A few thoughts on psychology, psychiatry, and personal development

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[This post was written in response to an article in Russian (http://fit4brain.com/10336), which chastises the psychologist and psychological training community for their lack of standards and frequent schemes to sell systems of thinking and behaving en-mass that have no scientific backing.]

It is true that there is a higher incidence and propensity for charlatanism within the psychologist community (vs psychiatrists, for example). Also, we have to recognize, that *even today*, psychological practices outside of US and most of Europe are severely outdated. This is complicated by the fact that there are many different methods of practicing psychology, from gestalt to cognitive behavior therapy (to color therapy!).

When you go to a psychologist, you have to carefully vet them for the methods they use, their academic pedigree, and their track record with other patients.

Psychologists are more like personal trainers than like doctors. Each personal trainer has their own style and their own preferred methods. At the end of the day, some trainers are generally ineffective, others generally effective, and some only work for a certain type of person. So too with psychologists. (With a doctor, if your leg is broken, all doctors [hopefully] will treat it in a similar way.)

A psychiatrist, on the other hand, deals with neuronal and hormonal issues — physiology. They can prescribe pills. Not all psychological issues are best handled with pills, but in many cases pills do help and in some cases pills are the only way to treat certain conditions (depression, schitzo-anything, or severe anxiety).

Interestingly, one does not preclude the other. In many cases behavioral ills have physiological causes, but they have “thinking” reasons as well. Many effective treatments begin with pills from the psychiatrist to impact immediate positive dynamics in a patient’s life, but, since pills almost always have side effects, long-term treatment involves psychological approaches.

And maybe this is a good rule of thumb. For quick, dramatic fixes with side-effects, see a psychiatrist (eg, I can’t fall asleep, I can’t relax, I don’t feel happy, I’m afraid of X). For long-term changes in the way you think (self confidence, healthy relationships, motivation), see a psychologist.

This highlights why “group training” is problematic, since it is not realistic to enact significant personal change in one or even a handful of training sessions (it’s like learning about a leg exercise but never actually showing up at the gym to do it). Hence, the article author’s disdain for the bulk of psychology practitioners. Group training often result in that “Aha!” feeling we crave, a eureka of an idea (“the incident with the meatball sandwich when I was 6 is why I’ve been so shy all my life!”) that seem like, with the realization in hand, our life path is revolutionized and our mental patterns are reset. However, a few days or weeks later, when the “Aha!” subsides, most (perhaps all) return to their typical patterns of thinking and behaving.

Many personal development organizations (will not mention them here to avoid giving them more exposure than they are due) bank on this very fact.  Pay $XX dollars, attend a seminar or three, and come out a new you. Attach Three! Word! Slogan! here. People pay, they feel immediate results, things make a bit more sense to them, and they leave the event satisfied and elevated. Was the training a positive influence in their lives? Perhaps. Have they solved core personal issues and become an new person as a result? Unlikely.

Just like going for a jog will bring on a slew of new sensations if don’t regularly exercise, so too a training will feel pretty good and make a lot of sense.

It is the continued pursuit of better thinking and behaving patterns under the guidance of a well trained psychologist, the active integration of new learned ideas into one’s everyday life, and yes, a pill from your friendly neighborhood psychiatrist now and again, that culminate in significant, measurable change in one’s life experience. A weekend training may be a place to meet similarly afflicted souls and briefly experience a tribal belonging, but it is not a cure to life’s psychological ills.

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