Misunderstood and Misused Psychology Terms – Part 1

We live in “the information age,” so there’s plenty of material out there on psychological matters. There are weblogs (i.e. “blogs”) galore on the internet that deal with personality, relationship, and other psychological matters. And for many years there’s been a plethora of self-help books as well as books on every psychological condition imaginable. You would think the abundance of information would make for a fairly well-informed and knowledgeable public. But for a variety of reasons, many psychological terms and concepts are often still poorly understood or even misunderstood.

The biggest danger in not understanding certain concepts accurately is that a person can be placed at a big disadvantage when it comes to dealing with problems of a psychological nature, whether those problems involve themselves or others with whom they have a relationship. All too many folks have found themselves ill-equipped to deal effectively with a situation because they were either misled about or failed to grasp its true nature.  The current series of articles will address some popular misconceptions and the principal reasons misunderstandings occur.  It will also attempt to clarify important concepts, terms, and principles in a straightforward, easy-to-understand manner.

There are many reasons for all the confusion and misunderstanding about psychological terms and principles, many of which have become an established part of common parlance. These days, it’s not uncommon for terms to be bandied so loosely yet so inaccurately (sometimes, terms are simply “invented” or existing terms are re-defined) that they lose all validity (hence the term “psychobabble”). Even some very valid concepts and terms are subject to misunderstanding, partly because they’re inherently complex and difficult to understand, and partly because clinicians sometimes don’t do a very good job of explaining them. To compound matters, mental health professionals sometimes also misuse terms.  And even when terms are correctly understood and they’re sometimes misapplied to a situation (Sometimes this is the result of misdiagnosis or inadequate assessment on the professional’s part) as is the case, for example, when a purely elective bad habit is labeled a “compulsion” or repeat misbehavior even in the face of adverse consequence is prematurely labeled an “addiction.” All of this can significantly disadvantage a person seeking help.

Perceiving the nature of a problem accurately and labeling the psychological realities underlying it correctly are of paramount importance when providing or seeking help (I give many examples of this in Character Disturbance). Perhaps nothing can do more potential harm than misperceiving or mislabeling key behaviors and dynamics in a troubled relationship. I remember all-to-well the first example I came across of this phenomenon when I was doing the clinical research for my first book In Sheep’s Clothing. A couple came to see me who’d been having problems for years.  The husband had been labeled as “commitment phobic” by a prior therapist.  As the therapist saw it, his “mistrust of women,” must have stemmed from his relationship with an “overbearing” mother who likely  “wounded” and oppressed him in his youth, and therefore caused him to both fear and avoid true intimacy and commitment like the plague.  Supposedly, he feared being “devoured” by his wife and preserved a sense of personal power and identity by having frequent, casual affairs with women who “meant nothing.” These dalliances nonetheless left his wife feeling betrayed, abused, and neglected. But having bought into the notion that her husband was actually starved for genuine and faithful love “deep down,” this woman spent years trying to prove her steadfastness and loyalty and that intimacy with her was truly “safe,” (It took a heroic effort on her part to be intimate with someone who’d so deeply hurt her so often) believing that to be the only prayer she had of helping him “heal” and resolve his issues. That case and many others like it taught me the importance of framing things accurately and using terms correctly. Words have meanings. And those meanings have implications for our understanding. So it’s crucial that a therapist “frame” things accurately.  It’s one thing for someone to have a genuine “fear of intimacy” but it’s quite another for that person to have a penchant for “sensation-seeking” behavior, a tendency to view and treat people merely as objects of gratification, and a callous disregard for the impact of their behavior on another.  When the woman in this case came to see her husband as the character disordered abuser he was and not the fearful wounded child she’d labored years to heal, a new life opened up for her. Perhaps I taught her to see things more accurately, thereby empowering her. But she and her husband also taught me plenty about the importance of correct framing and labeling, thus empowering me in my work.

Concepts and terms I plan to explore in this series include: passive-aggression (especially, vs. covert-aggression), anger management, ego defense mechanisms (especially as contrasted with manipulation and responsibility-resistance tactics), Bipolar Disorder, shame, guilt, remorse, personality and character disorders, addiction, acting-out (especially, as opposed to “acting up”), denial (especially, vs. lying), compartmentalization, symptoms (vs. signs) “co-dependence” (vs. emotional dependency), neurosis (especially as it contrasts to character disturbance), psychopathy and sociopathy, post-traumatic stress, and “being defensive” (as opposed to actively going on the attack).  This is by no means an exhaustive list.  There will be other topics covered as well.  But I’d also like to invite the readers to submit questions they have about and terms concepts about which they’re unsure and to share experiences in which they were unsure about how to accurately “frame” the problem, and I’ll do my best to address the issues before wrapping up the series.

