Piece of Mind: There’s No Escaping Psychologist Barbara Held’s Opinions

By Bowdoin News
Clinical and philosophical psychologist Barbara Held has opinions, and thanks to op-ed pages near and far, readers across the country are privy to her professional insights—no couch or copay required.
Barbara Held
Barbara Held welcomes emails from former students and can be reached at bheld@bowdoin.edu.

Held, Bowdoin’s Barry N. Wish Professor of Psychology and Social Studies Emerita, has opined about confirmatory bias, that is, the tendency to accept dubious information if it supports preexisting beliefs, about morality and the cost of doing what is right, and about her own defensive pessimism, repressed Nutcracker memories, and lessons learned from Gus, her parakeet.

She has published more than forty pieces since the beginning of the pandemic in spring 2020 when isolation, an endless supply of cable news, and a love of writing converged to give rise to a series of 800-word platforms for her scholarship, experience, and direct, in-your-face approach.

“With all that time on my hands I became a bigger news junkie than I already was,” she said. “As soon as I heard a story that interested me and about which I had something to say, I would run to the computer to start typing.”  

Held says truth and its exposition have been themes throughout her life and work, so it’s no surprise that no matter what an op-ed’s topic, truth always finds a way into it.

“The more you’re scared to tell the truth, the more you need to tell it,” Held wrote in one of her op-eds. “If you don’t, you just might create a monster even scarier than the truth.” 

This article appears in the Winter 2023 issue of Bowdoin Magazine.

A compilation of opinion pieces written by Held (some pieces are behind a paywall and require a subscription):

Opinion: Every Member of any Ethnic Group Should Be Seen as a Unique Individual
Maine Sunday Telegram
May 19, 2024

When I was growing up in the Northeast in the 1950s and 1960s, the first question asked when anyone in our Jewish community got engaged was, “Are they Jewish?” The question itself was never questioned. It was assumed we would marry within our “tribe.”

Opinion: Voters are the Jury that Will Determine the Presidential Election
Portland Press Herald
April 10, 2024

Having taken up Donald Trump’s case for presidential immunity, the Supreme Court leaves many Americans fearful that even if the court decides against him, Trump won’t be tried before the 2024 election. Assuming the court permits Trump’s case to be tried, not only must Special Counsel Jack Smith prove that Trump acted illegally, but also that he acted with criminal intent. Because we can’t read Trump’s mind, we must infer his intentions from his words and deeds.

Opinion: Critical Thinking is Authoritarians' Kryptonite; Let's Use It
Portland Press Herald
January 27, 2024

Authoritarian leaders and wannabe leaders hate critical thinking. That is not because thinking critically—which is core to a liberal arts education—turns people into political liberals. One can be a conservative who thinks critically or a liberal who cannot.

Responding to Monstrous Acts: The Perpetrators Are Still Human
New York Daily News
December 24, 2024

I was 6 in 1956, when we moved from our inner-city Bronx apartment to Bergen County, N.J. My secular-Jewish family never attended synagogue in the Bronx, though my parents agreed with my choice to attend Sunday school in Jersey.

Barbara S. Held: Packaging Autocracy as Democracy Contributes to America’s Alleged “Identity Crisis”
Times Record/Portland Press Herald
November 24, 2023

Abortion rights and gun control are among the most polarizing issues in our polarized nation. But with states as red as Kansas and Kentucky (and as reddish as Ohio) upholding abortion rights, plus polls showing considerable consensus on gun control, we may reasonably ask why America keeps getting diagnosed with an identity crisis across the political spectrum.

Commentary: No Labels’ Promise to Voters Makes No Sense
Portland Press Herald
October 31, 2023

In early October, I received a flyer in the mail: “America Doesn’t Want A Rematch of the 2020 Election … Join No Labels.” It displayed an old Uncle Sam “I Want You” recruitment image, adding, “For a century and a half, Republicans and Democrats have dominated American democracy. The common-sense majority agrees: Only two choices is no choice at all.” Really? This statement defies common sense. If two options don’t constitute a choice, do three? If so, why? Where’s the common-sense logic in that?   

Barbara S. Held: Hurry Up and Wait: The Oxymoronic Directive of our Time
Times Record/Portland Press Herald
September 1, 2023

When my sister, Roberta, phoned on the morning of her 64th birthday, Feb. 2, 2017, I thought it was to report whether she had seen her shadow. We designated her our official groundhog from the time she was little, and she performed this yearly ritual unfailingly (apologies, Punxsutawney Phil). 

Barbara Held: Questioning the Self-Awareness of our Political Leaders—and Ourselves
Times Record/Portland Press Herald
July 17, 2023

What do shifty politicians see when they look in the mirror? Does Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis see someone who’s saving American democracy with his anti-democratic, anti-woke agenda? Does former President Donald Trump see someone who believes he magically declassified government documents by thinking them so, declaring himself an “innocent man” when the 37-count documents case indictment arrived? Do they see themselves as the demagogues they in fact are, in playing to the baseless racist fears and prejudices of their white nationalist base?

