Friday, September 05, 2008

Other People's Lives

Or maybe just this shrink.

I've figured out something about myself: I'm a voyeur, I love having an outside view into the window of other people's lives without participating. In a way, it's sort of what being a psychiatrist is about: we spend all day listening to the things other people have done, the relationships they've been part of, the trips they've taken, the dreams they dream, even the movies they've seen and the books they've read. I spend far more time listening than doing myself and sometimes I feel I'm the master of the vicarious life. Oh, not really.

Running a blog, for example, Shrink Rap, has elements of this. We throw out stories, or ideas, and people write in their thoughts in the comment section. Sometimes they answer each other and sometimes they use the original idea as a springboard to go someplace totally new (Warning: Roy forbids this). I read the comments, I watch it unfold. Sometimes something riles me enough to comment, sometimes a comment inspires a new post, sometimes I feel a need to address a comment or say thanks for a compliment. Mostly I just watch as the next chapter comes in. It's part of why I love reading Fat Doctor, I like sitting back and reading the next chapter of the very colorful life of some person I've never met, never will meet, and still feel some connection to.

Last week, I joined my neighborhood's list-serve. I'm getting maybe 20 emails a day, from people I know or don't, on and on about the most random of things. Our neighborhood has an Obama group. Oops, now we have a McCain group, too. Sarah Palin shoots moose. What to do about incessantly barking dogs, someone found a dead pigeon the other day, Bonnie needs a new microwave, Joan has a large plant to give away, and many people know exactly what you should do with unwanted clothes. And if no one wants that old freezer, Roberto says to donate it to the Goodwill. I wasn't there for it, but I hear people got really inflamed over issues of deer control. I could use a new carpool, and oh, I saw a rat in the alley the other day, but so far, I'm just hanging out watching. I'm not sure I was meant to participate.


Anonymous said...

That sounds awesome! Almost as good as peeking through net curtains. I have never done that (Honest)

Anonymous said...

Aha. IOW, you're not looking to create a dialogue with your readers so much as to generate a one-sided response?

I'm still struggling to learn the difference between a Blog and Usenet. I guess that summarizes it.

shraddha said...

Dear Dinah,

I am so sorry if my comments are sometimes all over the place.
My MIL always tells me I should think and only then speak, your blog just reminded me of her.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what you're sorry about and I'll keep my opinions of your MIL to myself.

Anon: I don't know what IOW is and we do often partake in the dialogue. Sometimes it gets to be more than we can keep up with.

I'm still waiting for Roy and Clink to chime in the post about whether they scold the patients...

Anonymous said...

IOW = In Other Words (it's not an insult, or anything)

Midwife with a Knife said...

Hm... I'm not sure whether this actually relates to your post (although that's never stopped me before! ;)), but it seems related. I just can't quite figure out how.

Anyway, one of the reasons I love medicine is because I'm interested in stories, and other people's stories are usually more interesting than mine (my life is fairly boring, which isn't a bad thing). And, usually birth makes for a pretty interesting story. There are other fun (or at least compelling, even when the story doesn't have a happy ending) things about it; but the stories are excellent.

Anonymous said...


Rach said...

There's something to be said for becoming fully ensconced in someone else's life.

... It takes the harshness out of your own, maybe? ... or maybe that's just my cynicism speaking.

NeoNurseChic said...

I have to say that I am the same way. I enjoy it through reading books, reading blogs, listening to people, etc. It's not that my own life is boring (far from it), but rather that reading about others' lives takes me out of my own for awhile!

But actually - this concept is something that occasionally makes me uncomfortable about my psychiatrist. It's not that I believe he is listening to some of the stories I tell for secondary gain in some way, but sometimes there is a question in my head, like, "Why does he need to know THAT specific detail? Is it really because he thinks it will help me? Or is it just that he wants to know because it is interesting/whatever." Like - it'll make me wonder if the story he seems interested is like juicy gossip in some way. (Even though that doesn't fit with my image or impression of him - I guess it is just this random fear that occasionally pops up!)

He has assured me on the few occasions that I have brought up this fear that his interest is only in helping me, and not for his own personal reasons. I believe that. It's almost odd to me that I would worry about such things, really! I can think of a few occasions where I really did wonder why he would want me to tell the specific detail of something painful rather than just let me refer to it without directly quoting what was said to me or something like that. I guess in the long run, I did learn that saying it aloud was more therapeutic and helpful than simply referring to "the painful statements so and so said" and allowed me to let it out in some way rather than keep it bottled up inside. But even in retrospect, I think it is reasonable that I would wonder why exactly he pushed me to say such detail when it was clearly painful for me to talk about. Was it like reading a novel or someone's private diary?

