In 1993 I took a leave of absence from a doctoral program in psychology, where I had been deeply involved in theoretical psychology for four years. I did not know then that I would not return. I knew only that I was frustrated and burned out by my experiences, and that I needed to sort things out.
As an undergraduate, I took my job of figuring out my place in the world very seriously. I read widely — studied everything. I wanted to know what the world needed, and figure out how whatever I was matched up. I spent junior and senior years in particular working out a vision of the “good society,” the utopian ideals I could really get behind that I required in order to give direction to my daily work. (“Figured out the meaning of life yet?” a housemate once called into my room.) I struggled with finding a livelihood within an economically complex society that gives our every action as both a consumer and producer the infamous “unintended consequences.” I was a purist determined to find a workable place for myself. I was also a sort of existential midlife crisis at a very inexperienced twenty-one.
By twenty-four, with a Bachelor’s in Mathematics and an unsatisfying fit in computer programming, I’d come to understand that my happiness was every bit as important to my longevity in a field as my ability. Still committed to solving the world’s problems, I determined to do so in the company of one of my first loves in life: Psychology. The fit seemed natural. I was interpersonally attuned and sharply analytical about what I saw. As for my social ideals, didn’t human failure or success as a society come down to the actions we take, collectively and individually? And why was it that we did the more destructive thing in so many cases?
Psyche. The soul. The willful young maiden who couldn’t bear not to check out her lover in the dark, Eros — unleashing the usual string of doleful Greek consequences. The deep, twisting reaches of inner life. Failure as learning as success. The part that doesn’t die.
Strangely, never defined that way in American textbooks. “Psych·ology: the study of the mind,” they say instead. A small word choice that encompasses a split as huge as any human cultural divide. In believing it is avoiding superstition, a field that has become too superstitious to call a word, or a soul, what it is.
“Some people say the sky is just the sky / but I say / why deny the obvious child?” — Paul Simon
With few exceptions, the academic psychologists I knew (and even those I liked) were more interested in overlaying the trappings of scientism on their activities, than in exploring themes of human importance. I say scientism rather than science, because it was more like they were costuming themselves in white coats lifted from old movie images than exploring the basis and ramifications of what they were doing. And what were they — we — in fact doing? We were applying a mode of inquiry from the physical sciences to the inherently reflexive study of our own behavior and/or experience. We were studying ourselves in the mirror as a foreign object, and assuming no distortion. The problem was, this application of physical science theory and methodology (whether Newtonian, relativistic or quantum — although generally the former) had become a leap of faith from mere analogy to total identity. And what was so essentially faith was positioned within the field as the hardest-headed form of empiricism.
This was not, strictly speaking, why I left. I had placed myself squarely in the thick of this very issue from the outset. I had learned to have fun being argumentative, and iconoclastic, and better read than the complacent opposition. I had learned to separate theoretical disagreements from personal ones (despite a trend toward finding my methodology picked apart only when my theory strayed too far out of line). The reason I left, ultimately, was that I was still looking for my place. And psychology had no place for me.
Although as a student I was able to treat psychology as a subject or field of inquiry, in order for me to stay in it I needed it also to become a career. Career status in academic psychology is conferred via professorship levels and tenure, which in turn depend primarily on success publishing in peer-reviewed journals. The nature of the inquiries one can make is therefore circumscribed not only by the hiring institution, but more powerfully by what one’s peers will let one get away with publishing. Deliberately sidestepping Kuhn’s vision of hordes of narrow-sighted normal scientists, the field idealizes this process as a sort of accretional, truth-producing machinery.
Or at the very least, as if defending American policy to a 1960s protestor, “the best thing we’ve got!”
Love it or leave it.
As has often been remarked, these academics behave like the man who lost his car keys in the dark, but searches for them under the street lamp because the light’s better there. More cynically, I would say they behave like elected officials who have lost their sense of mission to the exigencies of preserving their career. Because in this publish-or-perish world, the strangely intolerant message of psychology isn’t live and let live.1 It’s conform or die.
At the time I spoke of human agency, intentionality, and free will. I recognize now that I was talking about the soul and its development. I aligned myself with members of the field who seemed to be struggling to do the same. Yet in some ways my friends were as bad as my enemies. My graduate advisor, in his sixties, had fought a long and (it often seemed) losing battle trying to hold the philosophical mirror up to his peers. After years of defending the simplest assertions about human cognition against charges of untestability and religiosity, he had developed a set of strictures around where we could and could not go to still be taken seriously. Theoretical innovation was good; methodological innovation was not. (We needed to prove we were “scientists.”) Self could pass; soul could not. (This wasn’t about our personal spiritual beliefs.)
On another front, my undergraduate advisor survived among a small band of renegade psychologists around the world holding onto a dying personality theory called Personal Construct Psychology (which is still, so much more to the shame of the field, one of the most comprehensive and inspiring theories of the human psyche ever devised).2 Other frustrated psychologists flocked to the banality but apparent innovation of social constructionism, deconstructionism, and then Postmodernism. Here philosopher Jacques Derrida was composing incomprehensible sentences without the use of I to illustrate the “artificiality” of the subject-object split, until someone actually had to introduce the term embodied to describe where we ever got the idea we were individuals to being with.
Basically, staying in the field as myself would have been an exercise in choosing which way to be both professionally marginal and personally constricted.
