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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.

Paris Goes to Jail & Has a "Breakdown"

So Paris Hilton is back in jail.

I'll be blunt here: I have no sympathy.

Two reasons. First, she got busted for an alcohol-related violation in the first place. Drunk drivers kill more people than any other type of human killer, and the fact that that wasn't her first violation is just ridiculous. Second, she never would have gone anywhere near a jail if she hadn't violated probation in association with said alcohol-related violation.

I mean, you can only pile one violation on top of another for so long.

What this has to do with psychology: So part of the reason she got out is she supposedly had some "medical condition" -- a rash is what I heard -- and had a "mental breakdown."

Welcome to the slammer, folks. It's all normal for people going to jail for the first time. And a lot of those folks are going to be there for more than 23 days, and they don't have the option to go home and get a spray-on tan and visits from relatives when they get out after 3 (aka 5) days.

Yep, it's time to talk about the Zimbardo experiment again. (Visit the link for a quick overview of the experiment; Zimbardo also recently published The Lucifer Effect, a detailed accounting of the experiment with comparisons to Abu Girab and other similar atrocities.)

Several of the "prisoners" in the experiment had nervous breakdowns -- one within 36 hours. He had to be "released" from the experiment as a result. And this is after being "pretend" arrested and placed in a "fake" jail for 36 hours. In Quiet Rage, an academic video on the experiment, he can be heard falling apart as he starts to tell the researchers how bad he feels --"I'm all f---ed up, I'm all f---ed up inside"-- until he's simultaneously screaming and crying, "I want out! Let me out!"

Just like in a real prison, the stress of the situation made some of the prisoner's crack. Within 36 hours one of the prisoners had to be released after he exhibited signs of a nervous breakdown: He began uncontrollably crying, screaming, cursing, and acting irrationally. The stress of being in a prison environment caused a general deterioration of the prisoners into pathological behavior, and a prisoner a day had to be released after snapping. Although the men were "mock" prisoners in a "mock" prison, it was psychologically real to them, and that is how they responded. Yet while prisoners were psychologically collapsing from the SCP's effect on them, not a single guard quit or let up on their demeaning tactics. -

So Paris is no different from anyone else in this situation. A "breakdown" of some sort is almost expected, particulary for someone so spoiled. As for a rash -- I don't know what it really was, but hives come to mind. Hives are a common reaction to extremely stressful situations.

Woe and misery, Paris -- but you're sure not alone. The good ol' USA has the largest prison population in the world. In 2003, "prisons and jails held one out of every 142 U.S. residents."

And don't forget, in a lot of cases innocent people had to get hurt for all of those people to land there. Paris is lucky she isn't in Lane Garrison's shoes. Garrison drove drunk (and high on cocaine) and killed a teenager. He's looking at almost 7 years in jail. (Seven years isn't much when you think about the teenager who lost 50-80 years of life, not to mention to grief suffered by the family and friends who are left.)

Get over it, Paris.

And next time, do what the nice probation officer tells you to do.

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