Maine Voices: The Undoing of Clarence Thomas—and of Racial Justice in America
Portland Press Herald
July 12, 2023

Lady Macbeth’s famous “out damned spot” hand-washing ritual after participating in King Duncan’s bloody murder has long been used to illustrate undoing, a neurotic defense mechanism that entails coping with internal conflict with behaviors that “symbolically make amends for or negate previous thoughts, feelings, or actions.” For Justice Clarence Thomas, the spot isn’t the blood on his hands imagined by Lady Macbeth on hers. It’s the shame-laden “stain” of affirmative action, which facilitated his admission to the College of the Holy Cross and Yale Law School.

Why Ghosting isn't Necessarily the Sin it's Said to Be
Bangor Daily News
June 24, 2023

In an episode of Sex and the City, Carrie awakens to find her boyfriend has broken up with her in a post-it note he left during the night: “I’m sorry. I can’t. Don’t hate me.” Does the post-it break-up count as ghosting? Although the act of ghosting isn’t new, labeling that act “ghosting” is: What was previously known as “dropping” or “dumping” someone cold is now called “ghosting.”

Barbara Held: Assessing our Polarized Convictions about Trump’s Criminal Intent—and Why it Matters
Times Record/Portland Press Herald
April 21, 2023

With Donald Trump’s criminal indictment in the New York hush-money case and with three yet-to-be-determined criminal cases—on Georgia election interference, the Jan. 6 insurrection, and the Mar-a-Lago government documents—Americans’ convictions about Trump’s criminal culpability are as polarized as ever. In the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Jennifer McCoy and Benjamin Press wrote that “pernicious polarization” threatens democracies by eroding “legislative compromise” and “institutional and behavioral norms.” Indeed.

Commentary: Why "Woke Ideology’ is an Oxymoron—and Why That Matters
Portland Press Herald
February 17, 2023

With his crusade against so-called “woke ideology,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis enacts a politically motivated ideological mission with all the fervor of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, declaring Florida “where woke goes to die.” A likely 2024 presidential run suggests that DeSantis’ anti-woke agenda could have national impact.

Barbara S. Held: How Kevin McCarthy is Playing Out of His Psychological League, Contrary to Popular Opinion
Times Record/Portland Press Herald
January 19, 2023

Move over, Donald. Kevin McCarthy has now replaced you as political pundits’ favorite object of amateur psychoanalytic musings. After psychologically scrutinizing McCarthy’s every move in his self-debasing, unprincipled concession-laden bid to be House Speaker, they’ve declared McCarthy’s “victory” to be pyrrhic.

A Reverse Jewish “Exodus?” Circling our Tribal Wagons is Not the Answer
Times record/Portland Press Herald
December 23, 2022 

In the opening act of Tom Stoppard’s new semi-autobiographical play, “Leopoldstadt,” a Jewish man, Hermann, and his brother-in-law, Ludwig, debate the fate of Jews in 1899 Vienna. Ludwig presciently challenges Hermann’s look-on-the-bright-side dismissal of antisemitism in Austria.

Maine Voices: Whether or Not It’s Protected by the First Amendment, Racist Is as Racist Does
Portland Press Herald
December 3, 2022

With white supremacists streaming out of the shadows in the last six years, racist rhetoric aimed at various minorities has escalated exponentially in America. Still, many say we can’t know what a person believes deep down and we shouldn’t jump to conclusions: They may merely be ignorant and not racist in their heart. The problem is, ignorant comments can have malign consequences.

Barbara Held: What Barbara Ehrenreich Taught a Diehard Pessimist about Hope
Times Record/Portland Press Herald
October 21, 2022

Upon learning of the death last month of my hero and friend, the great social-justice activist and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, my thoughts turned to her 2007 Harper’s article, “Pathologies of Hope.” She opened with no punches pulled: “I hate hope. It was hammered into me constantly a few years ago when I was being treated for breast cancer: Think positively! Don’t lose hope! … There. It’s out.  Let pestilence rain down on me, for a whole chorus of voices rise up to insist that hope, optimism, and a ‘positive attitude’ are the keys to health and longevity.”

Maine Voices: How a Native New Yorker Found Her Calling in Maine
Portland Press Herald
September 12, 2022

The justifiable umbrage taken by Mainers online, on air and in print at the recent Maine-bashing (too much beer and flannel, for starters) New York Post opinion piece led this dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker and longtime Maine resident to a different response: I pondered how we determine whether a place suits us or not. We moved to Brunswick in 1979, when I joined the Bowdoin College psychology department.

