Today on Facebook I asked, “What’s a question you’d like to ask a psychologist,” and I asked friends to share. Four hours later I have 36 questions and 13 shares, and I expect the list to grow. The questions are truly a delight. Some are funny, others serious, some clearly deeply personal. The intensity of response led me to a conclusion: I’m going to start a series of posts under the Reddit-style heading /psychAMA (ask me anything), because they are fascinating and every one of them deserves an answer. Today, though, I’m going to answer just one. The one in the title: “Why don’t psychologists ever answer the f@&king question?”[i]
This whole idea reminds me a bit of “Dear Sugar,” except I’m not nearly as talented as Cheryl Strayed. More about that another time. I digress.
Shrinks of all persuasions – psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, counselors – have a reputation for answering questions with other questions, or flat out refusing to answer them. Some will never, or almost never, answer a question because they believe that answering a question discloses something about themselves, and they believe that it’s the therapist’s job to be a “blank slate.” Don’t scoff too much. Think of it this way: you’re not paying a therapist to talk about themselves or let their own shit get in your way.
Another reason not to answer a question is because it’s too much like advice, and most advice is pretty useless when you come right down to it. If it’s good advice, the person you give it to doesn’t learn a lot and tends to become more dependent, rather than less so. If it’s bad advice, the advice-giver gets the blame, and the advice-receiver doesn’t learn anything about becoming more self-reliant.
Here’s another, more interesting reason, and the most likely reason that I will delay – though hardly ever refuse entirely – to answer a question. It’s that the questions are almost always much, much more interesting than the answers.
Questions tell me more about the person asking them than answers ever will. People ask me, “what religion are you?” or “are you married?” and what they mean is “can I trust you?” Nobody really cares what religion I am – they want to know if I’m a good person. Nobody really cares whether I’m married – they want to know if I can relate to the relationship issues they’re having.
People ask me, “why does my husband (wife, partner, whatever) always _____ (fill in the blank: ignore me, fart, lust after other women/men, think about kinky things), or never (take out the garbage, do the dishes, have supper on the table, kiss me, initiate sex)?” The questions aren’t the interesting thing; the interesting thing is that they are saying (a) I’m really irritated by that behavior, or (b) I am disgusted by/ashamed of him/her, or (c) help me understand because I don’t get it and I want to, or maybe (d) this is completely crazy and I’m trying to talk myself out of leaving this dirt bag.
Before answering, it’s really, really important to understand the question.
So here’s the deal: I will almost always answer questions that are posed to me. But it’s a little like a friend once said about someone we both knew, “Tommy will give you the shirt off his back. Just as soon as he knows you really need the shirt.” I answer; it’s just that I have to make sure I understand the question.
See, the thing is, I’m not like this because I’m a psychologist. I became a psychologist because I’m like this. Much to my children’s irritation, I admit.
Here’s the bottom line, just in case you missed it earlier. I’m all about encouraging people to think for themselves. And for those who think for themselves, the questions are always more interesting than the answers. Even during the election cycle.
Dr. Les Kertay
The post is inspired by the Problogger challenge in which I’m participating. Each day for 7 days, Darren Rowse poses a style of post. Yesterday’s was a list post. Today’s challenge is to write in a FAQ-inspired style.
This post is also the beginning of a series, /psychAMA: have a question, send it to me or leave a comment, and I’ll do my best to answer at least one a week.
[I] Full disclosure: the original comes from a friend who said she needed to think about it a bit, because she knew better than to ask a psychologist and expect and answer. That led me to pose this post’s question myself, because I know sometimes people get frustrated.