Elizabeth, Helen and Don: Ode to Authenticity

Elizabeth, Helen and Don: Ode to Authenticity

Recently, I had the privilege to meet the following rather extraordinary characters: Elizabeth Zott, Helen Tudor-Fisk and Don Tillman. These unlikely heroes are the protagonists of their stories: Elizabeth being the smart, focused, ahead-of-her-times, socially awkward and outspoken scientist-cum-TV cooking show presenter from the novel Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus; Helen the bumbling, always-in-the-same-brown-suit probate lawyer from the Melbourne-based Netflix and iview series Fisk, and Don the extremely funny, extremely odd genetics professor from the trilogy The Rosie Project, The Rosie Effect and The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion. (Bonus that the latter is also partly set in Melbourne!) 

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I have enjoyed these novels and the TV series tremendously, and found myself head over heels with these fictional characters. Why? Apart from the fact that the creators of these stories are obviously brilliant, and the fact that all these stories are either laugh-out-loud funny (Fisk and the Rosie books), or beautifully narrated (Lessons in Chemistry), these characters’ appeal lies in the fact that they feel real. They feel like someone I could know. Someone who might live up the street. Someone I might sit next to on a train. They do not have the saccharine one-dimensionality of the more “typical” Disney or rom-com protagonist who can do no wrong and who always has immaculate hair! On the contrary: these are rather difficult people. Often misunderstood, often stubborn, not with many friends. Most certainly not social butterflies, not the office rays-of-sunshine, not popular. What then, makes them so utterly appealing?

One reason could be that maybe, deep down inside, even the most diplomatic and socially polished of us longs to just sometimes be a little bit less correct, less palatable, less “easy to deal with” – and these characters become our alter egos through whom we can live more boldly. Another reason could be that we are pulled closer by the sheer authenticity of these characters. They are who they are. We feel that we truly know them; that even though we are but the invisible readers and viewers, we get to see someone in their purest, truest form. This is a beautiful and uniquely human need: in close relationships (in families, in friendships, in partnerships) we want to be seen, to be known, to matter; and we want to see and know and have the other person matter to us. We want to feel the authentic connection, the real human-to-human encounter.

This brings me to another “meeting” I have had recently with an entirely different kind of character: ChatGPT. I attended a short webinar on the use of ChatGPT and other forms of artificial intelligence (AI) in the world of psychotherapy. I learned about the smart use of templates (which I already use in my work), and I watched some photo-shopping techniques and other ways to alter images to work better for a specific purpose (for example, taking a clinician’s holiday photo, and changing it to a semi-professional head shot within a few clicks). I saw how I can ask ChatGPT to come up with a report template, a letter to a referring doctor, ideas for a blog, and even to get it to write the blog for me! Part of me was pretty impressed. AI is, after all, truly phenomenal. But my over-arching feeling was a deep, unsettled sense of sadness. And a sense of being cheated.

After the webinar I asked myself: how many photos that I have seen online have been altered from the original version (probably most)? How many blog posts that I have read on my social media feed were not really painstakingly written by the author mentioned at the bottom of the post (probably many)? How many articles I looked at were created by just giving ChatGPT a really savvy prompt, and then dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s?  How many times have I naively – and wrongly – believed that the words and sentences that I read have been written (or typed) by a human hand? It certainly makes me feel silly to have been so gullible… I look inwards and find the “error” being in my own dodgy judgement of the world around me. However, I also feel the indignancy of being “cheated”. Even though I logically know that there was no malicious intent on behalf of the writer to mislead me for their own gain and my loss, I still feel that something of the connecting human-to-human bridge of the encounter has been damaged irreparably. And that is alienating. It goes right against our innate human grain which I have mentioned before: the need to see the other, and be seen by the other, in an authentic, real and believable way.

In the world of social media, I often lament the fact that we need to teach ourselves and our children explicitly to be suspicious, to not believe what we see. It is a real survival skill in the online world today to be able to not take everything you see at face value (ask me, as I have been the victim of a terrible online scam last year, and am still deeply ashamed of my own gullibility!).  I often use this short but powerful video from the Dove Evolution to demonstrate exactly how savvy we need to be about what we see on billboards and in magazines when it comes to the perceived images of beauty and perfection in the world of advertising:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYhCn0jf46U

This critical skill is essential for online survival, especially on social media. We have to be smart, savvy and a little bit suspicious about what is dressed up as “real”. And maybe that is then why we are so deeply drawn in by endearing, well-meaning, imperfect, odd, awkward anti-heroes like Elizabeth, Helen and Don – there is no guess work. They are who they are. That is also why we need deep and authentic real-life person-to-person relationships in our friendships and family relationships. We need to see and be seen without suspicion, without second-guessing. 

And that is why I am firmly planting my feet and positioning myself as a critic of the notion of having “therapy” with a chat-bot online. Can AI give us strategies to overcome anxiety? Of course it can. Can AI advise us to change negative thought patterns into more positive ones when we are depressed? Of course it can. Can AI diagnose us if we provide enough symptoms of various psychiatric disorders, give us tips to handle stress, and pep us up with positive affirmations? Yes, yes and yes. But we would be shouting into the abyss. The “conversation” is nothing but an echo chamber. Nothing but a smart algorithm. There is no seeing-and-being-seen. No authentic connection. No therapy.

Of course, it is rather handy to google or to ask ChatGPT to give some input on certain topics (for example, “how do I handle work stress better”, “what are the symptoms of social anxiety” or “tell me more about anorexia nervosa”). I have certainly searched for information like this multiple times before, and surely benefited from my searches. This is, however, markedly different from sharing your deepest thoughts and feelings online with an amazingly smart bot that pretends to be a therapist. No AI can recreate the sense of human to human connection, the “in-between-us space” of therapy with a real flesh-and-blood therapist. Studies have shown that the relationship between therapist and client is a far more important vehicle for change than any other factor (for example, what theoretic modality the clinician adheres to.) In the end, it does not really matter all that much whether the therapist does cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) or dream analysis, or narrative therapy, or any other therapy. If the therapeutic alliance is strong and solid, the outcomes will be better. Period.    

In conclusion: To be staunchly opposed to technological advances and all forms of AI would be a fruitless and losing battle. ChatGPT, google and other search sites most certainly have their advantages, and, in the correct context, can be extremely useful. The line needs to be drawn though at the point where we start confusing information with relationship. In providing information, these tools are invaluable. In providing relationship they are useless and even potentially harmful.

Thriving psychologically equals authentic connection. Rather ironically Elizabeth, Helen and Don (all fictional characters!) have helped me learn that lesson once more.

PS: Just in case you wondered, I typed every bit of this blog myself 🙂   

Lindie Oppermann
Psychologist
Felix & Sage Psychology

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