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.