Pop psychology and being human: Some considerations and advice
Pop psychology is not psychology.
Our world is fast changing, more so as we live in a digital age. Language is evolving; new words are appearing in our vocabulary, and some are formally recognised in our dictionaries. Traditional and conventional ways of being and relating are now at par with alternative and unconventional conducts that never existed a decade ago.
The "Woke culture" is central to this paradigm shift; pop psychology is here and it’s here to stay. It is truly a privilege to live through these changes and be a part of it. Despite the positive aspects of this paradigm shift, we are also living in a world where pop psychology is leading, buzzwords are getting thrown around, and people are diagnosing themselves with all kinds of diagnoses.
Social media perpetuates this problem, and so does access to the internet where a plethora of information exists, most of it unverified and unreliable. Therefore there is a real need to engage in a dialogue between real psychology and pop psychology, so these two worlds can be bedfellows.
Many clients come to therapy having diagnosed themselves with all kinds of mental disorders - ADHD, autism, depression, anxiety etc. after watching TikTok videos or Instagram posts. Most of the social influencers who are diagnosing people and giving advice are not qualified to make the diagnosis or give clinical/professional advice. They are typically people who are good at speaking, editing videos and have made huge investments in social media as a paid source of income.
Mental health becomes an easy target to raise one’s profile as most people want quick fixes. This is harmful, not only due to potential misdiagnosis, but it also undermines real human experiences. Normal reactions are seen as “pathologies”. Some mental health professionals are equally caught up in the game of diagnosing people injudiciously.
The recent BBC Panorama documentary highlighted the poor standards in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of patients perceived to have ADHD, in some private clinics in the UK. The standards of these clinics fall short and the reason why this was happening in the first place is due to the long waiting lists for assessment and diagnosis for ADHD patients in the NHS. This leaves many people vulnerable to seeking quick fixes, diagnosing themselves through social media.
A big part of who we are is in response to our environment. Our environment is constantly in interaction with our internal world, the space in between these worlds is where we create meaning. When we deny our feelings or try to view normal human feelings and behaviours in response to our environment as pathologies, it invalidates our existence as humans. This is problematic.
We live in a society where we make rules about certain feelings, emotions and behaviours. Some words or concepts that get adopted in pop psychology perpetuate the medical model which tends to view our human experience in response to trauma, loss, adversity, and suffering, as a cluster of symptoms that can be used as empirical evidence to diagnose and treat with medication for one’s health to be restored to normal. This model also views normality and abnormality as binaries, and there is no in-between.
There is no consideration of external events and the environment and how they may be impacting or influencing one’s mental health. This is where therapy becomes significant. While formal diagnosing can be helpful in validating and meaning-making for some people, overreliance on it also means we deny the essence of who we are as humans and focus on a diagnosis, not the individual.
Our emotions are a significant part of who we are; they guide us to what’s important to us. If we validate them and interrogate their source, we enrich our lives and grow.
Words used in pop psychology and how to reframe them
Here are some of the words that are used in pop psychology and here are ways to reframe them:
Feeling sad is not depression. Not everyone who is feeling sad or low is depressed. Depression is a condition that can only be diagnosed by a medical practitioner. For you to have a clinical diagnosis of depression, you need to meet a certain threshold of symptoms and experience them for at least six weeks period of time.
Sadness is perfectly normal, and so is dejection and hopelessness if things are not going well or didn’t go well. Depression tends to focus on the past – regret, shame, and rumination. Sadness shows you the depth of your feelings; the depth of how much you care for others and yourself. That’s why you feel sad when you lose someone or something you love. You feel sad because you cared for that person or that thing.
Having needs and seeking to have them met by your partner is not co-dependency. Being in a loving, caring, synergetic relationship does not mean you are co-dependent. Having a partner that you trust and turn to is not co-dependency.
Co-dependency is when there is an over-reliance on the other person emotionally, however having an emotional connection with someone and seeking closeness and emotional intimacy is not co-dependency. Many people are deterred from opening themselves emotionally, to develop more intimate connections with their partners or friends, for fear of being seen as “co-dependent”. This is harmful to one’s personal growth.
Not every unpleasant event in life is trauma. In psychology, trauma is a word which is used very loosely to define the adverse experience one experienced in their course of life.
The overuse of this word invalidates real trauma which has a lasting impact on the individual. For example, being late to school is not a trauma, however, being repeatedly shamed for being late to school can be considered a trauma. Trauma has an impact on the subject – it could be a one-off event, repeated events or even non-events deficits.
