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Is the Word “Shrink” a Put-Down or a Term of Endearment?

Headshrinker, problem shrinker—what does it mean?

As an industrial-organizational psychologist, I believe that I’m about as far away from being a “shrink” as you can get and still be a psychologist. Yet, I was recently referred to by a client organization as “our company’s shrink,” and I just saw a piece on “The Street” that advocated hiring a “shrink” (referring to an organizational psychologist) to fix your business.

Sometimes, when I tell a stranger I’m a psychologist, I’ll get the “Oh, a shrink” comment, and I cringe. But today I wondered if that’s a good or a bad thing, so I looked up the origin of the word and contemplated what it means for me, and for psychologists in general.

From what I can tell, the word shrink is a shortening of “headshrinker,” referring to Amazonian tribes who preserve and shrink the heads of their enemies—certainly not a very positive connection! So, on the dark side, there are connections to shamanism, magic, and spiritual rituals, but in a more positive light, it is also suggested that psychotherapists [the term was first used to describe psychiatrists and psychotherapists] who might “shrink” problems to make them more understandable.

As I reflect back on the impact that the word (and idea) of a shrink has had on me, I recall a few episodes where potential business clients reacted negatively to the idea of hiring an organizational psychologist (as in, “We may have a few problems here in the company, but we certainly don’t need a shrink!”). On the other hand, I recall a CEO putting his arm around me and introducing me proudly [I think] as “our corporate shrink!”

I think the bottom line is this: There are enough negative connotations to the word, “shrink,” that make it a turn-off to many psychologists, and it seems to be particularly inapplicable (and perhaps offensive) to psychologists who aren’t involved in psychotherapy, such as industrial-organizational psychologists. But as with many nicknames, it could actually be used as a way of making an informal connection—a sort of term of endearment.

Of course, other professions have negative slang terms (physicians have been called “sawbones” or “leech” referring to rather ancient practices; lawyers have been called “sharks” or “mouthpieces”), so creating professional nicknames seems to be common.

What are your thoughts? Is “shrink” a put-down or a term of endearment?

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