very time a patient would come to me carrying “information” they’d picked up from some website and proceed to give their self-diagnosis – usually followed by “shouldn’t I be taking medication?” – I’d curse the ease with which anybody, qualifications aside, can publish online — particularly on a subject as sensitive as mental health.
Over the years, I’ve given some thought to doing the same, just to offset the volume of misinformation.
I never got around to it (I need deadlines) until a then-columnist for “The American,” Don Carroll, asked to interview me in connection with a column he was writing. When he dropped by my home to chat, he told me more about his work in “The American.” That led me to get in touch with Christopher Winner, this magazine’s ever-encouraging editor, which paved the way for this column.
A fair number of people, mostly colleagues, have asked me why I “waste my time” writing columns for a general audience when I could be publishing in professional journals. After all, I’m supposedly an academic.
The answer is a long story, so I ask you for patience as I begin one of my long metaphors.
While still in high school I loved to watch the Julia Child cooking show on television. She cooked in a riotous way, chopping, mixing, flaming, and taught fancy French cuisine, which at the time was considered the height of cooking and culinary complexity. Yet she made it all seem easy. And when I bought her books, I found that it actually was. True, cooking required specific skills, but none were particularly hard to learn — not if you had a good teacher (and she was, even on TV). I soon learned to chop effortlessly and quickly. Gradually, and with a bit of experience, I developed and refined the senses (vision, smell, taste) necessary to cook alertly and with confidence. The trick is fearlessness. Try, then try again, and don’t be afraid to fail.
Julia Child didn’t seem at all afraid. Once, while flipping a potato pancake, half of it fell on the stove. Undaunted, she went about demonstrating how to cover up the broken pieces by putting them back on the dish and hiding the cracks with a bit of cheese and cream. You won’t learn to flip without trying to flip, and, most of the time at least, the flipper is probably alone in the kitchen if something does go wrong.
She eyeballed salt and pepper, she measured only what was strictly necessary to measure.
Compare that to today’s TV and internet chefs, who live in a far slicker universe. Everything is usually laid out ahead of time, a little dish for the measured salt (1½ teaspoons exactly), a little dish for the measured spoon of flour, the “chunk of butter” rendered precisely in grams. Many of these cooks insist you must use an instant-read thermometer to know if the bread (or the roast) is properly cooked, the degrees exactly matching to the last decimal point (as if people didn’t cook delicious bread or roast in the millennia that preceded these instruments). Watching this new group, I get the feeling that they’re not trying to teach the average person to cook but to show off their own skills and expertise, in a profession they insist on imbuing with mystique. (I do wonder who is going to wash all those mise-en-place dishes at home.)
This kind of elitism can be applied to many professions, psychotherapy included. Some are convinced that intellectually sound writing can’t be understood by the general (read untrained) public. Some seem to pride themselves on the complexity of the profession’s language, and call back on the use of specialized terms to assert the value and validity of what they’re saying.
But the use of specialized language also asserts superiority, like the instant-read thermometer. If psychology is about human experience, then humans should be able to understand it if explained properly, avoiding technical terms through the use of metaphors and examples. The idea is not to make things simplistic but rather to make them easier to grasp.
I don’t like snobbery, in cooking or in psychology. But I also don’t like the simplistic. Good recipes explain why you do things in a certain way, they don’t just tell you what to do. They presume you’re intelligent and can understand what you’re being told. Self-help psychology is all too often simplistic, and the reader is stuck between overly intellectual technical writing on the one hand and the overly simplified on the other. Meanwhile the real depth of experience and the complexity of the self (as well as the human struggle to understand it) are lost. And that’s too bad.