The plan to consult a psychologist can be confronted with the diversity of orientations of psychologists, with terms that are often obscure for those who are not from the field. What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychoanalyst, a psychiatrist? What are the theoretical orientations of psychologists, and what do they mean? Here is a small guide, probably not exhaustive, to help you see a little more clearly and encourage you to start.

Professions related to the human mind

First of all, a little vocabulary note: psychologist, psychotherapist, psychoanalyst and psychiatrist are not the same professions! They are all interested in the human mind, but with different approaches, training and techniques.

  • Psychiatrist: a doctor who has specialized in psychiatry, who can prescribe medication (unlike other psych professionals);
  • Psychoanalyst: a person who has undergone his or her own psychoanalysis with a recognized psychoanalyst and is registered in a psychoanalytic school
  • Psychotherapist: this can be a psychiatrist, psychologist… or a person from a totally different profession who has undergone training that makes him or her capable of using psychotherapies = means used to work on a psychological disorder or difficulty (attention: a psychotherapist is not necessarily a psychologist);
  • Psychologist: must have at least a Master’s degree in psychology and relies on psychotherapies according to his or her specialty: CBT, systemic therapy, psychoanalysis…

Specializations of psychologists

Within the large family of psychologists, there are various fields of study (often chosen during the Master’s degree)

  • Developmental psychology: specialized in the study of the development of mental processes and behaviors throughout life, with the possibility of focusing only on one age (childhood, adolescence, old age…)
  • Psychopathology and clinical psychology: refers to the study of mental disorders and their management, and more generally to the psychic suffering of the person (anxiety, self-confidence, mourning, questioning identity, trauma…);
  • Health psychology: more focused on the psychological consequences of illnesses that affect the body (e.g. oncology, or support for caregivers);
  • Cognitive psychology: studies mental structures and cognitive functioning (e.g. memory, reasoning, learning, emotions…);
  • Social psychology: deals with social interactions, individual and group functioning, and institutions;
  • Work and organizational psychology: these psychologists intervene in organizations, on the consequences and relationships between individuals and their work;
  • Intercultural psychology : it is the study of psychological processes according to the differences between cultures;
  • Gerontopsychology: is interested in the psychological processes during healthy and pathological aging, and is therefore mainly concerned with the elderly;
  • Neuropsychology: the neuropsychologist focuses on understanding the relationship between brain and psychological functioning (this can concern learning disorders such as dys, brain lesions, epilepsy, neurodegenerative diseases…);

It is interesting to note that depending on the psychology degree obtained, the practitioner may choose to train in other methods, adopt different theoretical approaches or combine jobs in totally different structures (for example working in EHPAD and in private practice with adolescents).

Some theoretical orientations

Here are some theoretical orientations that will influence the therapies used by psychologists:

  • Psychoanalytic: a psychologist with a psychoanalytic orientation differs from a psychoanalyst (by their training), however both use the psychoanalysis proposed by Freud and then developed by other authors (Jung, Lacan, Adler…). Psychoanalysis is based on the analysis of the mind, it is a cure by the word which aims to access the unconscious of the patient and its repressed contents. It focuses on the individual and often looks for explanations in childhood. In general, the patient’s speech is quite free and not very guided; he/she follows his/her thoughts.
  • Behavioral and Cognitive Therapy (CBT): these therapies are based on scientific and proven knowledge, with the objective of working on behaviors, cognitions and emotions in the present. They are recognized for their usefulness in the treatment of depression, anxiety disorders, phobias, addictions, etc. These therapies are fairly well-defined, in order to treat current psychological problems.
  • Systemic and family therapy: these therapies are interested in the global understanding of the group and the environment (the system), considering that the psychological disorders of an individual can be linked to a dysfunction of the system to which he belongs. They focus on communication and the characteristics of relationships within the system (a group, the family…).
  • Humanist / existentialist: this approach is based on a positive vision and encourages the development of the human being’s potential. It gives importance to the meaning of existence, values and choices towards self-realization. We can find different currents, for example logotherapy (meaning of life, by Frankl), the person-centered approach (which values empathy, non-judgment, authenticity… proposed by Carl Rogers).
  • There is also integrative psychology, which aims for the most global and complete approach possible to the person (his or her environment, cognitions, behaviors, relationships…). It uses many psychotherapeutic tools and is inspired by various theoretical approaches (psychoanalysis, CBT…), in order to be able to propose to each patient the method that best suits him/her.

The methods used are also numerous: mindfulness therapy, EMDR, artistic mediation (through drawing, music, dance, theater…), etc. We can have individual therapies but also in groups, often in institutions.

To conclude, I hope that this little overview will help you to find your way around, depending on your difficulties, values and expectations, whether you appreciate having a well-defined framework or, on the contrary, being able to talk about whatever comes to mind, etc. Obviously, each psychologist has his or her own personality and way of working! He or she will be able to guide you and adapt to you and, even if the current does not pass or you do not wish to continue with him or her, you can try to go see another professional psychologist who would be better suited to what you are looking for. Reading the presentation of psychologists can also help you a lot: they often have a website where they explain their practice and their methods.