There’s an old story about a cop who comes upon a drunk crawling around talking to himself under a streetlight. The cop asks the drunk what he’s doing, and the drunk answers in a slurred voice, “I dropped the keys to my house.” The cop helps him look around. But after fifteen minutes, when there is still no sign of the keys, the cop suggests, ‘‘let’s retrace your steps. Where was the last place you remember having your keys?” “Oh, that’s easy,” replies the drunk, “I dropped them across the street.” “You did!” cries the astonished cop, “Well, then why are we looking over here?” “There’s more light here,” replies the drunk.
In a similar way, when we have a problem, we often use the light of psychology and psychiatry to look for the key to solving it. Unfortunately, they do not always provide help. Instead, they have us, like the drunk, looking in the wrong place. Explanations often give us an illusion of help by enabling us to understand why we have a problem but not giving us any concrete ways to actually solve it.
These systems of explanation can lead to a “victim culture,” in which people focus on damage done to them in childhood or in their current relationships. This results in a tendency to blame others and look outside ourselves for solutions—to turn to experts or self-help books and groups.
Explanations are a booby prize. When you’ve got a problem, you want a solution. Psychological explanations, so pervasive in our society, steer people away from solving problems by giving them reasons why the problem has come about or why it is not solvable:
“Jimmy has low self-esteem; that’s why he is so angry.”
“I’m so shy that I’ll never meet anyone.’’
“I was sexually abused, so my sex life is bad.”
“She has dyslexia—that’s why she can’t read or write well.”
One of my favorite illustrations of this problem of paralysis from overanalysis is in the movie Annie Hall. Woody Allen plays Alvey Singer, a neurotic (surprise, surprise). Soon after they meet, Alvey tells his girlfriend Annie that he has been in analysis for thirteen years. He is still clearly a mass of problems. When Annie Hall expresses amazement at how long Alvey has been in therapy without getting any better, he tells her that he knows this, that he intends to give it fifteen years, and that if he has not gotten any results by then, he’s going to visit Lourdes.
Psychiatry, too, focuses on explanations, but its explanations are biological or genetic. Psychiatric theory—and theory it is— maintains that people’s problems arc based on biochemistry or even determined by biochemistry or genetics. But although we are born with and influenced by genetic and biochemical factors, not everything about us is determined by these factors. It’s more complicated than that. People with biochemical problems can and do have fluctuations in their functioning and sometimes recover altogether from what seems like a neurological or biochemical disorder.
The problem with psychology and psychiatry as strategies for solving problems is that:
• They give you explanations instead of solutions.
• They orient you toward what can’t be changed: the past or personality characteristics.
• They encourage you to view yourself as a victim of your childhood, your biology’ or genetics, your family, or societal oppression.
• They sometimes create new problems you didn’t know you had before you came into contact with a program or a book.
Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. But the (over)examined life makes you wish you were dead. Given the alternative, I’d rather be living.
Some people with dyslexia grow up to be successful writers. Some shy people become actors or public speakers. Some abused people have fine sex lives. They haven’t let psychology, or ideas about what is wrong with them, dictate the course of their lives. They’ve taken a solution-oriented approach to life, focusing instead on what they can do to improve the situation.