This week on Character Matters there will again be ample time for open-topic discussion, so tune in if you can and if you have questions about terms and concepts or want to share an experience about how a misconstrued situation disadvantaged you when you sought help, I’d very much welcome your call.

25 thoughts on “Misunderstood and Misused Psychology Terms – Part 1

  1. Thank you for going over these terms again in this new series. Your work has really influenced me.

    Just a week ago I heard a therapist describe the very covert-aggressive and disturbed nature and behaviours my husband (and particularly I) endured from his family members as ‘passive aggression’ and it was all I could do not to blurt out the correct terms but held back so as not to show disrespect. Still, it’s cringe-worthy as a client to hear terms from your therapist that don’t necessarily fit and can really confuse people if they’re just going by the therapist’s ‘word for it.’ That’s why it’s just so important to self-educate, and while keeping an open mind when you do, to also discriminate between the mountains of information out there.

    One other thing … I also read something online the other day about the term ‘Narcissist’ only describing someone who developed that way because they were abused. Made me scratch my head. Doesn’t seem to describe the ‘narcissists’ I’ve come across who seem to come from quite pampered and enabling backgrounds, but perhaps there’s a more accurate term for these folks? Confusing.

    Keep up the good work. It is crucially needed especially in this day and age.

  2. I’m so glad to see Bipolar disorder on your list. My son was diagnosed with it, but only after we were able to get him committed for treatment following a long, drawn-out psychotic episode with every cop in the city. It was completely horrifying.

    After three weeks in the facility, they released him saying he was stable, which he wasn’t. I was so disappointed, as our only hope in helping him through his illness was for them to return him to us in a semi-rational state. Instead, we have conversations where we gently try to convince him he isn’t God.

    He’s 28 and uninsured, so going through state mental health, and I’m not sure they really give a crap. What can I do with limited resources to help him? Am I expecting too much too soon? How long does it take, and what does it take, to get him stable (some relief from his suffering)?

    1. Jeez Einstien, again I find myself being unable to imagine what it must be like for a mother in your position. I hope you and your son do find the right help and i wish I could offer any type of comment that would be of help. Your son sounds like someone I know/ knew, a very similar scenario. When he went off on some of his tangents it left me speechless and I felt so helpless to reason with him, he was like a run away train. I’m not sure what his actual REAL diagnosis is/ was…….he would rattle off a whole list of PD/ psych labels, almost like a bragging way. Anti-social, schizoid, something else and more, and a psychopath. Lovely fellow! Something about him though endeared him to me……probably the way he was with animals. Very sad and now I have no idea what has happened to him.

    2. Hi Einstein, you are going to run a marathon. My mom is schizoaffective (bipolar with elements of schizophrenia) and I have been closely involved with her care for years. The last 22 years I’ve been her guardian, advocate, and main source of every kind of support. I must say, life has never, ever been boring, and my mom has taught me so much about life, love, patience, understanding, compassion, and hope. Ive meant to write about her here before, but it would be a book. Let’s just say that she is highly neurotic, and because of this and so many other reasons, she is utterly loveable.
      I think the main things that have helped me, and may help you, are:
      -Advocate as much as you can
      -Try to find the hidden programs. Google: Mental health support, young adult mental health, young adult bipolar, etc in your area and see what’s there. It may take many hours, but there are often programs that are not easy to find but are very good.
      -Get support for yourself from others going through this (the hospital waiting room is an amazing place for this, for eg)
      -If it helps, get involved with NAMI or other support group available

      I am so sorry you are going through this, it is heartbreaking. I am praying for you and your son.

  3. I’m looking forward to reading this series. In many ways, the way that psychology has permeated culture and our relationships is a double edged sword. A diagnosis or attribution to childhood mistreatment takes away responsibility for a person’s actions. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it is. I guess because psychotherapy is founded on the notion of wholly supporting the patient rather than challenging their values and beliefs.

