The Psychology of Being a Psychologist

But what many psychologists have done, probably because they did well on a test themselves and everyone wants high self-esteem, is to create this little box and then do their research inside it. –Robert Sternberg

As a professional psychologist I occasionally engage in some psychologically oriented activities such as attending psychic conventions…oops…I mean, psychological conferences.  And it is at moments like those that I wonder about my chosen vocation. I elected to become a psychologist. I pursued it. I tested for it. There was no coercion involved and the decision was made of my own free will.  I left my lawyer path to ride the waves of the self. Can you tell I am writing this while sipping a Mai Tai on the western shore of Oahu? I am on a nice beach in Hawaii because I ran as far as possible from the convention area in Waikiki where 8,000 plus psychologists were congregating, walking about with their guild bag emblazoned with “APA” for all to see.  Not that I am ashamed of being a psychologist, but I sure don’t want to be one of those conference tourists who loudly embody a differentiated point of view.

On the local morning news channel, the news anchors wondered repeatedly whether psychologists had descended en masse to conduct a psychological evaluation of the locals. Hilariously paranoid, but not too far off the mark, at least where some psychologists are concerned.

So, here I sit far away watching two Hawaiian men spear fishing. Seems like a good set of fun skills to have here. I’m absent-mindedly watching all the children catch wave after wave looking like a United Colors of Benetton advertisement.  Out of the corner of my left eye I catch a couple of teenagers about to go paddling. Skin-tone wise I fit in. No one can tell what I am ethnically and I really don’t know what they are. In a zone defined by ambiguity I fit right in. My rapid note-taking on the iPad, however, and my ever darting eyes and perked up ears, gives me away as not being from around here.

Yet, when I attended sessions on stigma and HIV at the conference, I did not fit in either. I apply psychological principles every day in my chosen non-profit field. I see first-hand the effects of stigma. I do not need to correlate a stigma self-report scale with community indicators to know the psychological, physical and spiritual ravages of stigma. A session attendee asked the presenters about the effects of triple stigmatization on everyday life and none of the panelists could readily provide an answer. One started talking about being a white woman and sexism; while another noted her latest book. Finally, another panelist affirmed that no one was really studying that yet. At that point I nearly had a brain aneurysm and my eye started twitching. I kept thinking, seriously? But I didn’t raise my hand. I didn’t get up and set the record straight. I got up, tweeted about the session and walked away. I was ready for a Mai Tai. Why did I not say anything? I just felt the conversation was not meant for an applied psychologist like myself to be a part of, or else why did they not invite an applied researcher to be part of the panel? The research was there being somewhat presented as research in a vacuum. There is academic psychology, there is clinical psychology and then there is community reality.

Now, while I was obviously not from Hawaii despite fitting in with the ambiguous look, I also did not quite fit in with my fellow psychologists.  Or did I?   There are over 60 divisions in the American Psychological Association demonstrating that the field of psychology is actually quite niche-oriented.  Everybody has their narrow specialization.  Cross-niche work is a bit like mixing die-hard wine drinkers with die-hard beer drinkers. It can and does happen, but the party mentality and music is bound to be slightly different. When people meet psychologists (let’s say at a party for instance) they oftentimes assume that the person is a clinical or counseling psychologist.  I get that all the time. If I am at a party (or shindig, bar, reception), I note that I do not care about people’s problems, I just manipulate them. Then the stares and the looks of disbelief that I could be so mean come flooding out into the open space.  I am, of course, joking about the silly distinctions in the field, but it seems that joke is too inside baseball for most. Thus, people don’t get my joke and probably leave thinking they will never go to me for therapy. Which of course is actually a good thing, as I don’t bend that way.

At times psychologists are globally described as being either “applied” or “research-oriented”. They may correspondingly be characterized as being either a “scientist” (one who conducts research) and “practitioners” (one who applies psychological knowledge). That type of characterization is totally offensive.  Actually, it takes a lot more than that to offend me. However, it puzzles me that the assumption is made that if you apply knowledge you cannot be a scientist. That division does help explain a bit the current mood surrounding science in the United States, does it not?  To drive psychologists even more batty, universities sometimes classify psychology under natural sciences and other times as a social science. I have heard some psychologists say that others find them too applied; others have stated they are considered too basic and many more lament that they have been “disparaged” for not being clinical enough.

