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Saving Face in Psychology

Efforts to save face, among psychologists, lead to a loss of face.

In the field of psychology, as in life, there are several ways of saving face. Face is the common notion of pride or social status, the technical notion (from Goffman) of being fully qualified to play the social role we are in. We lose face when information about us—whether it’s something we just now did, something we did some time ago, a category that is discovered to include us, or an attribution by others—discredits our performance of the role we are in. Uncontrolled movements will make us lose face if we have been acting (as we often do at work and in typical social gatherings) as if we don’t have a body, or as if we have our bodies under control. A bad grade on a quiz, a rejection from a journal, or a correction from listeners will make us lose face if we have been acting superior about our intellect. Indecent wishes and stray all-too-human thoughts will make us lose face if we have been acting as if we are Buddha or Jesus.

When something happens to discredit our performance, we can pretend it didn’t happen (“I can’t remember my GRE scores”), make excuses, and so on. All of the strategies for saving face are designed to do just that, to save the face we have been wearing. In high school, where we rehearse and often settle on such strategies, the face we wear is typically characterized by perfectionism and conformity with our peers, whether the perfectionism has to do with dominance, kindness, holiness, or freedom, and whether our peers demand conformity in dress, manner, taste, or values.

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Sophisticated adults save face differently from teenagers. They learn that by wearing an all-too-human mask, losing face is less likely. If an adult acts mortified by a commonplace occurrence, the mortification itself is a signal that the adult was trying to pull off a perfect face. Sophisticated adults are like healthy parents whose kids act up in public: they give a wry smile to others and round up the childishness, but they communicate that they never claimed to be perfect. In this way, as in others, healthy teenagers often act like adult narcissists, claiming a status of potential perfection that is easily discredited.

In psychology, it is a known fact that perfection is impossible and seeking it is neurotic. Overt efforts to save face, among psychologists, lead to a loss of face, because in psychology, claims of perfectability are signs that people are trying to be something they cannot be. In many subcultures, you save face by getting all huffy when you feel insulted; in psychology, you save face by not taking yourself too seriously. Thus, in a classroom or case conference, you say something that is simply incorrect: Her history of physical abuse is making her skittish about authority. Someone points out that as far as anyone knows, the girl was not abused. Typical face saving strategies at this point would imply that your sense of clinical competence is so fragile that you cannot afford to be wrong even once. If you pore through the case file to find evidence that she was abused after all, you show a desperation that real experts don’t feel. Instead, you can save a psychologically sophisticated face by accepting your humanity. I often say that the entire scientific attitude can be summed up in one word: oops. This acknowledges fallibility while not making a big deal out of it.

The most entrenched claim in psychology is that one does not have unconscious conflicts, illicit wishes, grandiose fantasies, or aggression. Clinical trainees are socialized to act as if they are docile and mistake-free, a role that no human can pull off. The desire for this particular face is strengthened by the fact that patients, with all their errors in thinking and behaving and their unmanaged impulses, cannot appear even for a moment to be docile and mistake-free; much of the way we define the face we try to save has to do with what we claim not to be, not just which role we are trying to play. Goths are decidedly not jocks, and jocks are decidedly not nerds. Psychotherapists sometimes get caught up in the desire not to be seen as patients. (This is yet another good reason for psychotherapists to undergo psychotherapy, whether as a requirement or via cultural pressure—we should identify with our patients, not disdain them.)

So don’t get caught trying to pull off a superhuman role by acting defensive when your humanity is discovered when you make mistakes or reveal conflicts and impulses. Instead, laugh at yourself. It’s the greatest gift you can give to patients, and you’ll be happier, too.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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