Four years ago I was in a bar talking with a newly licensed therapist. I told her I deeply resented psychologists and despised the thought of therapy. But when she asked me why, I didn’t really have an answer. I got the sense she was getting at something obviously vulnerable in me, and defensively backed out of the conversation. I never let the instance go, and began trying to answer the question for myself. This fall I will begin graduate studies in cognitive psychology as the next step in my profession of love for the discipline. Surely, this was all part of her carefully executed plan in enigmatically asking, “Why?” I’ll show her, yet.
Now that I’ve come to be identified as a student of psychology, I have awoken on the other side of the question:
“Mark, are you psychoanalyzing me?”
“Yes,” I joke.
And then the subject changes quickly, and I get awkward glances from all her friends for the rest of the night. It’s too late to justify my statement and dispel the concern.
I understand the discipline can seem directly threatening to self-understanding. Indeed much of the headline insights from psychology seem intrinsically challenging to our identity.
At the heart of of the question I think is this: Are you judging me? And to say yes to that would be an alarming idea, given I must be applying my years of study to surgically make value-claims tailored precisely for you.
But Psychologists are doing quite the opposite. A central challenge of psychology research is to assign measurable definitions to behavior. The first thing out the window is “good” and “bad.” It’s too complicated, way too difficult to defend, and many would say probably doesn’t exist in any structural sense. One of the important reasons why we have trouble judging people in psychology comes from the second thing out the window: a claim that “bad” characteristic X causes “bad” Y. We know enough to know that causality is too complex to assign value.
Instead, when I say, “Yes, I’m analyzing you,” I’m affirming something about my inquisitive nature, and my interest in talking with you. I’m acknowledging that I’m considering the complexity behind what you just said, and trying to understand the many reasons why you may have just poured yourself another mixed drink despite complaining about its bite. And if I find myself judging you, it probably has more to do with your bad taste in liquor than your inner thoughts.