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.