Like I said, even though I know that is not the case, it is still strange to me that that fear or anxiety would even cross my mind in the first place! If I rationally think about it, I know his intentions are purely to help me, but some random fear occasionally pops up!

And Dinah - I think you DO live life! You go on vacations, have some great stories, and have a very active family life! And in your profession - I'm sure it's not just that you are passively listening to someone's stories, but rather that you are an active participant in the patient telling this story. You are providing feedback even if you are not speaking - your presence alone is a form of "living" and helping someone to get through something they feel is difficult. I think there is a reason behind what most patients say, even if it is just small talk! It serves some sort of purpose - and you are an active participant in that! I don't think you just sit on the sidelines of life or just live vicariously - just from reading your blog (since basically the beginning of it!), I feel that you have a pretty full life! But maybe that's not what you meant at all in writing this!

Take care,
Carrie :)

Anonymous said...

Most people-oriented people ARE interested in other people's stories. That's not strange or unusual AT ALL. It's just nice that you can enjoy the process in the job you have chosen for your lifetime career and help people at
the same time.

I do not think that enjoying other people's stories implies or necessitates a lack of personal stories.

I am just a patient, not a psychiatrist, but in my opinion, your psychiatrist is NOT asking for details because he/she is a voyeur. I think he'd want to "walk" with you through the feelings and understand what you went through. You might not be giving enough detail.

A counter example:
Sometimes my psychiatrist actually interrupts my stories and asks me my feelings about the situation because I tend to be too detached from the painful feelings and he's trying to get me to connect with the feelings.

antiSWer said...

That's one of the few things I like about people is what they do. I don't much like interacting with them, but I sure do like hearing about their interactions with others. ;)

Oh, and people-watching in a cafe makes the coffee taste SO much better...

Anonymous said...

As a psychiatrist, I certainly agree, such that there is often a bit of a lurch between listening and intervening (or trying to, more commonly). It's like you happen to overhear a juicy conversation in a restaurant, and then one of the talkers turns to you and says, "So what do you recommend?" You can say "Tell me more" only so many times...

Anonymous said...

Don't you wonder how they knew you were listening? :)

Anonymous said...

Actually I had a recent reminder that listening is 90% of this peculiar psychiatry business.

I moved away from a practice this summer, and several people for whom I regrettably felt that I had been able to do very little if anything in a therapeutic sense (they were unfortunate folks, referred originally for ECT) nonetheless thanked me profusely for everything I had done.

I felt like saying, "But I have done nothing," but that would have ruined it. The point is not that they were fooled, or that I'm so great (I feel that if I can't be a good listener I need to seek another line of work), but rather that they had in fact gotten something worthwhile.

Roy said...

I'm not so interested in people's lives per se, as I am interested in helping them improve their lives. So, for instance, I have absolutely no interest in the latest happenings with Britney or Angelina or Brad or Justin.

That being said, in college I really got into The Edge of Night soap opera. I loved the characters, especially Raven and the big bald guy, Gunther Wagner.

Kindyland said...

Probably best that you don't participate. Watch out for when they start flaming one another for putting their kid in a pack-n-play or not breastfeeding for 165903 years. I was a member of one of those groups once. It didn't end pretty. I'll stick to anonymous email groups. It's easier to change a username than a home address.

ClinkShrink said...

I don't scold patients but I can tell you that even the gentlest, most tactful observation can feel like a reprimand for some folks. You just don't know which patient that's going to be. I sometimes lead in to my observation with, "I know you don't need me to tell you this, but..." and then I tell them. You have to at least try, I think.

Also, my nine year old Mac is finally going on the fritz so my Internet access is a bit iffy these days. I'll get on when I can.

I've got my eye on a 24" iMac.

Unknown said...


I have always used my interest in other people's stories to justify my love of soap operas as a form of continuing medical education.

Roy, The Edge of Night was a killer soap. I miss it.

Neonursechic, I always try to ask myself why I want to know something when I ask a patient a question. The details help me see through my patients' eyes.

Novalis said...

Voyeurism is a decent metaphor for therapeutic listening, but it's only a metaphor. If a therapist seems excessively nosy about seemingly irrelevant details (especially sexual ones!), it may be a sign that voyeurism is being undertaken a bit too literally.

Regarding "scolding," it seems to me that if one asks someone to do more than he or she is capable of, then one is merely shaming. But if one neglects to expect of someone something that he or she IS capable of, one is enabling. Steering between these two errors is the art of therapists, teachers, parents, and politicians (among others I'm sure).