What is Contemporary Psychology?

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For many people, when they think of going to a psychologist, they imagine laying down in a dimly lit room on a long vinyl couch across from a Freud-worshipping shrink, who sits quietly in a corner and asks them to talk about their mother. Indeed, these people cannot be blamed as the field has created this reputation for itself through years of questionable practice and sensationalising mental health in the media.

However, psychology has come a long way in establishing itself as a valid and evidence-based field, looking beyond theory and moving towards more scientific and reliable approaches of understanding and treating mental wellbeing. Thus came the birth of modern, or contemporary, psychology. The goals of modern psychology are to provide mental healthcare that is informed by the latest available knowledge, appropriate and individualised for its clients, and promotes community wellbeing by providing increased access to and education about mental health.

As we come to learn more about the body and brain, especially with the introduction of brain scanning technologies, modern psychology is able to gain more insight into the connections between our day-to-day emotional and behavioural experiences and their biological underpinnings. This has helped demystify experiential phenomenon that previously remained unexplained. Equipped with this knowledge, clinicians can help educate their clients about the bases for their feelings as well as how to address them on this biological level. For many years, the stigma about mental illness rooted from conceptualising them as “defective”, but we now know that experiences like anxiety, emotional dysregulation, depression, addiction, etc. have a real and natural medical basis. This knowledge, combined with the ability to explore other avenues such as patterns of life experiences, development, cognitions, and culture, allows modern psychology to revolutionize the way we approach mental healthcare.

Another dramatic shift in modern-day approach is also the abandonment of the therapist as a “blank mirror”. Much of psychological research and theory first originated from euro-centric bourgeoise populations, with a limited cultural and economic perspective. Within this framework, the therapist was seen as a person who maintained total objectivity and detachment to be a vessel that simply held up a mirror to the individual to discover their own internal distortions. Additionally, as their ideas were often based in a singular norm, it ran the risk of becoming overly directive and prescriptive. However, this view soon crumbled when our perspective broadened to wider populations and we began to see that total objectivity was not only impossible but also harmful to expect. Instead of creating a therapeutic space that is one-sided and can often add to the client’s stress, contemporary psychologists are collaborative and authentic in their practice. Current best practice promotes clinicians who build self-awareness of their own biases, and use that knowledge to be reflective and genuine in their work with clients. Additionally, it is important that they are eclectic and adaptive to clients, without seeking to apply a single framework of thought to all individuals.

History is certainly an important teacher, and we as a profession have managed to learn a lot from our predecessors. This has allowed psychology to become one of the most rapidly developing sciences in history!