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Psychological-Mindedness as a Worldview

The dying art of seeing things through a psychological lens

I wrote here about psychological-mindedness as a personality trait: “the capacity to examine yourself with the accuracy, intelligence, curiosity, empathy, and humor that fosters attachment and growth when it is deployed by one person toward another.” It is an essential trait in a therapist. Now, I want to explore what it means to view the world psychologically, that is, through the lens of wondering why people behave as they do and finding the answers in their environments and their relationships and the way they treat themselves.

According to Goffman, we can frame any situation in any number of ways. For example, a woman takes a high-stress job and gains 20 pounds. A biological frame may emphasize cortisol and stomach secretions. An evolutionary frame might focus on the need to store energy to face expected hard times. A cultural frame may emphasize the meaning of food as soothing. A feminist frame might look at the complexity of being young-looking and powerful. To Goffman, any frame can be translated into any other, just as a song can be played in any key, not just the one it was first heard in. Then, a fundamental frame is one that a person thinks can’t or never need be translated, what’s really going on. Much marital conflict arises from insisting that your spouse’s frame is arbitrary and your own is fundamental. If one spouse views a football game as really mattering and the other views it as a TV show, they may get in a fight about whether to miss the picnic or just to tape the game and watch it later. Much conflict in general arises from insisting that the other person’s frame is arbitrary and your own is real.

A psychological frame emphasizes one of the languages of psychology and interprets the situation accordingly. In some languages, “a woman takes a high-stress job and gains 20 pounds” isn’t even a situation. You’d have to know what’s going on in her head and in her immediate environment when she consumes extra calories, or who knows about it, or the meaning of weight gain and employment in her family. For other psychological perspectives, her job may make rewards she can control unusually appealing, or maybe she is managing her own power-driven sexuality by arranging to be looked at neutrally, or maybe she is nailing down the support of her work sorority, which she thinks depends on looking as dowdy as they do. Who knows? The point is that you can look at the situation psychologically rather than politically or economically or anthropologically.

It’s been interesting to observe over the last couple of decades how psychology has become less psychological just as economics has been invigorated by becoming more psychological. An economic framing of this development would emphasize the money at stake to researchers, insurers, and drug companies for pushing a medical framing of psychological distress. A psychological frame might emphasize the status at stake to individual psychiatrists if all their time and prestige in medical school put them behind psychologists who underwent clinical training.

A true psychological frame does not blame, but it certainly can be an excuse for blame. If you think alcoholism and obesity are medical conditions, you’d have to be a monster to get annoyed at slurred speech or not being able to slip by someone on an escalator. A psychological frame emphasizes drinking too much or eating too much, but it doesn’t have to get ugly—it can be an impetus to changing the environment or to resolving internal conflicts. It’s hard to be psychological if you think everyone is perfect just as they are. It’s even harder if you think that you are perfect the way you are.

It’s easier to maintain any frame if you are in a network of similarly-minded people. (Some frames thrive on contrariness, of course, and are more easily maintained when challenged, as long as there are a few sources of support.) What’s happening to the fields of clinical psychology and psychotherapy is that we are losing the critical mass of people who can sustain a network of psychological-mindedness. Political, religious, and biological frames dominate, just as they do currently in the United States. There are many economic, political, and religious reasons for this, but the psychology of the situation seems to me to be that many people have convinced themselves that there must be a way to become a competent psychologist without ever messing up and without ever contemplating the dark corners of one’s own humanity. The fantasy of personal perfectibility has always been the enemy of psychological-mindedness.

As another example, take the current controversy over whether certain therapists should be exempt from treating gay people if they have moral objections. One side frames the problem religiously (sincerely held beliefs), the other politically (respect for all people and the availability of services). Psychologically-minded observers look at the issue psychologically. They ask why the person objects to the client and what view of therapy would sustain the position in the controversy. The liberals seem to view therapy as you would view getting an eye exam, as if therapy is not doomed when the therapist hates the patient. The conservatives seem to view therapy as requiring two people, all right, but without any sense that a dislike of gay people may be psychological, with the implication that the therapist in question should find a way to look at the patient with “accuracy, intelligence, curiosity, empathy, and humor.” (This is easier to do, by the way, with a tight therapeutic frame, since then you need love the patient only as a patient and only for 50 minutes at a time.) Both sides seem to conflate the homosexuality of the client with the goals of the therapy, as if every gay client wants therapy only to be more gay. This is, of course, only one psychological take on the controversy, and while I appreciate religious takes from the religious and political takes from the political, I wish organized psychology’s take was more psychological.