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What is it about self-pathologization that is so satisfying?

by Ollie Axelrod

Staff Writer


In 2023, pop-psychology has successfully captivated every demographic of socially progressive, financially privileged young people, from fans of true crime podcasts to National Public Radio-heads. The appeal is obvious—pop psychology, with its DSM worship and focus on assigning enneagram personality types and love languages, is such an easy way to pretend to self-actualize. It’s truly intoxicating to identify with so much random stuff.

There is no place that this individualism is stronger than in privileged environments like Oberlin College, where ego stroking takes center stage in our hyper-progressive posturing. At Oberlin, our worship of self-pathologization tinges the language that we use to describe ourselves and our relationships with others. We decide that we are much more innately socially attuned than other people; we are empaths. We secretly conclude that the girl that we think is annoying is probably actually a covert narcissist with delusions of grandeur. We flirt with men at parties that would never call their ex-girlfriend a crazy bitch—so they resort to describing her as histrionic and bipolar without any medical basis. Of course, pop-psychology has not introduced civilization to the vice of gossip. People have always loved to hate—it may be one of the most uniting things about us. But we portray this shit-talking as medical fact. The ability to whip out and weaponize diagnostic language is a sort of badge of upper-middle class apathy: a skill that often requires thousands of dollars of ineffective therapy and hundreds of hours of Twitter-scrolling to hone.

Beyond this, however, what concerns me about our preoccupation with pathologization is how much armchair diagnosis allows us to explain away and distance ourselves from some of our most human traits: our spite, shame, and vitriol. When we rationalize ourselves into moral purity and villainize all who challenge it, we never give ourselves the chance to honestly acknowledge our repeated social blind spots or indulgences. We aren’t gossiping, only expressing concern through conspiratorial armchair diagnosis. We knee-jerk rationalize our senseless dislike and fickleness. We hold no mental space for our own warped perceptions.

Of course, this article is not a dismissal of diagnosis generally. Though Oberlin students may sometimes assign all labels too much weight during our formation of identity, psychiatric diagnosis is an ultimately useful and oftentimes necessary tool for those struggling with mental illness. The concentration of obvious privilege in conversations of armchair diagnosis is simply because mental health resources are still only accessible to the economically privileged. We must be aware of the ominous implications of assigning others labels of inherent and unchangeable neurology without medical authority.

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