From Timothy Leary to timid and leery?

A cool bit of “psychological realism” in the Biblical story of Moses is that when he’s asked by the Voice to go speak to the head of the society he’s grown up in, he balks. He’s in fact terrified. What’s real about that is that it fits the story of his having grown up inside the “establishment” — we’re not talking lice-infested, could-give-a-shit desert prophet here, but a guy who had internalized his society’s expectations, norms for what it was “okay to say,” and so who choked when challenged to tell some truth that violated that society’s inner “templates.”

This kind of thing has been on my mind a lot recently as I’ve been enjoying my transition from working as a “licensed psychologist” to being mainly a “free range writer.” Not sure if I’ll resume psychology practice when I can finally sell the house and get to Vermont, but there is something very freeing about being in a position where self-expression is more permitted.

It’s ironic, in a profession that has in its lineage the likes of William James, Freud, Jung, and so on, all the way down to Timothy Leary (who was an outstanding personality theorist and researcher before he moved off into more radical explorations of “inner space” in the 60s), that we have become so constricted and constipated as a group. For instance, despite our alleged expertise in the “secrets of the human heart,” there are virtually no great fiction writers who have been psychologists. And with very few exceptions, psychologists have not been very good at societal leadership and change. Sure, there are a few shrink novelists out there and I’m sure lots have tried their hands at it occasionally, but their stuff ends up being rather wooden and inhibited. As for leadership, consider the recent debacle — which as a psychologist I find highly embarrassing — in which the American Psychological Association virtually endorses participation in torture by its members, then of course denies it’s doing so, on the theory that if the Consigliere doesn’t carry a handgun, he’s not really part of the Mafia.

I’ve been reading a lot about professionals and the process of making people into professionals. Physicist Jeff Schmidt wrote a book called “Disciplined Minds” where he argues that the process of professional training more or less beats the intellectual freedom out of people, so that they end up being virtual robots, ready to assume rather conservative, compliant roles as good employees. The ironic thing, he maintains, is that most professionals see themselves as fairly liberal or even “radical” in their social orientations — and they may be. But, he says, where the pedal hits the metal — in their professional roles where it really counts, they in fact ACT rather conservatively and traditionally.

Not sure I totally buy this, but I do know that there are a number of factors contributing to shrinks’ self-constraint. One is the ever-vigilant eyes of boards of psychology — known to second-guess virtually anything you may do or say or not do or say as a professional. That can become a pretty constraining “presence” for most of us, however brave we may want to see ourselves as being. But another very real threat is the risk that some client somewhere will feel offended by something you do. I read recently of an “ethics example” case in which a psychologist put some sexy (but entirely proper, apparently) bikini photos of herself up on a dating website. All she wanted to do was to have a normal life, find a partner, be a person. But one of her clients was all upset upon finding the pics, and filed an ethics complaint, and instead of sending the client back to her shrink with the kind advice that “you and your therapist need to work this out” (and implicitly saying “this is YOUR developmental problem that is normal and understandable, but your therapist gets to be human on her own time”), the ethics experts more or less said the shrink was wrong.

So, dating psychologists out there: be careful.

The problem with such thinking and such a constraint system is that it reinforces the insanity of us all. The real contribution of the great leaders of our field — people like Freud — was their commitment to the healing power of radical honesty. Radical honesty is not ”tactful“ honesty or gussied-up versions. It’s not Moses saying ”let my people have some coffee breaks, please“ and it’s not psychologists politely saying to the Pentagon, ”well, a BIT of torture is all right, as long as you promise to be nice.“ And it’s not a whole profession choking down their humanity and honesty and capacity to see and say things that everyone else is afraid to say.

More subtly, it’s not holding back on opinions or even sharing a little thing, such as an interest in hiking or a love for red wine or fantasies of riding motorcycles, because someone, somewhere might object. Or holding back on writing on some topics simply because the ”marketing people“ helping you with your ”writing career“ think you need a consistent, predictable set of messages (a ”brand,“ as they call it). As old Walt Whitman might have said, isn’t my self ”brand“ enough?


1 Comment

Filed under Psychology, Psychology profession, Vermont

One response to “From Timothy Leary to timid and leery?

  1. Pingback: “Where Good Ideas Come From” (book review) « States of Mind

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