8 Tips for Amateur Psychologists Tempted to Analyze Out Loud

There's a reason people say, "Don't psychoanalyze me!"

Posted May 21, 2015

Shvaygert Ekaterina/Shutterstock
Source: Shvaygert Ekaterina/Shutterstock

Though I've taught psychology for years and have a Ph.D. and two Master's degrees in closely-related social-science fields, I still consider myself an amateur psychologist, a specialist in psychological matters—I think and write about them a lot—but not an expert.

Expertise in psychology is an ambiguous concept. It can mean really knowing precisely what's going on with people, or simply being up on this young field's findings—findings that can't yet give anyone the ability to know precisely what's going on with people (and may never). 

If you read blogs here, I'm guessing that, like me, you're an amateur psychologist. Actually, even if you don't read blogs here, you're probably one. We all have to read each other's minds, which is not the same as seeing them accurately—reading always involves interpretation. We read other people's minds, and read into them.

Amateur psychologists, like us, often get told to stop it: "Don't psychoanalyze me!" "Don't psychologize me!"

Psychologize (v.):

  1. Analyze or regard in psychological terms, especially in an uninformed way.
  2. Theorize or speculate concerning the psychology of someone.

Psychological analysis is cool, but psychologizing isn’t. What’s the difference?

When someone says, “Don’t psychologize me,” or “Don’t psychoanalyze me,” they’re saying that one shouldn’t, not simply that they would prefer you didn’t. They imply some moral ban on theorizing or speculating on their psychology. And why might someone want such a ban? Probably that bit about doing it in an uninformed way.

Uninformed about what—ideas in psychology? Maybe. But more likely, it’s being uninformed about how that person is really feeling:

“Don’t psychologize me. You don’t know how I feel! I’ll tell you how I feel. Don’t pretend you know better than I do how I feel!”

Do we always know our own feelings better than others know them? Examples that say otherwise are easy to find: The guy who thinks he’s angry when he’s scared; the woman who convinces herself that she’s calm when she’s agitated; or the leader who claims only to be looking out for his fellow citizens (and maybe even believes it) even though his actions appear far more self-serving. It would be nice if we could claim the last word on our own psychological states, but apparently, we can’t.

If not us, then whom? Do outside observers have the last word on how we feel? Certainly not. They have a different perspective but may be no less biased. We all form our individual impressions, and then it's your word against mine. We hear the quest for the last word on psychological analysis in the use of words like “just” or “only":

  • “You’re just being defensive.”
  • “You’re just jealous.”
  • “I’m only trying to help.”
  • “I’m only being honest.”

“Just” and “only” mean, “Ignore all other possibilities. This is the one and only true possible explanation.”

I know several very thoughtful and social people who make it a point never to psychologize. I find them fascinating since I psychologize a lot, using both my inside and outside voice. Over the years, I’ve realized that I do it a bit too much, especially with my outside voice. So I study my friends’ approaches, to tip myself a bit more toward their “keep it to yourself” style.

It may be that no good ever comes of sharing your opinion about other people’s feelings and motives. It's why they say people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. People just deny your analysis, or retaliate by analyzing you. Then you’ll escalate: You’ll call them on their motives, and they’ll call you on yours ... and back and forth you’ll go with no possible end but exhaustion, surrounded by a lot of broken glass.

Still, it’s worth asking: What’s the alternative? Not wondering and guessing at each other’s feelings and motivations seems out of the question. It may be diplomatic never to mention what we’re guessing but it verges on patronizing, as if others are too sensitive to hear our guesses. But as one who tends to psychologize aloud too often, here are few guidelines I try to live by:

  1. It’s not rocket science. Newton said, “I can calculate the motions of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.” Psychology is not rocket science. It’s harder—harder to do with any kind of precision, anyway. When speculating, speculate. Don’t pretend you have a power to calculate greater than Newton’s.
  2. Caveat cleanly. If you’re in the touchy territory of telling people what you guess might be going on with them, let them know that it’s a guess through caveats like “I think that maybe ...”, “I’m wondering if …”, or “It seems to me …”
  3. Be careful with pejoratives and when you use them, don’t pretend you aren’t. Plenty of clinical-sounding terms are also pejoratives. Take narcissist, for example, a term both diagnostic and insulting. Or consider John Gottman’s famous "four horsemen of the (relationship) apocalypse"—criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness. One can claim that these are simple descriptive terms for independent variables conducive to marriage failure. But just try describing your spouse as employing any of these four techniques. Actually, don’t; try to find more neutral words. And if you can’t, then don’t pretend they have no pejorative connotations.
  4. Don’t caveat dirtily. Next of kin to such words as “just” and “only” are little preambles we think can sugarcoat what follows: “I don’t mean to be critical, but I think you’re procrastinating"; or, “With all due respect, I think you’re lying.” It’s not credible to caveat like that; it’s insulting. If you want to say, “With all due respect…” follow it with “…I’ll let you decide whether I’m showing you due respect.” Don’t think you can commandeer someone else's interpretation.
  5. Take in as you dish out. Dirty caveats reveal a double standard, “I’m going to tell you all about your motives, but don’t dare try to tell me mine. I’ll tell you mine, too.” In general, if you can’t take other people psychologizing you, don’t psychologize them, at least not aloud.
  6. Throw two stones. When you throw a stone at another glass house, toss one your way, too. Too often, when we guess at each other's motives critically, the first thing to fly out of our minds is any recollection of every having done whatever we’re critical of them doing. We must actively counteract that tendency, not with some vague, “Of course, I do it, too,” but recollection of specific times when we did it in spades.
  7. Minimize leaping. There will be times when you have to leap to a conclusion about someone’s motives and feelings; for example, if you find evidence that your spouse is cheating or your business partner is embezzling. In such situations, the leap is appropriate. You need its urgency for damage control; for example, locking down bank accounts before you’re further fleeced. Otherwise, leaping is dangerous and likely an expression of fear and other distorting emotions in you, not reflective of some sudden change in the psychology of the person you’re analyzing.
  8. Speaking your mind is optional. This one has always been hard for me, which is why I study tongue-biting friends. I can think whatever I want, and I can make whatever guesses I want about what drives people. But I don’t have to share those guesses, and when I do, it’s probably more “note to self” than to them. If I were to psychologize my own motives, I’d say that I share in part because I don’t trust that I’ll be able to resist the sway of their motives unless I call them on them. But increasingly, I’m learning to let them have their motives in peace.