Category Archives: Career

What is a Psychologist? Or… The Meaning of Life

When we meet new people, we often wonder about their professions and might ask question such as “What is a psychologist?… Environmental engineer?… Key account manager?… etc… etc…”. The temptation when this kind of question is posed is to simply list what we do. A psychologist, for example, is someone who diagnoses and treats mental health problems. However, this really doesn’t answer the question, for we did not ask: “What does a psychologist do?” But: “What is a psychologist?”

So let me try again: A psychologist is someone who through a commitment to a particular professional path, has chosen to be addressed by certain questions about life, such as the the question of the meaning and role of suffering, the question of what makes life worth living, and the question of how or why people should change. These questions are not easy to grapple with, but to “be” a psychologist is to adopt a stance towards them, whether one wants to or not. They get answered in every little task a psychologist does, from how a psychologist talks to a client to how a psychologist works with people’s experiences and defines their problems.

There is always a set of questions that animate a given profession and demand that we as the professionals inhabit the place of the answer.  To be a lawyer is to be addressed by questions of justice and to take a stance toward those questions in and through one’s work, and to be a medical doctor is to be addressed by questions of the preservation of life and the forces that impinge on it. Every profession addresses us in this way, and compels us to embody a response in the way we carry out that particular profession.

Good professionals are people who are conscious of the questions being addressed through the work they do. They are not the mechanics of the profession, who live away from these questions in the comfort of the rote application of techniques they were taught in school. They are the one’s who wake up each morning acutely aware of the impact their approach to these questions can have, and who understand that to “be” a profession and to “do” a profession are quite different things. One question asks for “me”; the other asks for my productivity…

The European existentialist philosopher, Martin Heidegger, was very aware of the importance of that little word “is”. To “be” rather than to “do” is a uniquely human task. We can’t avoid it, whatever we do. We have to embody a response to the questions posed by our life, our activities, and our chosen professions.  We have to “be”. And yet, in modern life, we are very good at evading the question of our being. We tend to get lost in the mere busy-work of our day to day activities, and to confuse the activity for the end goal itself. Even after a day’s hard work, we will not feel accomplished if we do not understand how it is that that activity itself helps us “be”.  Being is the ultimate goal, and we cannot escape it nor avoid it without forfeiting our existence and living away from ourselves.

So ask yourself: how are you “being” a lawyer, a father, a daughter? How do you embody an answer to the questions evoked by your job, your commitments, your roles is life? How are you “being” you?

If you would like to learn more about how I approach “being” a psychologist, visit my website. Here I address some of the ways in which I have been called into a particular  approach to my work in and through a dialogue with the questions my work has raised for me.