  4. I do know these things, but I’d like to see these handled, because they haven’t been touched on as much. Copypasted.

    *anxiety(some of it as even psychopaths can have it) vs irasciblity over being denied

    *fear of losing control vs fury over losing power

    *dissociation(even though apparently even a psychopath can get such after facing trauma, not that it changes his modus operandi) vs compartmentalization

    **Also, if a person can be more neurotic than CD and still be a covert aggressor(have nothing defensive about their style, I suppose) and a paranoid personality can think he’s being pre-emptively defensive while actually being aggressive, can an aggressor get mentally overwhelmed and dissociate(it wouldn’t change modus operandi, but could get them become more dysfunctional, I take it)?

    **How different is a ‘normal’ person suffering from dissociation from an aggressor having actual dissociation or lashing out in states that appear dissociative?

    **If someone, who’s already grown up to be an aggressor, happens to face trauma(let’s say he gets an inhumanly brutal beatdown from another aggressor personality), how does the trauma worsen the dysfunction? In what many ways can it appear?

    *the difference between mistrust, actual paranoia AND that combative hypervigilance, when someone is looking for excuses to fight and win

    *Also, disturbed characters lie to others, but could they lie to themselves without neurosis having any part in it? Is it possible that such a character starts to believe his own lies, because they are so pleasant? Could it tie back to that magical thinking, “I think so, thus it makes things so”?

    *Could unwillingness to bear discomfort have been confused for low self-esteem somewhere along the way? You even said in one article that sadists can be miserable, when they have no one to hurt.

    1. More like HOW.

      By reflecting on the info that’s already been available here and by reflecting on some other psychological info I’ve read elsewhere.

      Unless you mean where I copypasted them from, which is from my own comments two articles previous.

    2. Also, what about this:

      Being truly unconscious vs not self-evaluating (or knowing the truth’s right there, but not bothering to look)


      Came to my mind reading a bit critical reading of Jiddu Krishnamurti’s life..

      “That, too, is a recurring problem with the “great guru-figures” of this world—in generally failing to create even one disciple “as great as” themselves, in spite of their “skillful” discipline. More pointedly, any lesser, non-World teacher who could openly admit that not even one of his students had ever “truly understood his teaching” might have begun to question his own abilities in that regard. This World Teacher, however, evidently was not “conditioned” by any such need for self-evaluation.”

      1. J, they present “THE WAY” in a very obscure and basically unatainable format and it remains out of reach to the neophyte. All the while they present as if they have attained it through self examination yet non thinking. It’s a very circular trap in a way.

        1. An ex boyfriend of mine is a huge J Krishnamurti reader and has basically taken on the same kind of roll in his life. Another thing I have understood backwards.

          1. Yes J…….but not outwardly. I just think *I THINK* that he enjoys his role as a suposed enlightened being and enjoys people looking to him for answers to unanswerable questions (koans)? It’s my opinion only though, based on my experience. I know that he was very hypocritical, two sets of “rules”, etc. I didn’t see the “enlightenment”. I don’t know……..he’s an ok kind of guy though. Interesting situation which is too hard to flesh out here.

          2. Well, it’s easy to get “high” on that. 🙂

            Sounds to me like enjoys being like a Zen master, giving out wisdoms that help and thus prove significant. Great emphasis on the last word.

  5. J, the interesting thing is that when he was a kid he was made to feel like he was stupid by his sibling. He is by no means stupid. But this roll that he has developed for himself sets him apart from others as a great wise man.
    I know another person who had some learning disabilities as a child and “stupid” was assigned to him when in reality he is very smart. The thing is, he reads non stop, absorbs the writen word like a sponge and thinks he knows everything and everyone around him that disagrees is “an idiot”. It’s horrible. He has over compensated and turned into a know it all. If I disagree with him and present contrary proof that what he is saying is not true, he says that I just like to argue. Things that I KNOW to be different thsn he is saying! I should probably just keep it to myself. Sad thing is, his son and I are very good buddies, he’s like my kid in a way but I’m seeing these traits coming out in him. Sad. He was not like that as a younger kid.

    1. Yes, sounds sad and would be a wonder if that didn’t feel sad.

      It must be that having a favorite theory feels like one’s discovered it, the Secret, the source of all thought(refering to Transcendental Meditation cult for anyone, who didn’t yet get it), the one thing or the things that explain everything neatly. One gotta be pretty averse to learning, then. Why need to learn? I’ve already figured it out. How can’t others see it? Thus goes the thought(not meaning like I literally could look into people’s minds).

