As an admirer of great fiction writers (How on earth do they weave those engrossing stories?), I never realized how many careless mistakes some made when they wrote about psychologists and psychology.  At least not until now.

Fellow PT blogger Carolyn Kaufman has written The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior to help writers, and the rest of us, get it right.  Of course, as a counselor, I knew all about that stuff...well, er, uh, most of it, anyway.  But I was surprised to discover how easy it can be to confuse essential terms in the psychological lexicon, not just for writers, but for ordinary people, and even for professionals.  A slip of the tongue--and you've made a major boo-boo.

From a long list of myths and mistakes detailed by Kaufman, here are my nominations for the 3 worst habits practiced by writers and the general public when it comes to talking or writing about psychological disorders and human behavior:

1. Confusing psychotic behavior with psychopathic behavior.  People often use the terms "psychotic" and "psychopathic" interchangeably even though they could not be more different.  "Psychosis," the condition for someone who is "psychotic," refers to a loss of contact with reality that can include hallucinations, such as hearing voices, or delusions, ideas or beliefs unmoored from normal thinking.   Most people who have psychotic conditions such as schizophrenia are harmless and not violent.   Such is NOT the case with "psychopaths," that mutant sub-species of humans who have no conscience.  They intentionally hurt others and enjoy it; lack remorse, guilt, or empathy; and will use any means necessary--from manipulative charm to violence--to achieve their goals. These are true villains.  It's a shame these two conditions are sound-alike cousins. 

2. Confusing "antisocial personality disorder" with an antisocial personI had not previously considered how easy it was to mix up these two terms.  An "antisocial person" may simply be someone who doesn't like to socialize much with others.  She may be a bit of a hermit, like my friend the "antisocial social worker."  He might be an introvert who enjoys his time alone.  But people with "antisocial personality disorder" (APD) are contemptuous of society's rules.  They may have criminal tendencies or enjoy thrill-seeking; they may see themselves as superior and therefore entitled to break the rules. In extreme cases, people with antisocial personality disorder fall into the psychopathic category.  The author indicates that all psychopaths have APD, but not everyone with APD is a psychopath.  Got that?  No wonder this stuff is confusing!

3. Using therapist stereotypesKaufman categorizes common therapist stereotypes as "Dr. Evil," "Dr. Dippy," "Dr. Wonderful," and "Dr. Sexy."  To counter these harmful stereotypes, Kaufman describes what a good therapy session looks like, helpful therapeutic techniques, and such essentials as client confidentiality and good boundaries.  It is amazing and sad that 80% of people with diagnosable problems avoid going to therapy, according to the 1999 Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health, maybe because they don't want to end up with Dr. Dippy or worse. Perhaps more realistic ideas about therapists and therapy would help, and that's that what Kaufman's guide is all about.

The Writer's Guide to Psychology is a well-written, short, and solid reference book for writers (and that includes bloggers), clinicians, and anyone interested in the latest terminology and information about mental illness and health.  It's an entertaining read, especially the amusing sections on embarrassing errors from popular books, movies, and TV scripts, called "Don't let this happen to you!"  After reading this book, you may find yourself listening more carefully when people discuss psychology and chiming in to counter those common mistakes that are so easy to make. 

© Meg Selig, 2011

I'm the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). Please "like" my facebook page here for brief updates and musings about habit change, motivation, and the good life. 

Source:  Kaufman, Carolyn (2010). The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior.   Fresno, CA: Quill Driver Books. 

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