10 Things Not to Say to a Psychologist
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
[Originally written in December, 2016]
[N.B. This post is intended as tongue-in-cheek, peppered with sarcasm and some bad language. Enjoy.]
As a psychologist introducing myself to someone for the first time, I hear many of the same things over and over again. I can understand where some of these come from. Unfortunately, they’re based on assumptions that are just wrong.
So, without further ado, here are 10 things you should never say to a psychologist (or at least, not this psychologist).
1. “What am I thinking?”
I don’t know because I’m a psychologist, not a psychic.
2. “Ah! Freud?”
Freud was a highly neurotic man with mummy issues whose sexist theories have been largely disproved (if not already recognised as clearly ridiculous) and replaced with evidence-based models.
Some theories about how the brain works (like the existence of unconscious processes) touch on real phenomena but, mostly, he just got lucky or made shit up. As this quote by Eysenck more eloquently puts it:
“What is new in Freud’s theories is not true and what is true in Freud’s theories is not new”
Freud’s theories do not represent modern psychology any more than phrenology does. He is typically introduced to undergraduate psychology students: a) to teach the history of psychology; b) as an example of bad science; and c) as a warning against pushing your own agenda onto a patient.
3. “What does my dream mean?”
You're more qualified to answer that than I am.
You’re likely dreaming about things you experienced or thought about during the day, but only you can tell me what specific memories, desires, or anxieties your dream content relates to. Sure, there are common themes in dreams, like losing a tooth or not being able to run away from something, but there is no scientifically-verified, universal symbolism. Your dream probably means what you think it means.
Personally, I’m quite happy to discuss dream meanings, but not because dreams have any fixed psychological (and definitely not Freudian) meaning. So, once we get past the ‘psychologist = dream interpreter’ assumption, we can totally have a little fun guessing where that weird dream detail came from!
4. “So you're a therapist / psychiatrist?”
No. I’ve had precisely zero training in therapy. You're thinking of clinical psychology.
Psychology has a number of sub-branches: social, cognitive, forensic, biological, etc. Clinical is just one branch, and the psychologist you’re speaking to may not have specialised in clinical psychology after their undergrad degree. I didn’t.
And, if I was a clinical psychologist, this is still different from being a therapist and from being a psychiatrist. Here’s a short summary of the differences:
A counsellor or therapist focusses exclusively on therapy and deals with mild to moderate problems, from common life issues (like divorce) to mental health issues (like anxiety). They may use psychology to help clients through difficulties, but do not necessarily have the same training in how people think and behave as a psychologist does.
A clinical psychologist has specialised in the study of mental disorders and abnormal psychology. They may or may not work as a therapist. They may choose instead to do research in clinical psychology or to teach it.
Psychiatry is a medical specialty, just like paediatrics or cardiology. Unlike therapists and clinical psychologists, psychiatrists have medical training, can prescribe medication, and tend to deal with moderate to severe mental health issues.
5. “Did you study psychology because of a bad past?”
This is related to the therapist presumption. And, no. Bad past or not, I didn’t become a psychologist to “fix myself”; if I did, I would’ve been bitterly disappointed.
I studied psychology because it’s interesting, can be applied to almost anything, and at the same time helps me better understand almost every aspect of human life.
6. “You must have your shit together”
Point 5 notwithstanding, I might have a more insight into myself than had I not studied psychology, but it’s not the same as having the skills I need to ensure that my life runs smoothly. It's kind of like the difference between being a race car technician and being a race driver. A mechanic can improve a car's performance on the race track, but doesn't necessarily have the skillset to get in the car and win a race.
When it comes down to it, I’m just as messed up as the rest. Some even say that psychologists make the worst patients.
7. “You’re so observant / insightful / caring / empathetic… it must be because you’re a psychologist”
Yes. I was just like all the other robots before I had my “niceness” chip inserted into me in recognition of my psychology degree.
Really though, this is a chicken-and-egg scenario. Did studying psychology make me observant, or did being observant make me want to study psychology?
8. “What can you really do with a psychology degree?”
Eeny, meeny, miney, mo…
Psychology is a degree that opens many doors. Psychology undergrads can expect to be able to pursue careers in advertising, public relations, business, education, publishing, human-computer interaction, etc.
In fact, very few people who study psychology will go on to be a career psychologist.
Beyond your career, one of the main arguments for the usefulness of psychology is its applicability to many practical situations. I use the things I learned in psychology for all sorts of situations. Every. Single. Day.
9. “Isn't it all just common sense?”
Common sense is defined as “sound judgement in practical matters” (Oxford Dictionary).
But common sense isn't necessarily right. It's just a strongly held assumption. As Stuart Chase states (often mis-attributed to Albert Einstein):
“Common sense is what tells us the earth is flat"
While valuable for the everyday stuff, common sense can be very fallible and subjective; it shouldn't be used to make predictions and decisions about the bigger stuff – situations that require deeper understanding and thoughtful decision-making – like how to treat someone with depression or how to approach inter-group violence.
People believe that psychology is common sense because they have first hand experience of their own minds and behaviour. But, your first-hand experience does not equate to an understanding of your mind and behaviour. Common sense doesn't tell you anything about how the brain works or the real mechanisms behind your behaviours. For this, you need psychology: “the scientific study of the mind and behaviour” (British Psychological Society).
Psychology reveals that many declarations of “common sense” are made after someone already knows the outcome. That's because people view events as more predictable than they are. This is hindsight bias, aka the "knew-it-all-along effect" or "creeping determinism".
Consider, for instance, how people interpret proverbs. If presented with the proverb “fear is stronger than love”, most people believe it to be true, but so do most people who hear the opposite statement, that “love is stronger than fear”. There is no objective basis for predicting either statement, but both appear to "make common sense" after you've heard them.
10. “Psychology isn't a real science” / “Psychology is an easy degree”
Sure… if doing experiments, collecting real data, critical thinking, and evaluating evidence had nothing to do with science.
The clue is in the name: Bachelor of Science. It's not a 'natural' science, but it's still a science. In fact, the National Science Foundation (NSF) definition of a STEM field actually includes behavioural sciences, alongside mathematics, natural sciences, engineering, and computer science. This means that psychology, as a behavioural science, plays a key part in the initiative to improve science and technology development.
As a science, psychology uses methods of observation, measurement, and testing that allow those who study it to draw conclusions based on scientific methodology. It emphasises falsifiability and replicability. Nevertheless, people take the term "soft science" to mean "not science" and, therefore, an "easy" subject of study.
They mustn’t be aware of the double-module in research methods and stats we do every year. Or of the tyrannical rule of the APA, whose guidelines dictate the rigorous way in which we research and communicate knowledge and findings. Or of the academic papers and books the size of small dogs we have to digest. Or of the experiments we need to plan and run over several weeks and months. Or of the high ethical and procedural standards we conduct ourselves by. Or of the many sub-disciplines of psychology and the information we have to remember.
Tell me it's an easy degree once you've done it.
So what can you say to a psychologist?
At this point, it probably seems like psychologists are pretty sensitive. That's probably just me. Most psychologists are unlikely to react negatively to such statements or questions, at least not overtly. But, I’m sure that most psychologists would still prefer not to have to hear many of them in the first place.