Why Are Mental Health Professionals Called Shrinks?
You may have heard the term shrink be used to refer to what we might call a psychologist, therapist, or psychiatrist or even shrink psychiatrist. Yes, Really! The term mainly comes from an age where mental health was regarded as a source of shame or even weakness.
In the modern age, the term ‘shrink’ is used often but this has more to do with colloquialisms rather than the negative connotations of its historic usage. Yet, shrink could come from a more innocent source.
There are many interpretations of where shrink may come from, or refer to, we will run through some of them in this article.
The History Of The Word ‘Shrink’
Who is a shrink? If we look at the etymology of the word shrink, the word ‘shrink’ comes from the Latin verb ‘scrinare’ meaning ‘to look into’. The idea of looking into something does speak directly to the act of therapy which relates to the concept of delving deep into the psyche, akin to the original meaning of ‘shrink’.
Looking into someone’s psyche and understanding what makes it tick, etc., is very much the role of a mental health professional. So the etymology can shine a lot of light on what the term ‘shrink’ can be used for.
The first recorded use of the word “shrink” was in 1882 by William James, an American philosopher and psychologist.
He wrote about his experiences with hypnosis and how he could not remember what had happened while under hypnosis.
He described this inability to recall events that occurred during hypnosis as being like having your brain shrunk.
In 1895, Dr. George Beard coined the phrase ‘shrinking violets’, perhaps influenced by James’ previous usage. This was meant to describe people who were so sensitive that their emotions would cause them to cry uncontrollably.
It was believed that these people’s brains were too small for their bodies. This could perhaps be where people got the term ‘shrink’ from as shrinking violets was a fairly common phrase by this point.
In 1898, Sigmund Freud published his book The Interpretation of Dreams. In it, he discussed dreams and how they reflected unconscious desires and fears which may guide readers on preparing for therapy sessions that may include dream interpretation.
He referred to the interpretation of dreams as being like shrinking a person’s brain, much like how a mental health expert may interpret someone’s mental health and ‘shrink’ it.
Freud, Beard, and James, were all prominent psychotherapists at the time so we can assume their usage of these words would have a larger effect on people.
This obviously comes from an age where mental health research was extremely low. While these three may have used the word the public can interpret it differently.
Even in mainstream medicine mental illness was considered to be a literal biological issue that required certain medical treatments to fix them.
This was the age of electro-therapy and lobotomies, so until mental health was accepted as something normal, these negative views of mental health sufferers were often the norm.
Why Are Therapists Called Shrinks? The Modern Usage of ‘Shrink’
In 1949 a RKO film was released about the Jivaro Amazonian Tribe that was being observed in Peru and Ecuador, the tribe had a tradition of head shrinking that we now know was pretty common among Amazonian tribes.
What is a shrink doctor? It’s likely the idea of head shrinking was somehow related to the act of psychiatry, perhaps alongside terms such as ‘problem shrinker’ which point to the idea that a psychiatrist can shrink your problems. Hence bunch of variations have been used such as shrink therapist, shrink doctor, shrink psychologist.
Perhaps most notably, the first usage of ‘headshrinker’ or ‘shrink’ in the mainstream media was in a November 1950 issue of Time magazine which stated that anyone who predicted the success of the spaghetti western ‘Hopalong Cassidy’ would be sent to a ‘headshrinker’.
It is funny how such a throw away comment that ironically points to a film’s negative perception could have such a large effect on the vocabulary of the world.
Yet, in a footnote of the magazine, the author had to explain the usage of ‘headshrinker’ as a term for a psychiatrist, signaling how new the term was in its usage at the time.
However, this clearly had an effect on the culture and society at the time as in the hugely popular and now critically acclaimed Hollywood hit ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, there are many scenes in which mental health professionals are referred to as ‘headshrinkers’ or ‘shrinks’.
This carried on into the Sixties as the cult-acclaimed novel ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ written by Thomas Pynchon was one of the first literary examples of the short version, ‘shrink’, being used to describe similar mental health professionals.
Since this point ‘shrink’ became a really popular term in movies, literature, and general social life, for the mental health professional.
It’s unclear where the term ‘shrink’ truly came from, at least to describe mental health professionals. It’s likely a combination of a lot of things we have listed
It’s likely that ‘shrinking violet’ had some effect on the term as even today this is fairly commonly used to describe mental health sufferers, if a little archaic.
The concept of head shrinking would have been on the forefront of people’s minds as during the same period many people were watching films that observed Amazonian tribes for the first time. To explore the psychological concepts behind such cultural phenomena see “What Does Mind Over Matter Mean?”
Once the word was used in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, a film my dad still watches to this day and is studied in film class across the globe, it likely took off from the film’s popularity.
If you look at the etymology of the word, shrink has a lot to do with the literal act of being a psychiatrist or mental health professional: you are actively ‘looking into’ someone’s mind.
Moreover, the term ‘shrink’ likely refers to the act of shrinking someone’s problems or mental health issues by helping them deal with them.
In the modern age, the term shrink has become a little archaic, and while it may have ameliorated in meaning, this doesn’t mean the previous semantics of the colloquialism aren’t any less ugly.
Using proper terms like ‘psychiatrist’, ‘therapist’, ‘psychologist’ is much more appropriate and helps those who do suffer with mental health feel like they are talking to someone professional and who is well informed and studied.
Moreover, the term shrink acts as an umbrella over these terms, it is important to separate each practice individually so they can be appreciated for what they are and more so that people can find the help they need rather than misunderstanding their true nature due to a distortion of the words true meanings.
Author: Michelle Landeros, LMFT
Michelle Landeros is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist (LMFT). She is passionate about helping individuals, couples and families thrive.
Last updated: February 28, 2024