July 18, 2003
Adam Blatner, M.D.
One of the common pitfalls in counseling is the use of words and phrases that are unhelpful generalizations. Consider these, among others
controlling self-deceptive narcissistic don't trust me defensive repressed paranoid inappropriate manipulative neurotic difficult unresolved conflicts stubborn superficial regressing fixated resistant selfish aggressive too sensitive fragile lazy immature feeling sorry for yourself hostile self-centered unbalanced I'm worried about you borderline uncaring blocked insensitive wilful self-indulgent irresponsible (*please suggest* others)*
Often these words and their variations will be offered with something like, "You know what's wrong with you? You're just being...[insert unhelpful overgeneralized psychobabble term or phrase]."
... and so forth. The interesting thing about such terms is that to some degree, sometimes only a little, they apply to everyone. You can't defend yourself successfully.
In describing a third person, clients may use these terms so they'll seem psychologically sophisticated. However, the general nature of such terms communicates little. "Aggressive" could mean anything from a propensity to scowl to frequent bouts of grossly violent rage. The behavior needs to be presented with great specificity.
It's also common that professionals–counselors, psychiatrists, and others-- will use such terms in communicating with other professionals, but again, if it isn't commented on, then the one who hears is unconsciously colluding in the fiction that the psychological jargon being used really communicates meaningful information–when in fact it doesn't!
But the worst thing about these terms is that the one who is being told that she or he is this way is that there's nothing much the accused can do about it, even if such attributions were true in a big way. Without knowing exactly how, in terms of which behaviors are specifically being noted, the person so accused can hardly address such qualities.
These words are often couched within the framework of what Eric Berne called the game of "I'm only trying to help you." But there's a subtle sadistic and one-up associated message, as if to say, aha, I've found something I can pin this bit of intimidating psychobabble on, or, again as Eric Berne noted, the game of "Now I've ‘got' you!"
It's worse when used by counselors, framed as interpretations or pseudo-diagnoses, because it puts the client in a bit of a double bind. It's hard for them to deny the accusation, the naming, for fear that they'll be then accused of being defensive or in denial of their behavior. If they're really sophisticated, they can counter the accusation by saying, "that's an unhelpful overgeneralization," but how many clients are able to do this?
Another aspect of these attributions is that they often reflect the preferences, threshold, and perceptions of the one making the comment, though they're spoken as if they were objective truths about the other person. I'm reminded of the comedian George Carlin's description of other people driving on the freeway: the "nuts" and the "idiots." An idiot is anyone who drives slower than you do, and a nut is anyone who drives faster.
I hope this small essay will draw attention to this common problem. Feel free to email me with suggestions of other terms that you've heard or been subject to.