Omnipotence: The All Knowing All Powerful Psychologist

I teach undergraduate introductory psychology and social psychology to budding Childcare professionals and aspiring social workers. During a recent lecture I found myself engaging in several worrying thought processes. Starting with an innocent comment from a student about the TV psychologist David Coleman, who, I had better state at this juncture, I have never met and presume to be a very decent individual.  The mere mention of his name sparked off a series of associations in my thinking and a subsequent series of digressions in the lecture.

The student heard Coleman on a radio interview state that he did not allow his kids to watch TV, at all. The topic of my lecture was the psychology of emotion and emotional development. The student’s contribution came out of our discussion about Erikson’s Psychosocial theory of human development. Erikson suggests an eight stage model of psychosocial development across the lifespan,  the first four of which roughly map on to Freudian psychosexual stage theory. We were focusing on Erikson’s first stage birth to approximately  1 year old, Trust v Mistrust, where a combination of the child’s temperament, constitutional make up and social environment  contribute to the establishment of a template for future development.  This can be reduced to a very basic level at which the infant develops a starting out perception of  the world as being either a predominantly safe or threatening place.

Our discussion turned to how parents can mediate the world to their children, acting as both buffer and  interpreter for them.  It struck me that Coleman’s statement  was quite extreme and I wondered if his decision to completely ban TV from his kid’s lives was motivated , ironically, by his high profile position as a leading media psychologist. I am aware of several studies suggesting too much TV viewing for kids may have adverse effects on attention span, behavioural issues etc, but none advocate the complete banning of TV. I offered the suggestion to my students that instead of banning TV from his kid’s lives completely and creating anachronistic curios of them amongst their peers, Coleman might try talking to his kids about issues that come up on TV and help mediate the world to the child. Coleman had become more buffer than interpreter.

Psychologists working in the area of emotion call this interpreting  emotional coaching. The emotional world is viewed as a language, like a language it can have a rich and diverse vocabulary or a limited and meagre one.  The idea being that we help our children identify and label experiences and their emotional contents  thus expanding their emotional vocabulary. A rich and healthily diverse emotional vocabulary allows for the development of  a strong  functioning ego.  While this does not preclude us from experiencing emotional pain, anxiety, anger, depression etc, it does give us the basic tools to process and think about these experiences rather than act upon them by turning to substance abuse, violence, self harm, anti social behaviour etc.

Coleman’s authoritarian  imposition of a “no TV” world on his kids is not unlike the vegetarian parents who work frantically to avoid their little mite’s inevitable exposure to the world of omnivorism.  An enterprise I have long suspected to be more about the bolstering of the parent’s image than anything else. Little Fiachra or Siafra are guarded with sentinel like diligence at family gatherings and social engagements against the, accidental  or intentional, ingestion of animal flesh, only for all of this to be undone by the discovery of chicken Mcnuggets at the ripe old age of 5 at Fachna’s birthday party, creating a powerful forbidden fruit for the child. Psychologists should  be well  aware of the dangers and pitfalls attached to creating taboos.  The nature of the human condition being what it is, forbidding  a thing creates  mystery and allure around the forbidden  which is hard to contain for an adult never mind a child, for the child multiply it by a thousand.

There is also what the psychoanalysts call the issue of omnipotence, the misguided belief that you can control everything.  Coleman’s somewhat delusional belief that he can control his children’s experience of the world, is equally misguided. The reality is we can’t,  the best we can hope for is to attempt to interpret the world to our children to the best of our ability, as limited as that maybe,  in the hope that they will eventually internalise a sufficient amount of circumspection to test reality for themselves .

Thinking about this some more it occurred to me it was this very omnipotence  that was at the heart of my associations not Coleman’s omnipotence but that of his profession clinical psychology. The T.V. trailers for his new show Families in the Wild depict Coleman in various scenes wielding his therapeutic magic with these “dysfunctional” families. In all these snippets he is portrayed as the all knowing omnipotent psychologist who can fix these families or show them how to be fixed.  In one scene, reminiscent of a bad group therapy session, Coleman is laying down the law to the poor misshapen psychologically inept families dictating how they should behave in his group. In fairness this is not a trait restricted to Coleman but one that is pervasive throughout the practice of clinical psychology and psychology itself as a discipline. Lets get to the heart of the problem but don’t go past these limits, immediately signalling to the client that it’s not okay to explore everything fully.

This brings us right in to the epicentre of my irruption of associations,  exactly what is it that psychology purports to do? The text book answer is  the scientific study of human mental processes and behaviour, the scientific bit being a very contentious area in psychology. The notion that we can accurately generate any reliable protocols with which to develop effective treatments for people or families is extremely flawed. The entire exercise is riven with philosophical fallacies and pitfalls of monumental proportion, such as attempting to transcribe or impose information gleaned from surveys, clinical trials, and longitudinal studies of the many onto the highly subjective and idiosyncratic situations of the individual person or individual family. This type of omnipotence, arrogantly dictating what the client or clients “need” to do, is anathema to therapeutic efficacy and psychological understanding and growth.

As a psychologist and a practicing psychoanalyst working with clinical psychologists collegially and professionally I am uniquely positioned to witness their ongoing struggle with omnipotence. It is an omnipotence that in my experience impedes them from engaging with the people they work with in any real emotionally meaningful way. The majority of clinical psychologists are literally scared witless of losing control of this omnipotent position and therefore in a counterintuitive way their clients.  But here’s the thing, you can’t tell someone how they should feel all you can really do is help them to understand how they feel. The only way to do that is to give up your omnipotent position and really listen to what is being said through bufferring and interpreting.  The analytic session physically and symbolically buffers the client in a way from the world, while the analytic process listens to and interprets the unknown emotional experience into emotional understanding.

Given the intensity of my reaction to David Coleman I think my next post had better say something about the psychological phenomenon of projection !!

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