Psychology Isn’t Just for Understanding Illness

a thought bubble drawn on a blackboard with chalk. Inside the chalk thought bubble is a real lightbulb
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It’s curious. Many times when I disclose to someone that my background is in psychology, they immediately get defensive.

I can visibly see the difference in someone’s posture. They become guarded, worried that I’m going to analyze them.

That, in essence, I’m scanning them for defects. A bit like one of those space-age devices designed to examine the newly introduced alien artifact for signs of potential disease. Weighing the risk of bringing it on board and exposing the crew to xenopathology.

Sometimes it helps when I tell them I’m not a therapist or a psychologist. That I can’t diagnose anyone. And that such things frankly weren’t even the focus of my studies. That I was a researcher and later a consultant. But not always. The word “researcher” can lead them to feel like they’re under the microscope. A possible disease specimen that I’m about to scrape onto a slide.

Part of the issue, I think, is that most people aren’t aware that abnormal psychology — the branch that studies deviations from the norm that may be part of mental disorders — isn’t the whole shebang. Abnormal psych is part of psychology as a whole, absolutely. But in practice it’s only one offshoot. In fact, there are many other disciplines that are devoted to understanding processes that are not in any way, shape, or form considered disease states. Elements like the basic nature of cognition. The wealth of different systems used to describe, explain, and understand just plain old healthy thinking.

And of course, there’s my specific discipline: Social psychology. The study of how a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by other people. Social psychology studies how people behave when they’re in groups, as well as how they react to influence exerted indirectly when we take in media or are shaped by internalized cultural norms.

Social psychology is all about how our thinking is affected by real or imaginary others.

In essence, I studied how individuals behave differently when they’re part of a group. Later, I went on to advise people how to best manage and train their employees.

And yes, the knowledge I gained from all of those experiences (both as a researcher and as a consultant) when coupled with my own time living as a polyamorous person has proven invaluable in advising polyamorous folks.

I Wish Armchair Psychology Didn’t Rush to Diagnosis, But It Does

That said, I often wish that people understood that psychology isn’t just for understanding illness — and that they really knew that self-knowledge can help us no matter where we are in terms of mental wellness.

Because so much of the armchair psychology I see out and about in the world is concerned with discerning what diagnosis a person has. It’s a disease-based approach. A person who is being difficult is labeled with whatever popularly discussed diagnosis is in vogue at the moment (in the past few years, this was “narcissist,” a while back it was “sociopath”). And that’s that. Someone is labeled, set aside. With no real understanding of what behaviors are currently causing problems. How much of that is, in fact, normal but not suited for the current context. Or how one would even go about dealing more adaptively with them.

While a diagnostic approach can be appropriate from a clinician (and only then to their clients) and labeling others serves well to validate emotional pain when a difficult person is making our life more or less unlivable, there are other perspectives and other frameworks that are far less discussed among laypeople.

And that’s a real shame.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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