk about linguistics with anyone who doesn’t study it, and when people ask me what in philosophy I do, I mumble something about meta-ethics, rattle off a one-liner bashing some Frenchman or other, and snow them with buzzwords until they go away, unless I think they’re interesting. That’s assuming I didn’t respond to their initial question of field or whatever with “eh, computer stuff” — which is the most effective way I’ve found to drive off the dull.

    The prejudice I’ve most often heard against psychology is that it’s an elaborate plot to drain people of their money, either by referring them to someone who will load them up on drugs or by rolling out ineffective talking cures designed to drag on as long as possible to ensure a steady income source for the psychologist.

  10. Neither of those prejudices are well founded.

    1. Psychology doesn’t necessarily benefit financially by referring patients to psychiatrists although it is often in the best interest of the patient.

    2. The criticism about long term treatment might be levied against psychoanalysis. The research on long term psychoanalytic psychotherapy consistently shows it to be more beneficial than short term treatments.

  11. But isn’t it fair to say that “psychoanalytic psychotherapy” isn’t what most folks are getting when they find a counselor through Psychology Today’s online ads? Or am I mistaken about what you mean exactly by this distinction?

  12. You know, it’s sometime difficult to draw that line between psychoanalytic and non-psychoanalytic therapy. The majority of therapists identify as being ‘eclectic” in their style. So, given that, I recognize that some of these fantasies aren’t completely ungrounded. I’m sure many therapists to embody these stereotypes.

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