Think Like A Shrink #1: Don’t Psychoanalyze Your Family and Friends!

Don’t psychoanalyze your family and friends. 

I make this the first post in this new series on the conceptual tools of the psychiatric trade because my #1 concern is that readers will run out and start analyzing their lovers and parents and children and friends – for free! 

Don’t. Seriously don’t. It will end badly for all involved.

What do I mean by psychoanalyze? Instead of a definition, how about some examples of psychoanalysis in action?

“You’re breaking up with me because you’re afraid to love.”

“You’re staying at work late tonight because you want to avoid that conversation I told you we’re having.”

“You made that joke about Republicans because you know my mom’s Republican. It’s just your way of making sure she knows how much you disrespect her.”

“If you really wanted me to be happy you’d do the dishes more often.”

“You didn’t clean up your room to prove that you’re not scared of me.”

Can you see the common theme? If not, turn your attention a single word: you. In each of these sentences the speaker is telling the listener something about him or herself. And this requires the speaker to say you. 

Now to go a little further, notice a second word – one that doesn’t actually appear in each sentence (save the fourth), but which hovers all around it. That’s the word really. In each case the speaker is telling the listener what is really going on. And that’s because the listener surely, just a moment earlier, gave the speaker some other explanation for his or her behavior. Which means that each of the quotes above, when fleshed out to include what the speaker actually means, would sound more like this.

“You say you’ve met somebody new. But really you’re breaking up with me because you’re afraid to love.”

“You say you have a big report to finish before your morning meeting, but really you’re staying at work late tonight to avoid that conversation I told you we’re having.”

“You say you just thought it was a funny joke, but really you made that joke about Republicans because you know my mom’s Republican. It’s just your way of making sure she knows how much you disrespect her.”

“You say you want me to be happy, but if you really wanted me to be happy you’d do the dishes.”

“You say you find it easier to find things if you don’t clean up your room. But really you didn’t clean up your room to prove that you’re not scared of me.”

In each case the speaker is making a double-move that is classic in psychoanalysis. The first is to doubt or undermine the patient’s conscious understanding of himself. And the second is to suggest in its place an idea of which the patient is not conscious.

Of course many people who make this move in real life don’t say this so charitably. They say something like “I called him out on his lie and then told him I knew what he really was thinking.” That is, they claim to know what is going on in the other person’s head.

But either way – whether you really believe the person is a manipulative liar or that the person is unconscious of his own true motivations – you are invalidating him or her and then insisting that you know him better than he knows himself.

Well guess what: you shouldn’t do this kind of thing to people that you love. Nobody likes it. Nooooooooooooobody. If you don’t believe this, then tell me how you feel after this sentence:

“You think you’re reading this blog post because you’re interested in how the mind works. But you’re really worried you have a mental illness.”

Fun? Make you feel closer to me? Make you more likely to keep reading? Or just the opposite? Right. It’s not fun to be psychoanalyzed, and most people – sensibly – run screaming from those who do it to them.

Of course some people can’t run from the person psychoanalyzing them. The #1 victims of unwanted hit-and-run psychoanalysis are children. Their parents jam their own pet theories about them down their throats and take away their allowance if they disagree. Guess what? This doesn’t turn out well. Come back when these kids are in their teens, certainly when they’re in their twenties, and they are going to be having some kind of emotional trouble, or conflict with their parents, at least 50% of the time. It’s a huge set-up for later life difficulties. And here’s why, in a single word: boundaries. Having a zone of privacy into which others, even – and actually especially – loved ones can’t and won’t and don’t intrude is crucial to psychological development and psychological health. Invalidating someone for believing what they believe, and insisting that they actually think something else, is a boundary violation. And it is a destabilizing, unpleasant experience for whoever’s on the receiving end.

That’s why, in good clinical practice, shrinks don’t tell patients what’s “really” going on without a lot of warm-up. Interpretation – which is the technical term for these violations – only occurs around 1-5% of the time in a session. Out of 100 minutes of psychotherapy, a patient can expect at most 1-5 minutes to involve interpretations of what was “really” going on. It seldom seems that way because interpretation is what a patient remembers. But a seasoned shrink has learned that patients drop out of treatment if you bombard them with unwanted ideas about themselves. And that defeats the point of treatment. One to five percent of the time is plenty.

