A few types of interactions in my life are recurrent. They happen over and over with different people in all kinds of situations and can be summarized as follows:
Person asks for my name. I introduce myself. Person asks again. I repeat my name and a conversation starts about the impossibility of pronouncing Icelandic names.
I start speaking. Person asks where I’m from. Apparently there’s an accent.
I mention my work in psychology. Person asks: “Are you analyzing me?” I never am, but I doubt they believe that.
The third scenario is the only one that happens no matter where I am. Icelandic and world citizens alike seem equally concerned that because I work as a psychologist, I might be somehow able to see into their thoughts and interpret their behavior in order to make a formal assessment of their character and personal problems. Most often, I am just attempting to have a conversation. All the years I have spent studying and practicing psychology have not left me with any superpowers and I am no more able to read minds than I am able to tell someone’s blood pressure by looking at them.
These situations are so frequent that Freud himself would be thrilled to hear how much influence he has had on people’s view of psychology. I bet at least half the people who ask that third question, picture therapy as involving a “patient” lying on a couch (like this) and a nodding “shrink” with a clipboard attempting to reveal the hidden parts of the patient’s psyche to figure them all out.
Unfortunately, there have been plenty of examples throughout the history of psychology of people being labeled, behaviors misinterpreted, and oppression carried out by folks who abused their authority and power. Considering that, mistrust of psychologists has been warranted.
But to those who might be concerned that my conversational nods mean I am taking mental notes for later report writing; rest assured. Analysis is not my cup of tea and I am a firm believer that therapy is effective when done with people, and not to them.
One of the themes that keep coming up in my clinical work is the fear of feelings. Fear of letting one’s guard down, being vulnerable, facing what’s inside. Many people have talked about how certain feelings were not considered acceptable in their family of origin, culture, or community. How they have had to keep sadness, anger, or fear to themselves, as if those feelings are somehow wrong and unacceptable. And adults who have gone through life pushing away emotional pain may have an additional fear – the fear that allowing the full range of feelings will not only be socially unacceptable, but overwhelming and even dangerous.
It is true that feelings can be painful and hard to tolerate. And depending on what has been avoided, it can certainly be challenging to process and experience emotional pain without enough support and effective coping skills.
But the feelings themselves are not dangerous. Feeling like one is about to drown in sadness, and actually drowning in sadness, are two very different things. In fact, the things we do to keep away from difficult feelings can be even more harmful than sitting with and acknowledging emotional pain. Working too much, avoiding difficult topics in intimate relationships, eating when not hungry, not eating when hungry, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, and staying distracted at all times are just some of the things we may do in attempts to escape. The downside includes health problems, relationship strain, addictions, isolation, and high stress levels, while the unattended emotions remain unchanged and no less threatening at the end of the day.
The fear can keep us from exploring and facing unresolved issues in our lives that impact our wellbeing and reactions to new experiences. And on the upside, when this fear is finally confronted, inspiring change can happen. This is one of the things I really enjoy about counseling. Getting the chance to sit with a person as they learn to accept and observe their previously avoided feelings, and witnessing the sense of peace and mastery that can be gained as a result. It is possible. And no one has drowned in my office yet.