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Why People Believe Shrinks Analyze Everything

One of the myths about psychology professionals is that they're "analyzing" everyone. Not to put too fine a point on it, but when they're not at work, they actually have their own lives to think (and worry) about.

Concern about all that analysis --I think, and by all means, let me know if you have other theories-- is rooted in the ideas that 1) Your deep, dark secrets are transparent to the wandering shrink's psychological x-ray vision, 2) Something you don't know (and don't want to know) will be forced into the open, because 3) Little mundane things about you that you thought were perfectly normal are telling the world something secret about you that even you don't know.

As far as a lot of people are concerned, we might as well be palm readers...we just don't need to look at your palm. We can tell all from across the room!

(None of which is true. You can visit Writer Beware: Common Misconceptions about Psychotherapy to read about the "Shrinks Analyze Everyone" myth.)

I always wonder where people get these ideas. And then I run across articles like the one in this week's US and I think...ohhhhhhhhhh.

US Plays Ask the Shrink

Little innocuous behaviors are being taken out of context, diagnosed, and rated in terms of how much of a "concern" they are.

Folks, if it isn't causing a problem for anyone, it doesn't get a diagnosis. Let me just say that again because people have so much trouble with it: if it isn't causing a problem for anyone, it doesn't get a diagnosis. If you get kind of depressed from time to time but like it because you find you're more creative then (or whatever) and it's not causing any problems, it doesn't get diagnosed!

Natalie Portman shaved her head for V for Vendetta and didn't wear a wig. People thought it was kinda cool. Britney Spears shaved her head and you'd have thought the Second Coming was at hand. Same behavior, but the assumed distress associated with the second act made it more interesting (but still not necessarily diagnosable -- there isn't a "shaves head on a whim" diagnosis, after all).

And things always have to be taken in context.

And we all "analyze" other people's behaviors, but as soon as you add professionals you're affecting the way people see said profession.


So let's take a look at the US article. One caveat is that writers for magazine articles have to choose a quote or two out of information that may originally have been several pages long (or out of a phone call that lasted half an hour or more), and they don't always quote quite as exactly as the expert might have liked. So I'm working with what the blurb says, not knowing how accurate the expert's quote is and whether it's in context. In other words, the goal here is not to attack someone else's quotes, it's to talk about the messages that ended up in print.

You can click any of the images below to see a readable-size version.

Case Study: Kelly Clarkson says she's never said "I Love You" and isn't into marriage

She's 25. So what if she hasn't said "I love you" to a partner? Maybe she's discriminating. Maybe the words mean enough that she doesn't want to be careless with them. Maybe people in her family just didn't use the words much.

As for not being interested in marriage...if she was a man, do you think anyone would have been upset about that? The marriage rate is the lowest it's been in a long time, as women choose to delay or even eschew marriage for a variety of reasons.

If she were 45 and saying she'd never fallen in love, didn't know if she were capable, and is extremely sad about it, we might be able to speculate that her "model of intimacy [is] disturbed."

Case Study: Isaiah Washington: Refers to himself in the third person

I have a strong feeling that this is being taken out of context and given more weight than it deserves. Some celebrities see themselves as a brand that's separate from themselves. Cindy Crawford, for example, has famously said to her staff, "We all work for Cindy Crawford [the image and brand people pay for], including me."

My sixth-grade science teacher talked about herself in the third person exclusively. She never, ever used the words I, me, we, or other first-person terms. She said Mrs. ______ would like you all to stop talking now. She is getting very frustrated with you." She was also a close-talker. I don't know why she did it. Does it mean she needs a diagnosis? Nope, not for that. It's just different. Okay, it was a little weird, and it's why I remember her now.

Case Study: Paris Hilton: Has quickie spiritual epiphany -- in jail

One of my favorite quotes (especially as a teacher): "The thief is sorry that he is to be hanged, not that he is a thief." (That becomes, "He's sorry that he got busted for plagiarizing, not that he plagiarized.")

Anyways... Call me a cynic, but if Paris didn't find God after the sex tape scandal, I don't think a few days in jail is going to do it. I agree with the shrink in this article that change tends to be caused by a trigger, but the true test is whether the "change" lasts. When she can again spend $18,000 on a sweater for her teeny little dog, how spiritual will she be?


So shrinks really don't have x-ray glasses and they aren't analyzing you. Only Santa and God are making decisions about whether your behavior is a problem or not. And Santa's kind of a pushover...he brings you stuff even when you've been a little bad.


  1. Alison Cummins said...
    Hm. My concern about being analysed is that someone might make stuff up about me that I don't agree with, and that I have no control over the story being attached to me.

    It's one thing if it's my neighbour the english teacher, or a taxi driver (we all attach stories to people), but another if it's someone who has the authority and prestige to give their story more status than mine. If (for instance) I think the cigar is just a good smoke, I might fantasise that a shrink is thinking it's something else - and that if they are, their version sticks.

    It's fear of having your story taken away from you, and having it be distorted by someone who doesn't share your priorities.

    The 'diagnosis' stuff is just gossip. Not the kind of gossip about who is sleeping with who, but the kind where you get all 'concerned' about a mutual friend and discuss them somewhat patronisingly. The kind that reinforces who is in and out of the clique, or that tears down someone who is accomplished or in the public eye and tries to level them. And I don't mean in the public eye like Ms. Hilton, but like the smart girl in your physics class.

    I don't think it's specifically about psychiatry, or about the fear of being analysed. Just a way of taking someone down a peg or two and calling it 'diagnosis' to borrow medical authority and make it stick.
    Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...
    You're right, people do give stories more credit when there's a degree attached to it. (That annoys me, but I confess that I have played the doctor card from time to time, and it works.)

    And people do use diagnostic terms to hurt other people. It's such a big problem that the APA occasionally changes the names of disorders just to try to avoid the stigma that's gotten attached. (Borderline Personality Disorder is, to my understanding, near if not at the top of that list.)

    When you talked about the fear of having someone distort and essentially use your words against you, do you mean by people in general or by a shrink?

    If it's the latter, and I know it happens, it worries me how few people realize that they should run for the high hills. (I'm not implying that you are among those people.) The idea that shrinks know something secret about you can undermine your judgment and make you question whether disliking the therapist is because there's something wrong with you.

    It also bothers me, in general, that diagnosis can be used to tear someone down. I hope that someday we live in a world where it's no more stigmatizing to say "she has bipolar disorder!" than it is to say, "she has strep throat!" I don't know if I believe that world will ever exist, but I hope it will.

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