To Shrink or Not To Shrink

Members of my profession are sometimes casually referred to as shrinks. While it seems this term was originally used to refer to psychiatrists, its application is more broadly applied these days. I’ve had clients refer to me as their shrink. So I’ve been thinking about “shrink.”

It seems the first use of the term as a noun occurred in the 1960s. “Shrink” was an abbreviated form of “headshrinker.” The influential author Thomas Pynchon used it in his short novel “The Crying of Lot 49,” published in 1966.

I found this explanation on the internet: “”Shrink” is a shortened form of “headshrinker,” and was originally meant as a mildly derisive term for psychotherapists. ‘Headshrinking,’ of course, refers to the practice of certain primitive tribes of decapitating enemies and preserving their heads as trophies.” While the term was meant derisively, it’s interesting to me that there is some connection to what is primitive. In that sense, the term conveys something of the unconscious, that mysterious and primitive force in people’s lives, which tends to be an area of investigation in psychotherapy.

One psychiatrist has the following to say about the link between “shrink” and “headshrinking”: “’Shrink’ has paradoxical meanings and uses and, by all analytical standards, has classic potential for connoting ambivalence (a favorite shrink word!). ‘Shrink’ allows us to compare psychotherapy to primitive rituals, shamanism, and ‘sorcery’ while still recognizing the more modern and scientific principles of mental wellness.”

I suppose one use of the term is to shrink or reduce suffering. Clients come into psychotherapy because of some vexing concerns – perhaps patterns in relationships that contribute to unhappiness and dissatisfaction; perhaps behaviors which seem uncontrollable and cause distress. Whatever the issue, in some sense the client wants it shrunk down or eliminated.

While I understand this meaning, I prefer an opposite understanding of the psychotherapy process. This understanding is written about by the late psychoanalyst Steven Mitchell. He writes: “In ironic contrast to the popular term ‘shrink,’ those of us who love the work feel that we help people expand and enrich themselves. There is an enlargement of their memoires of their own past, of their awareness of the complexities of their present functioning, and of their sense of options in the future. There are many ways of describing this enrichment, but one of the best is as the development of a broader sense of personal agency.”

I like that quotation very much. Rather than shrink something, I think of the process as expanding. I am often in sessions with my clients speaking of options. Together we are often endeavoring to put out there (on the proverbial table) what options a person has. All too often these options are obscured, and a person believes he has to act or believe in a certain established way. What we come to discover is that there are many other roads to take; and together we explore those to see which one he chooses to follow.

I doubt that the term “shrink” will go out of fashion any time soon. Here’s what another psychiatrist had to say about it: “‘Shrink’ attempts to create a balance between respect and irreverence, between affection and distancing –can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.”

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