Always Analyzing

Dr. Rob,

My girlfriend is a therapist to be and we have a dispute I want you to settle:

She says, “I don’t analyze the people in my life w/out them asking, and so I’ve never analyzed you.” I say, “With all of your knowledge and training, how can you NOT have some kind of ongoing analysis in your head of the people that you know well.”

Knowing someone’s background and all, wouldn’t a psychologist have to have some kind of opinion about why someone behaves the way they do?

– Attached2Shrink


This is an issue I first noticed right after I got accepted into graduate school for Clinical Psychology. Everyone I knew looked at me a bit (more) strangely, wondering if their every word would be picked about by this Freud-Junior-To-Be (e.g., “I’m in the mood for a banana, but I’m afraid of what you’ll say if I have one.”). Most shrinks see this behavior in their personal lives at some point and, unfortunately, graduate school doesn’t teach you all that much about how to handle stares and questions outside of the office.

In this question posed by Attached2Shrink, however, there are two distinct yet very differently defined terms involved. “Ongoing analysis” and “some kind of opinion” are drastically different, with each fitting more or less into different schools of practicing psychology.

Psychoanalysts are not “regular” Psychologists. They usually do many years of post-graduate work specifically in Freudian and Neo-Freudian psychoanalytical work. My understanding is that this invariably involves being a client in psychoanalysis as well. As a group these clinicians are generally the best at packing the greatest insightful punch to clients who want that type of therapeutic work. Many mental health practitioners have some rudimentary training in this area (myself included), and some clinicians decide to practice in what is referred to as a “psychodynamic orientation” (that is, their practice is influenced by Freud and his followers, but is more of an “Analysis-Light”). However, real psychoanalysts have dedicated a colossal amount of time, effort and money to be the Freuds of today.

Qualifying my response by stating that I’ve only met a small number of true psychoanalysts, in my limited experience and hearing stories from colleagues, the short answer to your question is yes, analysts are always analyzing you, your every word, and every action you take. From choosing Heineken over Amstel to using light starch on your shirts instead of heavy to tying your left shoe first to saying “hi” instead of the formal “hello,” many of these analysts need a fork through one or both eyes because it’s annoying as hell to be questioned about your choice of salad dressing in a restaurant. For you pacifists out there, just remind them of the old adage, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” and be done with it.

Now, garden-variety, eclectically-trained, normal Psychologists like yours truly don’t roll that way. While not having an “ongoing analysis” in my head, I often form an opinion, hypothesis or simply questions about why someone acts the way he or she does. As one professor of mine put it, “you don’t choose this career, it chooses you.” In other words, in many ways it’s impossible to turn-off that switch of curiosity about others and what they think, feel and do. It simply goes with the territory, it’s an occupational hazard. It’s not a bad thing, except for perhaps when I’m trying to sleep and am wondering why an ex-girlfriend dumped me for some other guy simply because he was richer, better-looking, funnier, nicer, and an all-around better person. But having ideas and questions is something everyone should be doing. It makes you more compassionate and open-minded. It allows you to think about why young starlet celebrities, murderers, and bosses act the way they do as opposed to simply writing them off as spoiled, crazy and a greedy scumbag, respectively. As Socrates said, “an unexamined life is not worth living.” Do you have to analyze why you buy the brand of toilet paper that you do? No. The choices you make for friends, career, and romantic interests? Probably.

So, Attached2Shrink, while your girlfriend is probably not scrutinizing your every step, I would guess that she is more curious about what you do than the average person. If she decides to go to analytical training after graduation, make sure she doesn’t attend whatever school my small number of colleagues did. Otherwise be prepared to extensively discuss why you buy Crest instead of Colgate and why you like your steak cooked the way you do.

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4 Responses to “Always Analyzing”

  1. David says:

    It should also be mentioned that it is unethical to practice therapy on your significant other. I believe that you covered that a bit in your article on dual relationships (Dr. Rob Note: Also check out Fear of Dying in the Archives). So while Attached2Shrink’s girlfriend may have an informed opinion about why he’s doing what he’s doing, she is most certainly not practicing any form of therapy on him.
    As an aside, I shudder every time I think of Freud analyzing his daughter, Anna. Could you imagine? Analyzed by your own dad? Ick!

  2. Avrila says:

    “As an aside, I shudder every time I think of Freud analyzing his daughter, Anna. Could you imagine? Analyzed by your own dad? Ick!”
    Especially given that Freud thought all daughters wanted to boink their dads…creeeeeeepy…

  3. I was going to blog about this awhile back and held off. Instead of writing, I may just link over to hear and tell people to read it (as I get asked this pretty frequently).

  4. shira says:

    I came late to this, but this is a very unfair and shortsighted view of analysis and analysts. I’m not sure which analysts you have come in contact with, or how you decided they were analyzing every moment of your life, but much of analysis has to do with the client working things out on their own. Most truly good analysts are extremely quiet in therapy, to the point of creepiness, because analysis is at heart about self-reflection.
    Analysts also are not another species, but rather simply a different sort of psychiatrist or psychologist, and in that, it’s absurd to declare that a “regular” psychologist is not analyzing you at every moment, but an analyst is.
    Dr. Rob Note: Shira, if you’re coming to the party late, keep in mind that there’s a lot said tongue-in-cheek. Take things with some salt on this site, it’s how we roll.