Barbara S. Held: In some schools, children get police tickets for misbehavior. Black children get more
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
August 11, 2022

Black people in America have long been perceived as more dangerous than white people, resulting in racialized criminal injustices. That perception seemingly holds even for Black children in schools with racialized disciplinary practices—including giving students police tickets for misbehaving. The American Civil Liberties Union refers to these practices as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Guest column: The Self-Serving Psychology of Our Supreme Court
Times Record/Portland Press Herald
July 6, 2022

Poor Justice Clarence Thomas. First Anita Hill credibly accuses him of sexual harassment during his Senate Judiciary Supreme Court hearings. Then his wife Ginni calls his integrity into question owing to her role in attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, prompting calls for his recusal from January 6 cases.

Maine Voices: Beware Excess Moderation on Guns
Maine Sunday Telegram
June 12, 2022

With children and adults dying from mass shootings enabled by Republicans who shamelessly put their own political futures above innocent lives, Democrats debate how much to compromise on gun control. Connecticut Sen, Chris Murphy, leading a bipartisan group of senators (including Susan Collins) in drafting compromise gun legislation, is all too familiar with the political roadblocks since the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre.

Guest Column:  Morality play–The Cost of Doing What is Deemed Right
Times Record/Portland Press Herald
May 20, 2022

As the United States and its allies ramp up their economic sanctions on Russia, Benjamin Folkman of New York City and frequent visitor to Brunswick for decades put his version of economic sanctions on Russia as President of the New York-based Tcherepnin Society, which promotes the music of “the Tcherepnin family’s three generations of distinguished composers: Nikolai (1873-1945), Alexander (1899-1977) and Ivan (1943-1998).”

Guest column: Reunion Disunion– A Case for Skipping Class Reunions 
Times Record/Portland Press Herald
April 26, 2022

It’s spring, when the thoughts of the young and not-so-young turn to—school reunions. In a recent return to my native New York City, my college friend Donna greeted me with, “I’m co-chairing our 50th Douglass College (of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey) reunion. I laughed when my co-chair said she’d call you.” Donna knew I don’t attend reunions. The two Class of 1968 suburban northern New Jersey high-school reunions that I attended (in 1981 and 1993) were a bit numbing.

Is Putin Clinically Insane?
New York Daily News
March 16, 2022

Reporting about Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has invariably raised questions about Vladimir Putin’s mental state. The words “unhinged,” “delusional,” “unbalanced,” “sociopathic” and “narcissistic” appear regularly. Because Ukraine itself and the specter of World War III horrify many, people have asked me whether, as a psychologist, I think Putin is insane.

Guest Column: Pessimistic Hope Is Not asn Oxymoron—in Preserving Democracy and All Other Endeavors
Times Record/Portland Press Herald
March 10, 2022

As a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist, I rarely see the glass as half full. So when a young colleague told me I have “radical hope,” I thought she had mistakenly sent me an email meant for another. She proclaimed this upon my helping her escape a toxic work environment — her first professional position — intact. There, an abusive department head systematically undermined department members’ mental (and physical) well-being with intimidating divide-and-conquer tactics.

The American Problem with “Taking Things Well”
New York Daily News
February 18, 2022

An elderly neighbor recently suffered a fall accompanied by rapidly progressing dementia, necessitating a residential assisted-living facility. Another neighbor said his wife “isn’t taking it well.” “How can anyone could take this terrible situation well?” I replied. And what did “taking it well” here entail?

Guest column: Empathy Do’s and Don’ts in Tough Times
Times Record/Portland Press Herald
January 21, 2022

With the demand for mental-health providers far exceeding the supply, not least in Maine where COVID-19 cases continue to surge, I’ve thought about how friends and family might help those who wait for professional help—or at least not make matters worse. When I practiced psychotherapy in Brunswick, patients often surprised me about what they found most helpful in treatment. Therapists typically think treatment methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy are all important.

Political Word Tricks Damage Democracy
Bangor Daily News
January 14, 2022

On the anniversary of Jan. 6, I recalled a local car mechanic who said he believed I needed new tires. Upon asking why he believed that, he accused me of questioning his religious beliefs. I said I wasn’t questioning his religious beliefs, just the basis for his belief about my tires. The manager stepped in.

Maine Voices: Uncommon College Doctor Removed Mental Health Therapy’s Stigma—On Campus and Off
Portland Press Herald
December 8, 2021

As college students across Maine head home for winter break, I think about the family of the bright and promising Bowdoin College student whose suicide was unthinkable. As a Bowdoin psychology professor emerita, I wonder how this tragedy might have been prevented. Psychiatrist Aldo Llorente’s connection with Bowdoin College, above, didn’t end when he left to head the short-term voluntary psychiatric unit at Brunswick’s Mid Coast Hospital.