All these divisions and characterizations serve to highlight the fact that psychologists by nature are a group of people seeking an identity.  They are constantly asking themselves “who am I”; “where do I fit in” and “who is it that I study”? At the end of the day, a psychologist by and large studies behavior and mental processes. Ironically enough, the way in which the psychologist goes about such inquiry is what provides the psychologist with his or her identity.  Could Freud have been onto something when he noted,  “We are so made, that we can only derive intense enjoyment from a contrast and only very little from a state of things.”  Hmm.

Back to my original problem. I felt I didn’t fit in at the conference and thus I left momentarily.  However, instead of leaving perhaps I should have gone to one of the other 50 sessions going on at that same time and found some similar others. There had to be others like me somewhere. Rather yet, instead of acting as an outcast, I could have created a whole new niche division– you know a new in-group that could be studied endlessly with college undergrads. Oh, you know it’s true.

Enough with the navel-gazing, onwards to some psychological work.  By the way, I do love being a psychologist; a kooky one at that.


14 replies »

  1. I can see some of why psychologists might be seeking identity. As a field, it ranges from anatomical to nearly-sociology. Few fields are so intent on measurement and yet the thing being measured can seem ephemeral for people used to injury-A-causes-symptom-B. Plus, unlike medical research, I think the general population doesn’t see/understand psychological research that well.


    • Thanks for the comment. You so hit the nail on the button right on. Psychologists study stats to no end so that they can measure ephemeral things with some quantitative rigor. Even in stats psychologists are seeking out their identity.


  2. Identity is such an intriguing thing. When is it okay for you to use the title? Yes, as a psychologist, you get your qualifications and you have a professional entitlement. People still may not get the details but you at least have a professional qualification. It gets much murkier for people in the arts, When can you call yourself a writer or a musician? What are the criterion?
    8 years ago, I developed a life-threatening muscle-wasting disease called dermatomyositis…its a neuro-muscular disease like MD but there’s treatment. I become quite debilitated prior to my diagnosis and up and down ever since and this has had a huge impact on my identity. For awhile there, I was struggling to fulfill any of my roles: wife, mum let alone get back to my work as a marketing/communications manager. I found this lack of identity beyond “invalid” or “sick person” intensely painful and frustrating. I couldn’t be me. I couldn’t get my feet back into my shoes.
    Fortunately, I had worked in HIV/AIDS communication and so I have heard of the expression of “living with” HIV/AIDS and so I did have this idea of the illness not being me, which really helped but I still felt very inadequate. Faulty. Fortunately, I have reinvented myself. I started blogging, which has provided a public outlet for my writing as I work towards putting a book together.
    I recently broke my foot just as I was going on stage to play my violin at the school carols evening. I send a press release off to the local paper headed: “Local Violinist Breaks Foot and Plays On”. I did consider whether I could call myself a violinist. After all, I have only been playing for 3 years but it’s also about what’s in your heart. What’s in your soul. To be honest, my gift is really about writing about playing the violin and how that has helped be develop resilience and overcome a multitude of obstacles posed by disability to even use the bow and get my fingers in the right spot.


    • Its so true. In HIV/AIDS field there is a general understanding that the disease does not define the person. Especially now that is more like a chronic disease. Your journey seems like one you have been able to move and adapt with. I do wish you the best in managing all this. It seems you have found a great outlet to do so. I had never heard of that disease, im looking forward to learning more


      • It’s been an interesting journey psychologically speaking because it’s been more a matter of learning to live on a constantly moving carpet rather than accepting the status quo. After many years pulling this apart and grappling with the whole thing, I realised that it is a matter of living with contradiction and I think that applies to a lot of people with serious chronic illnesses. You can perhaps pull off that special activity but them be unable to do the mundane everyday and you can cop a bit of flack for that but it is a complicated process xx Rowena and thanks for your interest!!


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