There is one more thing. It has taken me quite a few years to work this one out clearly in my mind and heart. And again, this one is an illustration of my friends being as destructive as my enemies. That is the question of politics. Not the departmental or academic politics I allude to above, but the question of real in-the-world social and political stance.
My professional life, as I hope I’ve made clear by now, revolves very seriously around my orientation toward being an agent of constructive social change. My values are progressive to the nth degree. What I found was that, because I expressed my belief in human choice and responsibility, as opposed to the prevailing psychological belief in environmental conditioning, I was repeatedly taken to be right wing or anti-liberal! It was shocking to me that people in the field equated free will with judgment and blame, and still more shocking that they equated causal determinism with humanitarianism and hope. To me, our only hope as a planet is in the choices that we make going forward. I would like to persuade people to make conscious choices, and help them remove their personal and social blocks to doing so. That is very different from wanting to shape people into my own Brave New World, which is the natural outcome of environmental determinism. I consider my path the one of greater integrity, compassion and respect for the person.
I found myself unable to satisfy my peers’ questions: “But are you saying it’s a poor person’s fault that they’re poor, that they live in a slum?” “No, of course not! But how they, like anyone else, construe their circumstances will determine what actions they take going forward.” “But are you saying there are no external barriers on them? That they just have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? It’s all just in how they think?” “No! Of course there are external barriers! There may be barriers they can never overcome. But there is still a way that they actively frame their situation, say as a victim versus as a survivor, and how they do so may make the crucial difference between changing their situation or not. And ultimately, that’s the only thing they — any of us — do control.”
And, of course! — it’s the hardest thing in the world, to go from seeing yourself as a victim to a survivor to even a hero, when as far as you can tell barely the slightest shred of evidence in your whole life gives you any reason to. It’s hard not to internalize your circumstances and turn it on yourself and endlessly repeat your past. Therapy is all about untying those knots and moving forward according to your own choices. So is soul growth. And it all depends on “knowing the difference between the two” — which means that some things are out of your control but others are not. Your own will is yours, the you in you, the thing they can’t take away from you, whether or not you succeed by external standards.
Hence, one of the reasons I left psychology, though unarticulated at the time — and continued to feel more comfortable outside of the field — was this inability to take action in line with my own deeply held social concerns within a supposedly socially concerned field. Instead, I got a bemused lack of assistance from my professors when I started looking for educational or policy position recommendations: that wasn’t “me” (the individualist theorist) in their eyes! Later, I lost a friendship with another student who quite explicitly couldn’t accept my entry into the world of business. “Evil,” he said.
Many people in psychology stereotype people in business, and in marketing in particular. Materialistic, selfish, shallow. Unconcerned about the poor and disadvantaged. Manipulating others for our personal gain. As individuals, some businesspeople deserve all of that, others none at all, and some even quite the opposite. I do find the relationships in the business world less convoluted, the conflicts less personal. Nobody cares to dig at you until you bleed. Maybe it’s because the stakes are more external.3 Most of us don’t entirely confuse our work identity with our selves. It gets nasty sometimes, but it doesn’t get raw. People don’t have the tools to sink that deep, and for the most part I rejoice in that.
As a setting for social change, I have found business to be, paradoxically, much more open than psychology. This is not to deny that the overriding culture of business is still largely materialistic, shortsighted and un-ecological. But what I find freeing is that people’s concerns here are largely practical — truth really is, as William James said, the cash value of an idea. There is therefore more room for differences of opinion, for interpretive methodologies and for experimentation in pursuit of what works. I also find personal challenge in the ubiquity of need for change in our work settings and goals — but that’s another topic in and of itself, for another essay.
But is this world of business then my place? Probably not. I’m not really a natural here, either. Take my Myers-Briggs scores of INFP: as an introverted-intuitive-feeling-perceiving type, I’m empirically as far away as you can get from the typical businessperson! Maybe I don’t have a place at all. And maybe the fact that I couldn’t find a place in psychology isn’t psychology’s fault. It certainly has only helped my development to have broadened my experience in the way I have. Still, what bothers me is that I know psychology should have been my place. In that respect, it let me down. I’ve given the reasons here why I am not a psychologist. But the thing is, I should be a psychologist. My soul is one.
1 (return to text) A separate yet related disappointment to my themes here is that neither the psychology training I had nor the conduct of its professionals reflected psychological values of tolerance and respect for the individual with any commitment or consistency. A great deal of in-fighting and backbiting political behavior characterized the departments of each of the several schools and facilities with which I had experience (not to mention the name-calling using diagnostic labels!). Perhaps I erred in ascribing particular values to an entire field. One clinical professor, for example, claimed that empathy was just a technique.
2 (return to text) In a similar vein, one clinical supervisor was so dependent on her Interpersonal Psychoanalytic peers that she virtually couldn’t bear conversing with anyone but the four other therapists she worked with — and that included the men she dated!
3 (return to text) As a colleague of mine in advertising with a Ph.D. in Communication Studies liked to say, “The politics in academia are so bad because the stakes are so low!”
“Why I Am Not a Psychologist” was originally published in 2001, as a guest essay on the official Website to promote the release of the novel Fireflies in the Shadow of the Sun, by J.W. Ehrenfels, Bedside Books/American Book Publishing Group, 2004. american-book.com