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The Problem with Claims of “Lived Experience”

Psychology confronts people with disruptive ideas that they may not like.

It was a long road to get to a place where, in the 20th century, psychologists widely understood that people are very frequently not aware of their own motivations or even of their own behaviors. Copernicus displaced our planet from the center of the universe, and Darwin displaced humanity from its special position on the tree of life. Then came Freud, who said we often behave in ways we don’t understand, and then behaviorism and systems theory, which question whether we have a mind at all as opposed to possessing an inner voice that’s a cross between a press secretary making claims about what the administration is up to and a sportscaster calling the play-by-play.

Then came the pampered generation, described in the book, The Coddling of the American Mind.

The essence of pampering is the insistence that people don’t have to be subjected to ideas that they don’t like. Some students insist that the classroom should be a “safe” space, where “safe” means a panic room where disruptive ideas are kept out. They insist on being complimented for already knowing and they treat instruction as an attempt to humiliate them. They accuse professors of “gaslighting” them if professors say things they don’t understand because they feel discomfited by new ideas, and discomfort is understood as an assault on their well-being.

I’m not talking about all students or even most of them. A small percentage of students is enough to take over the culture of a cohort if they intimidate other people into remaining silent or if the larger culture signals to them that, indeed, they shouldn’t have to wrestle with disturbing ideas—typically by not standing up for free speech or academic freedom or the tenure system that protects free thinking.

The latest iteration of pampering is the promotion of “lived experience” over critical thinking. By citing “lived experience,” some students make claims of expertise about their own lives that are not subject to dispute. In this context, critical thinking means open-minded consideration of whether the person’s narrative fits what actually happened and whether that narrative is a productive way of thinking about it. “Lived experience” can be a claim that what the person is aware of is all there is, with no allowance for the way the narrative may be self-serving or just plain wrong.

The claim of “lived experience” coupled with threats of cancellation is similar to Nero singing in public. Who dares to tell him he’s not nailing it? (That is, when he's not; critical thinking can also validate a personal narrative and its utility.)

The essence of psychological-mindedness is the recognition that no system speaks with one voice, and this includes the system of the individual personality. Mitt Romney only got 75 percent of the vote in Mormon, Republican Utah, and Joe Biden only got 87 percent of the Black vote. There really is no such thing as unanimity in a complex system. When we undertake an action, even when we are gung-ho, it’s likely there’s a loyal opposition. (If it’s a personality disorder, then you might say it’s a disloyal opposition.) But the pampered insistence on a party line can make it feel offensive and chaotic to be told that there may be more to the story.

This generation is extremely anxious—by their own report: I suspect they are not as anxious as they think they are because they tend to catastrophize their anxiety, believing they are not supposed to feel anxious.

I don’t pretend to know what to do about rampant perfectionism, its exacerbation by devices and social media, or The Matrix effect where everyone is made to feel like royalty on their own smartphone while hiding and hating the sense that they are merely ordinary. If you address their imperfections, some people are likely to attack you for implying they are not astounding. If you don’t, then you are part of the problem. This post is me trying not to be part of the problem.

But when people pay us to instruct them or to treat them, we have an obligation to question their “lived experience.” With psychotherapy patients, we have an obligation to get them on board with the process by linking their unproductive or unrealistic narratives to their unhappiness. If patients interpret our change agendas as insults, we have an obligation to help them reconcile with the change agenda.

With clinical trainees, we don’t have time to get them on board with the process. We have to teach the ones who want to learn and we have to be mindful of our responsibility to the future patients of the others. When graduate students claim “lived experience,” we have to muster all we know about anecdotal evidence, eyewitness unreliability, unconscious motivation, and self-serving narratives—and then we have to insist that there are known ways to overcome the biases of lived experience (called “teaching,” “critical thinking,” “research,” and “psychotherapy”), and we have to insist that personal experience and emotions are not good guides to what is going on.

But we cannot teach if our jobs and our status are in danger. Faculty members can’t promote contextual or scientific thinking if faculty colleagues and the larger culture won’t stand up for mind-changing instruction.

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