Don’t Read Psychology Today (Review of Psychology Today (2015, May))

PSYCHOLOGY TODAY YOUR INNER VOICEWeintraub, Pamela (2015, May). The Voice of Reason. Psychology Today

Don’t read Psychology Today, or self-help, for that matter.  They are designed to sell you goods and services, just like other forms of marketing.  Understanding how this works, unlike the content of the articles, can paradoxically provide some of the relief that drives you to seek psychological knowledge in the first place.

Pamela Weintraub, in addition to being a hysterical prepper and a possible voodoo priestess, is a journalist.  She is not a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker or neuroscience practitioner.  What is she doing writing for Psychology Today?  She is creating a brand.

Weintraub is what I like to call a study-scrapper.  A study scrapper is someone who combs the voluminous and never ending stream of professional journals to cobble together a marketable angle which always follows the following format:  There is new science about your brain which will help you get better and improve yourself.  (Never questioning why you need to get better and improve yourself).  To a large extent this belief is your problem.

Weintraub’s point is that by intervening in your self talk, particularly by interrupting personal pronouns with your name, you can boost your confidence or in general feel better.  Let’s see if we can elevate this mind hack to a bit of profundity with some psychoanalysis and philosophy.

She includes the following fixtional example of Jennifer, who appears to be going on a date with a gentleman she has seen before.

Jennifer( 1), what are you nervous about? It’s not the first date you’ve ever been on. I know you like this guy, but take it slow (2), and stay calm. Even if it doesn’t go perfectly, it won’t be the end of the world. You’re capable (3), intelligent, accomplished, beautiful. Just do your best and let the chips fall. Chill, Jen.”

What can we infer about Jennifer and her inner world from this example?

  • Jennifer speculates (1) about what she is really nervous about?  Weintraub attributes the relieving effect of this passage to the use of the personal name.
  • Note that Jennifer is already automatically talking back to her nervousness, trying to be reassuring and silence doubts.
  • More reassurance is offered in (2), along with the admonition to stay calm, what’s the worst that could happen?
  • She concludes with some pep talk and a final gentle admonition to Chill.  “There-there, now shut up.”

This may produce relief in a variety of ways.  It could even be that Weintraub is right about the use of the personal name.  It could also be true that Weintraub’s Jennifer has read too many Psychology Today articles and is really committed to the value of this exercise as a placebo, like a commitment to the power of the Rosary, or the catharsis of animal sacrifice.  It could be that this exercise distracts her from thinking about her actual problem.

Interesting to me about Weintraub’s vignette is the fact that we don’t know what Jennifer is worried about.  What we can infer from all of this is that Jennifer just doesn’t think she should be nervous.  Her response to this, much like the article, is to try and talk herself out of it.  This can be tricky, and at best limits your ability to understand yourself and others better.  (Note:  Weintraub’s examples from the angle of how a friend would talk to you sound bitchy and shallow, much like Jennifer’s imaginary friends, I bet.).

I’d encourage Jennifer to talk to herself compassionately, which means to stop telling herself it’s wrong/bad/immature to be anxious.  This whole monologue, and the response is problematic in that it is based on the belief that Jennifer just can’t be nervous on the date.  This is likely to create anxiety about anxiety.  If Jen is nervous on the date, why couldn’t she just say so to the gentleman she is meeting?  If she couldn’t do that, then this is her problem.  She is ashamed about being nervous, and probably ashamed about being ashamed, in that she is trying not to feel the way she actually feels (nervous) because she thinks there is some other, superior, socially acceptable way she is supposed to feel (confident).  You know, like they say in Psychology Today.

This line of thinking for Jennifer would mean drawing out her actual fears and anxieties, not jumping too quickly to trying to talk herself out of them.  It might eventually look like Jennifer realizing how hard it is to imagine enjoying herself being nervous on a date.  

This could leave Jen hopefully free to stop making her priority to not appear nervous and start making her priority to pay attention to her date and be a good conversational partner.  If she could refocus her attention off herself and onto her partner she would be able to answer her fears and anxieties very quickly by relying on the actual evidence of other peoples actions instead of her internally generated sensations.  (If she thinks her internally generated sensations of confidence or anxiety are more important than the evidence of the outside world, her problem is that she is a narcissist in this particular way, which is why she’s reading the article before the date to find a hack to not be nervous.)

If she approaches this date in terms of going to work on herself she runs the risk of turning the date into an opportunity to prove to herself she is not an inferior anxious person by using her date – and not surprisingly, putting out (why did Weintraub mention taking it slow?) – as a magical gesture.  Her date will be glad for the sex, a little confused by why Jennifer seemed stilted and compulsively over confident (and weird in the sack), and probably move on when he either gets bored or Jennifer finally snaps and is flooded with all the shame and anxiety she has been cultivating.  (This will now be the dates fault in her mind, and she’ll look for Psychology Today articles about spotting narcissists.  Circle of life, internet style).

Weintraub correctly identifies that people are generally engaged in some form of inner monologue of which they have varying degrees of awareness.  In the West, it took Beck’s cognitive therapy to show us that it wasn’t just obsessional neurotics who experienced this, but everyone to some extent.  At one level of awareness this inner monologue simply occurs to people as a fact.  When the CT (or Weintraub’s mind hack practitioner) intervenes to become aware of this dialogue and address it, it can be immensely relieving simply to realize that much of the way you feel has to do with what you are telling yourself.

This risks being facile because much of what you are telling yourself has to do with the way you feel.  More specifically – how you relate to your feelings.  Said another way, explaining or conceptualizing your feelings tends to justify/entitle or invalidate them.  Instead of addressing this relationship, Weintraub offers you a gimmic of using your own name.  This sounds strikingly familiar to the shitty relationship advice Psychology Today or Business hacks offer you about using peoples names when trying to be more persuasive. “You know, Jennifer, thanks for stopping by Kittens Closet.  I’ve a got a vibrator with your name written all over it!”

What I hate about this article is that it takes a mind hack wrapped up in the jargon of neuroscience and uses it to obscure reality.  The unspoken advice is to not take yourself seriously and instead get better at hacking your mind into normal pieces.  In other words, relate to yourself with gimmicks from click-bait.  After all, it’s how we already treat each other anyway.