Psychologists are often asked why they became psychologists. I suspect the askers of this question are hoping for some kind of intriguing origin story. I always find it hard to answer, and I think that many of my past responses have not fully captured the essence of why I chose my profession. There was the cliche of wanting to “help people,” which of course was true. But there are so many other ways to do that. There was the fact that I always felt just a little bit different, and wanted others who felt similarly to know the world has a place for them. More recently, I’ve settled for the explanation that my interest in psychology began with the arts. I’ve explained that I loved reading and writing and acting before I ever decided to become a psychologist. I rationalized that analyzing characters and themes was part of being “psychologically-minded.” But that conclusion, too, fell short.
Today, I realized what was missing from all of my previous answers: I see everything in this world as a narrative. When I was a child, I tore the pages out of my Barbie coloring books, assembled them into a chosen order, and constructed a story. I taught my best friend how to play this game and let her know it was not enough to merely color in the pages. Growing up, listening to a music album from start to finish was an activity in and of itself. I noticed the shift in mood with each song– how one flowed into the next– and by the time Spotify came into existence, I was a master at making playlists. Friends and romantic partners threw songs together for me; I spent four hours deliberating the exact order in which to arrange the tracks and another thirty minutes for the title. It was a craft. In Hebrew school, my teacher told the stories behind every Jewish holiday. My peers nearly died of boredom. I recounted all of them to my mother on the ride home. Knowing that a piece of my life was rooted in an ancient story made my soul sing. From a very young age, I recall that my primary coping skill in any emotional situation was to think of myself as a book or movie character and narrate silently what I was experiencing. I did not know this was a coping skill. I did not do it on purpose. It was only very recently that I realized this was not a universal reaction to stress. But even at age six, I understood myself as someone part of a much bigger story, whose triumph through difficulty would be worth something, whose tolerance of distress was meaningful and said something about my character. To this day, I am embarrassingly nostalgic. I keep a “memory box” of every card and letter ever written to me, and when I rummage through it (at least once per year), I reflect on my life and relationships as chapters in an evolving narrative.
These days, I conduct psychotherapy and supervise a few psychologists-in-training (naturally, I was not satisfied by private practice– I had to be in a bustling training hospital where I could witness many others’ “stories”). In supervision, we talk about case conceptualization. Sometimes, we pause to build the case formulation together, carefully considering the origins of someone’s difficulties and the maintaining factors. It is the work of figuring out how the person makes sense. Despite sharing a diagnosis with millions of others, their story is theirs alone, and their treatment will be tailored to that story. And I still haven’t thought of anything I would rather do than help someone by understanding their story and empower them to continue writing it.
Do you think I could tell this story to someone I’ve just met?
I’ll probably stick to a sentence.