The psychology of modern psychology


As someone with an academic background in psychology, I am fascinated by the turn that this field has taken in people’s eyes. During my studies, people in Saudi Arabia normally frowned upon my choice, and often commented with something along the lines of: “So, you basically want to work with crazy people?” Few people viewed it as a valid field to study let alone build a career out of, and there was a general lack of sympathy and understanding of other people’s problems.

However, with the proliferation of self-help books and talks in recent years, I find that this major, while still misunderstood, is misunderstood in a different way.

Nowadays, psychology is the “trend”. Unfortunately, that usually entails it being stripped of many of its fundamental principles, becoming commodified and wrapped in an engaging exterior. Psychology has become synonymous with talks by charismatic people as well as self-help books that are concerned with a few quick “tricks”. It has become a subject that focuses on following simple steps and being told what to do rather than doing the hard work yourself, consistently, over a long period of time and obtaining your own individual insights, and thus, some degree of self-growth.

In general, psychology’s goal is understanding human behavior and achieving self-growth through identifying maladaptive patterns in thinking and behaving. For that, it is essentially, and by definition, an introspective endeavor. It is an individual journey that demands the individual’s self-awareness, courage, effort and persistence to change rather than information and solutions being handed to him/her on a silver platter. However, popular books and talks have reduced it to: “Follow these few simple steps to get a happy life!” It is no wonder that this has become popular in an age where quick and easy fixes are desirable. Yet this mindset is not practical, nor helpful, in the long term. One must make an effort to change, and part of what makes that effort bear fruition is when it is a journey that one undertakes and commits to. There are many realizations that cannot be taught. For example, we can hear or read for years that part of having successful relationships is through accepting people the way they are without trying to change them. But that does not necessarily mean we have learnt that lesson. We would “know” this lesson, but simultaneously, we would not truly “know” it because it has not been internalized. It was not our own realization; it did not come through our own journey of contemplation and through our own struggles and experiences, and thus, this lesson cannot be reflected in our actions. That is why people are addicted to popularized books and talks: they are a sedative that make them feel like they are doing something without actually doing anything themselves. Why else would they continue pursuing them if they had truly applied what they claim to have “learnt”? It is always easier to talk about things rather than applying them.

Yet another way that psychology has been popularized is by focusing on flashy tricks that are often used in a movie’s plot twist or in a business talk. Certainly, it makes for a good show, but it also makes psychology more about manipulating others to gain something, rather than about empathizing with others through understanding yourself - and others - better. Of course, psychology is pervasive in all areas of our lives, and it is certainly smart to utilize it and achieve personal gain. However, its purpose should be humane and not merely commercial or flashy. Indeed, many people have such a warped understanding of how psychology works because of all the glamour that surrounds it on TV that they do not hesitate to ask to be analyzed on the spot! But there is a huge difference between psychology and being Sherlock Holmes. One cannot gain insight into another human being without sufficient time to get to actually know the person.

And for that, we must not forget the true mission for which the field of psychology came into being. Psychology helps us cultivate self-reflection, empathy, diligence, and communication skills, helping us become healthier and better individuals and in turn be functional members in society. Even as our own journey fluctuates forwards and backwards, it is still inherently more valuable because it is our own experience. Even if we find ourselves back to square one on some occasions, we will have returned there with accumulated insights and learning, which makes it all the more valuable and relevant to us because it was reached by our own unique path, or “steps”, and that alone is what matters the most.

Khadija Hisham Alem,


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