The Second Most Common Question I Get as a Psychologist

Can you guess the 2nd question most people ask psychologists outside the office?

Posted Aug 22, 2020

I usually write about overeating, but today I'd like to do a follow up to my previous article "The Single Most Common Question I Get as a Psychologist." Therein I discussed the common misconception that psychologists must be very good at having feelings bounce off them so they don't take them home. I explained why this wasn't true, and why we instead get good at lending clients our soul and letting their feelings pass through us. We also get good at screening—because if you're going to lend someone your soul, you need to be pretty darn sure you can help them, and that you yourself are up for it, otherwise you do feel wounded by the journey.

Today we'll go into detail about the second most common question I get when I meet someone new outside of the office in my personal life: "Are you analyzing me right now?"

In a word, no, at least not in the sense the query is meant. Here's why:

  • Analyzing someone in the sense of what goes on in a formal consultation is actually very hard work, whether in-office or via telemedicineTo genuinely analyze someone, I have to put myself in a hyper-concentrated state, put aside my own needs, and ask a series of extremely focused questions. I have to take careful notes about what's been said and focus the conversation on specific diagnostic pathways, danger assessments, and problem-solving techniques. It's not that pieces and parts of this might not creep into the conversation anyway outside the office, but the emotional state required to get an accurate and desired result just isn't there. In my personal life, I am relating, not analyzing. 
  • Outside the office, many of the most valuable cues are missing. In a conversation outside the office, many of the cues psychologists rely upon to diagnose and treat are blatantly absent. For example, when a client has requested, scheduled, and paid for a consultation on a specific day and time, you can tell a lot by how they appear in the waiting room (even if virtual), whether they show up on time, how long it takes for them to begin talking, and their willingness to cooperate with the timing and structure. People are complex beings, and any given thought or behavior can mean something very different in different contexts. The consistent context of a formal consultation brings meaning into focus in a much different way than you can accomplish in a restaurant, or during a casual phone call. (There's a reason surgeons operate in an operating room rather than on the beach or at a party, for example, and there's a reason psychologists use formal consultations.)
  • The complexities of a personal relationship confuse the matter. Because personal relationships involve a more mutual exchange, it's much easier to confuse your own needs, perceptions, and emotions with the person with whom you're interacting. Psychologists simply don't have the same objective lens outside the office vs. during a personal consultation.
  • Psychologists can't really see inside your head. We don't have an X-ray machine that lets us see what you're thinking and feeling, or what's "wrong" with you. Instead, we rely on structured interactions as described above, and, really, just take well-educated guesses as we amass information (and emotion) via this structure.

Notwithstanding the above, you may indeed notice a difference talking to a psychologist outside the office vs. someone with less training. If you're interested in a soulful, deep conversation, well, I'm definitely your guy! I chose psychology as a profession because I value love over money, meaning and purpose over external accomplishments, soul over power. But am I analyzing you outside the office?

No! Except to the extent that everyone is always "analyzing" everyone else. We all have to make an assessment when we meet someone about whether they are friend or foe, what they might want from us, whether they are judging us, and how to interact in a safe and friendly way. Psychologists are naturally better at that game, so sure, I'll cop to it. But full-on analyzing you?

Nah. I left those tools at the office.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: fizkes/Shutterstcok