Yes I’m a psychologist: and NO I can’t read your mind!
A tip for all singles who are crazy enough to practice in or study under the discipline of psychology – LIE ABOUT WHAT YOU DO!!! Its a total romance killer – and I’ve come to dread getting to that unavoidable part in a conversation: “so what do you do?”. “Working on a PhD, half-time raising teens, and tutoring at the university” is my standard response. “What are you studying?” … OK wait for it … “Psychology”! Bang – game over, a look of fear slides fleetingly across their face to be replaced by the polite catch-ya-later smile. And its not just in relationships, or potential relationships, that this kind of fear-response occurs. When meeting new people generally the standard reply upon discovering my ‘discipline’ is “Oh no! You’re not reading my mind are you?” I find myself continuously offering grave reassurances that no indeed, there is no such ‘mind reading’ paper in psychology at either the undergraduate or postgraduate level, all the while biting back my desired retort “well I started to … but I got bored!!”
Usually what people have in mind as they teeter on the edge of the anxiety-abyss, is the quintessential professional, the elite of the discipline – the clinical psychologist. This frightening character is the one most often depicted in cinema and the like – poker faced, sitting silently beside their couch-ridden hapless client who bewails their deepest sufferings, all the while revealing more of themselves than they ever intended to. Hence the suspicion and fear the title invokes.
To complicate matters further – this particular type of clinical psychologist is of the psycho-analytic variety – following in the Freudian tradition of having clients ‘free associate’ all the while zeroing in on various revealing tit-bits or Freudian slips! Not only has psycho-analysis transformed quite considerably since inspiring such a stereotypical depiction; psycho-analysis itself holds no truck in Aotearoa – here clinical psychologists subscribe to the Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy model, commonly referred to as CBT. A rather sad development – as critical as i am of psychology as a whole – it was some of Freud‘s (and Jung‘s … and Rank‘s … and Hillman‘s) ideas that brought me to the discipline in the first place and thus I was heartbroken to find them so out of favour and as such frequently besmirched!! Soooooo last century apparently! Psychoanalysis, existential therapy, and their various derivatives have long fascinated me, but have fallen (far beneath it would seem) the much more empirically-validated CBT (empirical validation being a ‘gold-standard’ type qualifier, with little attention paid it would seem to the fact that CBT, with its perfunctory machinations and universal thus replicable strategies, is quite possibly the only therapy able to be measured). The almighty dollar dictates once again – only ‘proven’ therapies should receive funding, problem is, what might one consider proof? What is mental ‘wellness’ (or ‘illness for that matter) anyway, and if we could even agree on a definition that would cross culture, location, and gender, how might we go about measuring it. This is, after all, what psychology prides itself on – its empirical rigour, and yet still the root word of psychology – psyche or ‘the soul’, remains a mystery still. I could complicate matters further and ask, ‘if one is technically considered sane in an insane world (insane at least in my estimation) doesn’t that in fact make one insane??’ Still these ponderings are no matter to many fellow psychologists, those enthused with the promise of CBT pay small heed to big considerations and focus instead on targetting problematic thought and behaviour for change. Ugh. Need I say more?
Inner-workings of the therapeutic arm of the discipline aside, psychology as a whole is so much broader than this narrow albeit much vaunted sector. There are now health psychologists, educational psychologists, industrial-organisational psychologists (the money makers!), forensic psychologists – a veritable smorgasbord of behavioural ‘experts’. As for me – I’d probably call myself a critical psychologist, because I’m critical (very! did you guess?) of the way psychology investigates, explains and attempts to control human behaviour (making us nice, malleable individuals – a ‘best fit’ for society as we find it) and how it conducts itself as a discipline.
So what does all this wailing and gnashing of teeth on my part mean exactly? Simply this – to offer total assurance (particularly to future suitors – ha!) that what psychology understands about the complexities of human behaviour could fit on the back of the proverbial postage stamp (do such antiquities still exist?). Not psychologists themselves mind, who through hours of experience and their own sampling of life may have broadened what was offered to them academically – but the discipline itself. If it is a deeper understanding of the human condition you seek, best you turn to literature – Alice Walker’s The Color Purple say, or Kerri Hulme’s The Bone People (big ups to our Booker prize winning Māori writer) ,or Whitman’s poetric prose than the stultifying pages of a psychology textbook. And on that note I leave the final word to Archetypal Psychologist (oooh, flash!) James Hillman, who’s words I stumbled across some time ago, and whom here, I couldn’t agree with more:
By psychology’s ‘mortal sin’, I mean the sin of deadening, the dead feeling that comes over us when we read professional psychology, hear its language, the voice with which it drones, the bulk of its textbooks, the serious pretensions and bearded proclamations of new ‘findings’ that could hardly be more banal, its soothing anodynes for self-help, its decor, its fashion, its departmental meetings, and its tranquilizing consulting rooms, those stagnant waters where the soul goes to be restored, a last refuge of white-bread culture, stale, crustless, but ever spongy with rebounding hope …
Whatever romance might still be left appears in the desire to help suffering people by entering a ‘training program’ for therapists. But if helping is the calling, then better apprentice with Mother Teresa than to expect a psychology without soul, beauty, or pleasure to train you to help the suffering. Psychology has no self-help manual for its own affliction. ~ James Hillman