mental health

What, do I smell like a psychologist?

Ok, once and for all let’s get this straight. There are clinical psychologists who see patients, have couches, snort cocaine, and trace everything back to your mother. Then there are research psychologists. They have no patients, the only place they have a couch is in their living room, and while we can neither confirm nor deny the cocaine use without drug tests for any specific research psychologist, they are very unlikely to trace anything back to your mother, ever, period. Unless she deserves it. I’m a particular brand of research psychologist called a “social psychologist”. While I am certainly charming, tasteful, and stirring in social settings, this is independent of my training as a psychologist. Social psychologists study the intersection of the person and their social environment, and how this impacts behavior and individual psychology. Simply put, I don’t care about you as much as I care about whatever group I can assign you to for statistical purposes. Despite how amusing your friends find your quirky neuroses, your individual behavior is not that interesting to a social psychologist. If everybody in your neighborhood has those same quirks, we find it enormously interesting.

By nature, I am a somewhat jaded curmudgeon. Whenever I take the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, it classifies me as “never mind, we’ll ask someone else”. I’m not the kind of psychologist trained to nod sagaciously as I listen, and provide insightful commentary in response to heartfelt renderings, and personal sob stories. I’m the kind of psychologist more interested in manipulating variables in a situation and seeing what it leads people to do, professionally. I like to tell a large number of lab rats that they are brilliant, and see how this affects their aggregate performance on finding cheese in a maze or simulate a prison environment with undergraduates and see how various groups behave. This amuses me. I may receive flak from other social psychologists about my characterization of the field, to which I respond, go find a representative statistical sampling of social psychologists and see how they feel, until which time I am not particularly interested in your individual hang-ups or professional inferiority complexes.

As you can tell, I am not warm and fuzzy. Yet I have come to suspect that there is some sort of subtle set of social cues I’m giving off that scream “psychologist here, unburden thyself!”. As I divide my time between analyzing statistical data, conducting organizational assessments and evaluations, and juggling the myriad of administrative tasks it takes to be upper level management in a non-profit, at least once a week someone slumps into my office and regales me with a life-history that rivals the most disturbed, twisted, and psychologically dark Greek tragedy. The temptation to say, “you really ought to see someone about that” is strong, until I realize they are regarding me as “that someone.” So I listen, and nod, and offer suggestions. Incidentally, did you know that studies have shown that women tend to nod in conversations to show that they are listening, but in doing so are sending mixed signals as if they are agreeing, but I digress into social phenomena, as social psychologist often do. In short I sometimes want to write “Carer-In-Chief” as my official position title.

Certainly, the non-profit world tends towards a blending of the personal and professional worlds. It takes commitment, dedication, and often a personal stake in a cause to engage in the insane working hours, labor with lack of resources, and comparatively low pay that are typical of the non-profit universe. Of course, this means that folks have a lot more personal investment in their jobs, leading to a higher likelihood of emotional outbursts, mental collapses, and general freak outs. People have to be picked up of the floor sometimes and helped to persevere. That’s what human services in the non-profit world are about – helping people build resilience. As someone who by textbook definition is resilient (grew up in the South Bronx witnessing crime, murders, rampant teenage pregnancy, and faced ridicule for wanting an education and taking learning seriously), the struggle to bounce back from adversity strikes a chord with me. I want to help. It’s not about being a psychologist, rather about human decency and good karma. I might not necessarily care about your problems, but I won’t turn you away if you’re clearly in pain or despair. I will listen, and nod, and hope for your resiliency.

But I cannot even attribute this solely to the office environment, as I am approached this way in the wild, by people I have never met. Complete strangers sit next to me without fail in planes, trains, coffee shops, restaurants and unburden themselves as if I’m giving off a psychologist pheromone. Plenty of empty seats around, yet somehow the damaged always wind up next to me and begin filling me in on their psychological trials and tribulation, without my ever telling them I am a psychologist. A classic, and far too common example in my experience was the unfortunate, random gentleman who wandered onto my 10 PM train to the suburbs, sat next to me, and asked me to talk to him throughout the train ride as he was having a panic attack. Clearly not a pick up line. What’s a girl to do? While the rest of the passengers were watching to see what I would do, I took a deep breath and started asking him about his life, keeping him talking and distracted for the entire 45 minute trip. Before he got off, he asked what I did for a living. I could have told him that I help organizations be more culturally competent or that I do research on HIV/AIDS, but I smiled and simply said, “I’m a psychologist”. He laughed, and said, “I knew it”. The rest of the people in the train simply shook their heads and wondered why I had entertained him. Easy, it was the decent thing to do for someone obviously in pain. Karma is a good thing to always keep in mind! And let me formally say to the rest of the people on the train — “you suck!.” I don’t want my fellow human beings to suffer, so if you need help, I’m here, but I want one thing to be abundantly clear – the seat next to me is not a therapy couch. Oh, and I’m looking for some subjects to run through a maze…any volunteers?

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