And that’s in therapy, where the listener has gone out of her way to hire and pay the speaker to psychoanalyze them. So you can imagine what a good percent of the time is in love relationships: zero.

Please don’t use any of what follows to psychoanalyze your friends and family. Instead, use it to listen to them. Reach new conclusions about yourself and them, but keep these conclusions to yourself. And then go about acting on these conclusions. That is to say – change your behavior. Don’t tell them the truth. You don’t know, and even if you did they wouldn’t want it.

In real life as in medicine, the first rule of thumb is this: physician, heal thyself.

Next: Think Like a Shrink #2 – Clarification, Confrontation, Interpretation


  1. Loved this post. I’d add just one corollary. Of course all your readers here are obedient and will carefully follow your ‘think like a shrink’ advice, unlike on your other blog. But most people who psychoanalyse others aren’t doing so on the basis of a good clear understanding of Freud/Jung — they’re doing it on the basis of pop psych treatments of those authors, offering such batshit insane ‘wisdom’ as ‘all fathers want to fuck their daughters’. The truth of which I don’t know, but it wasn’t a helpful thing to hear as a teenager…

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  2. Unless you’re a trained psychiatrists that does his job as it should be done, what you doing when you psychoanalyze people like this is you’re making assumptions before a sufficient investigation. It comes off as being presumptuous, and that it think is what really irks-off the subject. Assumptions are one of the biggest killers of effective communication. Don’t do it.

  3. Hit-and-run psychoanalysis… great expression! Usually carried out by people who don’t really understand psychology but have some sort of vague idea from popular culture. I have a family member who used to do this … and it sort of vaccinated me against emotional interpretations. I dismiss people if they are into that kind of games because I find it creepy and manipulating and shows lack af respect. For this reason:

    “And here’s why, in a single word: boundaries. Having a zone of privacy into which others, even – and actually especially – loved ones can’t and won’t and don’t intrude is crucial to psychological development and psychological health. Invalidating someone for believing what they believe, and insisting that they actually think something else, is a boundary violation”

    Boundary violation, that is precisely what it is!

  4. (The middle paragraph is a quote from the post. My blockquote tags were stripped out by your blogging software, but I also put ” ” so I hope that’s clear anyway)

  5. Sigmund Freud psychoanalyzed his own daughter, Anna. How inappropriate, considering he would, according to his own theory, be uncovering her own Oedipal desires. Awkward!!

  6. Hey Igotta- keep your rumors and secrets to yourself. There are 1001 reasons why a widow would travel with her sister’s husband to an exotic location. Get your mind out of the gutter! (BTW…you don’t even have 30 Twitter followers! LAME!!)

    1. I’ve lived with a pschoanalyzer for 22 years….. The only thing it’s achieved is my near silence, which he reads as me punishing him or me being secretive. He totally thinks that he knows what’s going on in my mind and doesn’t fail to inform me of my motives and intent. It’s not nice, leads to feelings of frustration and prevents openness between us, which perpetuates the motion. If you’re in the habit of doing this to your partner, with the hope of improving your relationship, give it up now. The only way forward is to talk and listen, without judging or thinking you know better than your partner about THEIR feelings. It’s serious invalidation and will only set you up to fail.

    2. I was enrolled in grad scohol at University of Maryland College Park when Dr. Porges was in the Human Development Department there, and am glad to see that his work is making its way into clinical practice. The idea of allowing the client to feel safe in the therapeutic environment, and the multiple non-verbal communication cues to encourage that safe social engagement, will go a long way towards improving practice for my staff.