Not every individual you have negative feelings towards is a narcissist and not every ex-partner who you hate, or dislike is a narcissist. It's very easy to use the word narcissist as a label to demonstrate how one feels about the other person. This word can be dehumanising and used to deny the individual of their other qualities, other than them being seen as a narcissist.
We are bound to like and dislike some people in life, and that’s perfectly normal. However, not everyone we dislike is a narcist. Not everyone who has hurt us is a narcissist. Calling others narcissists is an act of projection, “It’s that persona’s fault and l have nothing to do with it”. This also means we never get to reflect on the role we played in the dynamic and learn from it.
Having a disagreement with someone and having them question your view on things is not gaslighting. The notion of being gaslighted is behind why some people struggle with resolving conflict, exploring difficult subjects, and negotiating. Communication is a two-way process where there are individuals who are listening and requiring at the same time.
Some people experience being questioned as gaslighting because they have been told that someone challenging their view is gaslighting. This creates communication breakdown, and we never get to grow.
Taking offence when something does not sit well with you is perfectly normal, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are being triggered. It's normal to have a response to things, our brain functions by making connections. When there are things that remind us of an event, situation, person, or place we have a reaction, not just a memory but a feeling as well. This is part of our sophistication as humans.
Being triggered is a more extreme form of reaction which occurs when there is an “emotional allergy”. By this l mean there is an experience in the past which has provoked powerful, familiar, uncomfortable feelings.
The reason why these feelings are triggering is that they are associated with certain anxiety/trauma-related physiological changes in the body which we do not readily register, however uncomfortable. These may be muscle tension, heart palpitations, chest tightness, sweaty palms shortness of breath etc. The body is reacting in a way that it is primed for survival.
Showing interest and pursuing someone you desire is not necessarily love bombing. Neuroscience postulates that falling in love can feel like a form of madness – that’s why even Romeo’s words to Juliet conveyed how madly in love he was with her.
Falling in love is not just an emotional and physical experience, it creates a “crisis” in the brain. It produces physical and emotional responses: racing heart, sweaty palms, flushed cheeks, feelings of passion and anxiety. Stress hormone cortisol levels increase to help the body cope with “crisis”. As cortisol levels rise, the neurotransmitter serotonin becomes depleted. Low levels of serotonin bring on intrusive, maddeningly preoccupying thoughts, hopes, and terrors of early love: obsessive-compulsive behaviours of infatuation. High levels of dopamine activate the reward circuit, helping to generate euphoria similar to the use of cocaine or alcohol – this is why, in the initial stages, one ends up feeling the mad rush, and the need to pursue a love interest.
These reactions are perfectly normal, however, can lead to obsessive behaviours which can be interpreted as love bombing. This is problematic in dating, especially where taking a slower pace can be considered disinterest while being more robust can be seen as love bombing. Love bombing is normal, it's our primitive brain that seeks connection at work.
Being rude, rigid, difficult, and aggressive is not the same as having boundaries. Boundaries is knowing what you want, what you value, and being able to communicate it in a mature and respectful way. Equally, being reasonable, accommodating and kind, does not translate to a lack of boundaries. You can be all that with boundaries in place.
Boundaries have a lot to do with being a sound human being who has an awareness of their needs and can advocate for themselves while mindful of others having their unique experiences, and minds of their own. Many people are so eager to create boundaries, however, their lack of understanding of what they mean and how they can set them, leaves them very isolated as they push other people away in the process.
Finding it hard to have a routine, being disorganised, and struggling to feel settled does not mean you have ADHD. Some people may have some ADHD traits, without necessarily having ADHD perse. Poor organisational skills, lacking discipline, and chronic stress can create symptoms that mimic ADHD symptoms. Our bodies need sufficient time to recover, reset, and replenish themselves. Just like any machine we use, we need time to switch it off, clean it, oil it, service it and repair it. Without doing so, it breaks down.
Our environment also needs to be conducive to whatever we do. We live in a world where we are constantly on the go. This can be problematic as stress can lead to burnout and other physiological symptoms such as fatigue, brain fogginess, difficulties organising oneself, and chaotic behaviours.
Depression, anxiety and ADHD-type symptoms can be secondary to chronic stress. Before you consider having ADHD, try and improve your self-care and give yourself some time to rest and recuperate. A healthy sleep pattern is key as well as a healthy diet, exercise, work-life balance and boundaries around work and rest. Furthermore, try and make sure you create structure in your environment and reflect on whether your environment is good enough for you to grow in it.
Note from Counselling Directory: If you're keen to move away from pop psychology and closer to psychology, working with a professional who has training is key. Contact Dr Joyline to learn more or use our search tool to find a therapist.