Sunday, December 12, 2010

I am not a clinical psychologist

I am not a clinical psychologist.

My opening declaration might seem a bit of non sequitur for those readers who never entertained the notion that I might be a clinical psychologist. But there’s a reason for my opening salvo.

Last week, I appeared on a local morning news program to discuss a piece I had contributed to an article in Whole Living magazine on the ethics of forgiveness. I’ve appeared on the news show before and, as has been the case previously, the producers and hosts were very well prepared, asked terrific questions and treated me graciously throughout my visit. The television segment aired live, but I knew I would be able to see it later on the show’s website.

I left the television studio to retrieve my car from its lot. As I was preparing to start the car, my cell phone rang. It was my wife.

“The segment went great,” she said, commenting upon how easily the host engaged me in conversation on the topic. She paused. “But they misidentified you.” I had thought that maybe the station had misspelled my name or the name of the college where I teach. “No,” she said. “They identified you as a ‘clinical psychologist.’”

Uh-oh. Like I wrote at the top, I’m not a clinical psychologist.

But the honest mistake (another contributor to the Whole Living article is indeed a clinical psychologist) led me to the question: How much of an obligation do I have to set people straight when I’m identified as something I’m not?

On a smaller scale, such misidentifications have happened before. Students or others who e-mail me for the first time occasionally address me as “Dr. Seglin,” assuming that because I’m a college professor, I have a doctorate. I don’t, so I try to correct them at the end of my e-mail response without making them feel foolish for making such an assumption.

But the clinical psychologist label was broadcast on television, so I had no idea how many people saw the label or how to reach all of them. Nowhere on the station’s online description to the clip was the reference made and the anchor who interviewed me identified me correctly throughout our discussion.

I also recalled the episode of the BBC comedy “As Time Goes By” when the Judi Dench character introduces her boyfriend as a psychiatrist (which he wasn’t) in an effort to change topics with her deceased husband’s sister. When the sister-in-law’s husband seeks out the non-psychiatrist’s services, he responds, “I am not a psychiatrist.” The fake patient believes this is a therapeutic tool to entice him to figure out his own problems and no matter the protests continues to believe the non-psychiatrist is in fact a psychiatrist.

When I write, “I am not a clinical psychologist,” I mean it. I’m not.

The right thing for me to do is to make this point clear to viewers of the clip. So when I posted it on my column’s blog, I introduced it by pointing out the error. When I sent it to my college’s public affairs office, I did the same. When friends, students or colleagues view the segment and tell me they didn’t know I was a clinical psychologist, I assure them I am not.

When we receive credit for degrees we haven’t earned, even if it’s in passing, the right thing is to correct the mistake. It’s not only the right thing to do, but also prevents such errors from taking on a life of their own.

As someone who is married to a therapist and sees the kind of hard work she does every day, I can assure you I am not a clinical psychologist.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today’s Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

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