  7. Great post but, as tends to happen when someone makes a good point (see philosophy), I think it is a bit too extreme. It certainly isn’t great to psychoanalyze when in conflict in general or do it much, but there are also situations when it really is helpful. Suppose your friend is scared of serious commitment, and he is indirectly expressing it by starting to resent his relationship. If at that point you can, after listening, point out it might have something to with that fear, and he is the kind of person who does not experience such confrontations as serious blows, it could actually save his relationship. And you didn’t confront him, it could have ended and it could be he had a significantly less satisfactory life. And many examples could be thought of like this one. So maybe it’s more about balancing the (calculated chances of) + and -? Thanks for any replies

    1. Very very true! I was struggling with PTSD at one time. I didn’t know what was going on. My sister suggested i talk to my doctor about my anxiety. It kind of made me mad at first but then i started thinking she might be on to something and she was.

  8. Great post and all true except this: why do “trained therapists” think they’re somehow beyond this? In fact, the whole institution of therapy is to blame for this in the first place. If society had never been subjected to the rituals of psychotherapy these dynamics among friends, lovers and even casual acquaintances would never have arisen in the first place. We’ve over one hundred years of therapy and society on the whole is much worse.

    Incidentally, the “warm up” and “1-5%” routine which you spoke about is a calculated mechanism and,as such, is inherently dishonest, not to mention cruel.

    “What we need is an awareness of the psychology of wanting to be a psychologist. The implicit superiority, the psychological scrutiny allowed such a position, the diagnostic power, the self-actualization, the ability to recognize the client’s turmoils, to understand and interpret them, amounts to a new kind of patriarchy. Whether ‘debriefing’ trauma, dialogue-ing phobias, losses, griefs, whether talking-through, whether psychoanalytically distanced or not, whether humanistically proximal or not, the therapist is always ‘secure’, is always implicitly more psychologically able. The therapist, in fact, is continually ‘upshot’ as psychologically capable, is continually remade and re-substantiated as (through the mechanics of a kind of cultural paternalism) the authority on matters psychological; is vitally, more of an authority, more of a credible witness on myself, than myself. The case is that therapist capitalizes, as Masson notes (1993), off of the client’s suffering. Their relationship with their client can thus be typed ‘parasitic’.”

  9. I noticed that you are a specialist in narcissistic personality disorder. I have noticed the only way to deal with someone who has the disorder is to avoid them in near entirety, or call them on every single psychological manipulation action they make. As I am sure you are aware, people with this disorder are incredibly insecure and really do not even know themselves, therefore, with a strong understanding of the disorder, you can see where a good majority of their manipulative tactics come from and call them on it. That has been the only way I can deal with a person I know with this disorder. If they feel worse because of it, that’s unfortunate, but I would rather they know exactly whats going on then me be the object of their tactics. Such tactics can seriously undermine the object’s self worth.

  10. I am a business graduate but like you I think a lot about the mystery of subjective judgment. I think existentialism philosophy can put a full stop and lets just do what we were doing. I liked the way you said “so called personality disorder’

  11. I loved this post; it put into words why my experiences with a long-standing ‘friend’ are often so uncomfortable. She’s a clinical psychologist. I’m not a practitioner, but I have been in and out of therapy for over 30 years – and I know what the issues are for me. I want to discuss this kind of thing in therapy sessions, not in social situations, and I certainly don’t want to be making myself vulnerable around her. She has complained that her friends use her as a therapist, but I realised that her manoeuvre was to probe into people’s affairs, get them to disclose – and then complain to others about being ‘used as a therapist’, so when she started probing inappropriately into my business, I thought ‘Aha!’ or, in other words ‘game hook’ and changed the subject. She persisted, I persistently changed the subject. Game never got off the ground. Then she told me that I avoided difficult subjects, and didn’t realise I was doing it! Right now, the most useful thing for me to be looking at is why I have any contact with this individual at all…

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  13. Your statement about mental illness, actually resonate with me. I didn’t feel offended, but rather intrigued to hear what you have to say next.

    I do think some part of my psyche (value system, belief system, axioms) that I am not aware of is not only incorrect but getting in the way of myself, and creating harm and pain. Like I am driving with the handbrake on, which I am totally unaware of, then I just have a general feeling “what wrong with the car, so noisy and so slow, ah~”. And then if you know better and point out “your handbrake is on”, I will go from “ah~” to “ah ha~”, and appreciate your acute observation.

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