Guest Column: Repressed Nutcracker Memories—with Real-World Political Implications
Times Record/Portland Press Herald
December 7, 2021

With ballet companies from Maine to California performing their versions of the Nutcracker holiday classic, I recall my first viewing at age 4. It was 1954—the year the New York City Ballet debuted its production of Balanchine’s Nutcracker. My grandmother (whom I called “Mom-Mom”—Mommy’s Mommy) had two front orchestra tickets.

Coping with the Unvaccinated—within Reason
New York Daily News
October 7, 2021

Solutions to America’s COVID vaccine holdouts have focused on combating conspiracy-theory falsehoods and conservative-leader demagoguery with frightening facts, sprinkled with vaccine-safety assurances, money carrots and now mandate sticks. These measures have had varying degrees of success. Yet some 70 million refusers remain. Are more mandates our only viable solution at this point? 

Maine Voices: Not So Ancient History: First the Plague, Then the Troops
Maine Sunday Telegram
September 5, 2021

Noting the dwindling availability of ICU beds in Maine this summer as the COVID delta variant surges, I wondered if I alone worried about COVID at the Kabul airport. Tightly packed evacuees fleeing the Taliban were risking their lives by COVID, too. Then I read that COVID was an “afterthought” – a worry that seems like a “luxury” in hindsight. 

Our Barren American Future? J.D. Vance’s Fighting Words about Voting and Children
New York Daily News
August 18, 2021

The outpouring of outrage was predictable, yet no less warranted for its predictability. I refer to Ohio U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance’s pronouncement to Fox News’s Tucker Carlson that our country is run by “a bunch of childless cat ladies who are miserable...and so they want to make the rest of the country miserable too.”

Maine Voices: Rethinking Advice about Being our Best Selves and Being True to our Selves
Portland Press Herald
May 18, 2021

A professor at our small Maine college made some people a bit nervous. Jon Goldstein was then a big burly guy who rode a heavy motorcycle and spoke my native-Bronx “tell-it-like-it-is” language. We became fast friends. Beneath his gruff exterior, Jon is a kind-hearted person. When his truth-telling edges weren’t apparent, some gave him credit for unexpectedly pleasant behavior.

Opinion: The Right Kind of “Negativity”—in our Officials and Ourselves
CT Post
March 19, 2021

Calls for negativity are mounting. Not calls for a mean-spirited kind of negativity but rather for a pessimistic kind of negativity—calls seldom seen in America.

Accounting Psychology: What Mounting Calls for Accountability Should Mean for All of Us
Bangor Daily News
March 8, 2021

The word “accountability” pops up frequently these days — with calls to hold to account those responsible for police misconduct, frozen Texans, the Capitol insurrection, lives lost needlessly to COVID, families separated at the border. The Republican Accountability Project both enlightens and heartens.

Maine Voices: Survival and Sanity in Post-Truth, Hypervigilant America
Portland Press Herald
January 19, 2021

A Harpswell friend recently wondered how we can be in a post-truth world, in which facts don’t matter, when she’s so worried about truth. This got me thinking: Maybe we’re not post-truth – at least not in any literal sense. If we were beyond distinguishing fact from fiction, we wouldn’t fret about what is and isn’t true. Scientific findings about climate change and COVID-19 wouldn’t get deemed hoaxes, because without truth, there couldn’t be hoaxes.

Opinion: Truth and Consequences for Preschoolers and Politicians
CT Post
December 29, 2020

I’ve been obsessed with truth since age two—or so I’m told. So it’s hardly surprising that I’m crazed by certain Republican leaders’ Trump-complicit lies (and silence) about the fairness of the election. Their pandemic-minimizing behavior is sickening in all senses.

The Santa Question (COVID Edition)
New York Daily News
December 15, 2020

Psychological advice about what to tell children about Santa abounds—some practical, some moralistic—but this year there’s a novel (coronavirus) twist: Can Santa fly around a COVID-infected world safely? Will he have to wear a mask? If he gets infected in a chimney in Minnesota, will he carry the virus from house to house, leaving it on a glass of milk left out in Texas?

Maine Voices: Understanding Science, Truth Can Help Defeat Denial, Distortion
Portland Press Herald
October 15, 2020

With COVID-19 cases rising even in Maine (Millinocket notwithstanding), the West Coast on fire, a racial justice reckoning and now a COVID-infected president, it’s remarkable that Americans’ not-so-civil war over science and truth rages on. Although the Mason-Dixon line between science believers and deniers is sharp, not all deniers ignore science: Some hijack science, cherry-picking facts and/or interpreting them erroneously. This makes it harder to know what to believe.

Maine Voices: Managing COVID Anxiety in Maine—with Strategies from New York’s Polio Years
Portland Press Herald
July 9, 2020

As an anxiety-prone native New Yorker and a Maine resident since 1979, I marvel at Mainers’ unflappability. But with summer visitors from everywhere, even Mainers express anxiety about their heightened COVID-19 risk.