      Some psychology professional seem averse to learning other info than what they’ve believed for long.

    2. Even some small things that seem insignificant take time to figure out. For instance, finding out how to let mental energy(again, wisdoms of mindfulness) flow freely so that any improvements you do stick. Some might scoff. “Mental masturbation. That’s not important at all. Just find some work and call it done.” Really? No writing down what you’ve found during random meditations/contemplations/time-structuring thinking on a drab train trip? No discovering what subjects you’re inclined towards and interested in? No finding out what works for you as well as how and why? Figuring things out isn’t a one-time thing, it happens all the time.

  6. Thank you so much Dr Simon.
    My husband is a sex addict. He sees a therapist a few times a year. She claims to be a SA specialist. She told him that he is a narcissist, and by virtue of that, I am a borderline. She says narcissists and borderlines attract like magnets. She never formally assessed him (or me either, she is going on what he says about me). Recently, he was assessed by a psychologist who found he has ASPD. His therapist continues to assert that the diagnosis is wrong and that he has NPD and BPD.. His favourite line is “Our problems are because of how we interact” The sex addiction industry, in particular, targets partners as problematic borderlines or co-addicts. The SA industry tells sex addicts that they are addicted to shame. It is hard enough to deal with someone so entitled, let alone someone with a therapist who has helped to inflate him and allowed him to point the finger at me (I am not a borderline, by the way), enhancing his ability to scapegoat the person that he threw under the bus.
    Thanks Again for the work you do. I am slowly coming out of the fog.

    1. I made and error in the entry above:
      His psych testing showed that he has APD+NPD. His therapist, who never assessed him, states flatly that he is an NPD (because she says that all sex addicts are NPD) . That is problem therefore is that he is “overly charming’ and that he “needs to find his voice and stand up for what he needs”
      It makes me sick. There is no real holding him to accountability and a considerable amount of demonizing me.

      1. Una,

        I hope you keep reading the blog and are able to find your authentic self, which is not a BPD but a compassionate, empathic person who cares about humanity. Not to long ago, about 50 years ago in my lifetime, people were more considerate and caring about their fellowman.

        Now, we are labeled neurotics, BPD and all kinds of other BS by the medical profession who don’t know their own true selves. I don’t doubt half the medical professionals in the psych field are CD themselves.

        Did it ever occur to these pathetic so called medical professionals, that the tactics and treatment the Character Disordered always purpotrate on their targets can mimic all kinds of profound, unnatural conduct by the victims of these sick individuals.

        Una, an ethical medical professional is not going to asses your mental status by someone who is CD, they can speculate but not diagnose. I can only say if you are able to, get as far away as quickly as you can.

        I would also encourage you to read Dr. Simons book In Sheep’s Clothing.

        1. Thank you so much BTOV, I deeply appreciate your kindness and validation. I am waking up from the fog and becoming more strategic. Slowly, slowly, I hope to be free.

          1. Una,

            You are very welcome, I encourage you to continue to post. Knowledge is power, next to that is validation and support which you will find here. There are many kind and understanding individuals who post on Dr. Simon’s blog and are more than willing to share their personal experiences and help you if they can.

            If anything this is a safe place to express what you are going through. So many of us here have been in the same fog, working our way out. Una, know this, it is not you. Yes, it takes time and you can be free. I hope we can help you and please know you are welcome here. You see, you help us too.

            Take care Kindred Spirit and Blessings

      2. Ina
        My reply will be short because it is difficult to type on this iPhone
        Sounds to me like your X has manipulated the therapist and he/she fell for his lies. From that point on I would discount any input from that therapist.
        There are good ones out there, I fortunately have one who had my STBX number at the get go
        As Andy and I like to say, ask yourself if you want a “project” as your partner.
        It is a tough question. He is a project and one that takes the joy of life from you. And I suspect there is a whole host of other behaviors and perhaps secrets that he has that may verge on being intolerable

    2. Una,
      I think you have better handle of the dynamics than his therapist. I am assuming sex addict means, he is running affairs or indulges in too much pornography. Tell him and his therapist that most often a sex addict is simply pleasure seeker, and he needs to considered as such unless there are several proof to the contrary. Maybe make a catchy poster of that and hold it up when you feel tongue-tied overwhelmed by a barrage of heavenly explanations.
      Stick around here, I am sure in few months you will be able to hold both of them accountable.

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