Psych Major Syndrome


By Alicia Thompson

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Using the skills you’ve learned so far in Introduction to Psychology, please write a brief self-assessment describing how things are going in your freshman year.

Presenting Concerns:

The Patient, Leigh Nolan (that would be me), has just started her first year at Stiles College. She has decided to major in psychology (even though her parents would rather she study Tarot cards, not Rorschach blots).

Patient has always been very good at helping her friends with their problems, but when it comes to solving her own . . . not so much.

Patient has a tendency to overanalyze things, particularly when the opposite sex is involved. Like why doesn’t Andrew, her boyfriend of over a year, ever invite her to spend the night? Or why can’t she commit to taking the next step in their relationship? And why does his roommate Nathan dislike her so much? More importantly, why did Nathan have a starring role in a much-more-than-friendly dream?

Aggravating factors include hyper-competitive fellow psych majors, a professor who’s badly in need of her own psychoanalysis, and mentoring a middle-school-aged girl who thinks Patient is, in a word, naive.


Psych Major Syndrome


For making this book sparkle, I’d like to thank: Laura Langlie, Christian Trimmer, Alessandra Balzer, Sara Liebling, Nisha Panchal, Michael Yuen, Tooraj Kavoussi, and everyone at Disney • Hyperion Books.

For keeping me sane: Mom, Dad, and my siblings, TJ, Brittany, and Kyle; my friends/readers/partners-in-crime Charis, Jackie, Kristin, Mary, and Marina; my always hilarious housemates, Shane, Jon, and Jeremy; and, of course, the folks at Dunkin’ Donuts.

For everything: Ryan, my new husband and my best friend.

Text copyright © 2009 by Alicia Thompson

All rights reserved. Published by Disney • Hyperion Books, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Disney • Hyperion Books, 114 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10011-5690.

ISBN 978-1-4231-4345-1


Psych Major Syndrome: A common affliction wherein a psychology major, overwhelmed by conditions, effects, and disorders, begins to overanalyze her own life

For Grandpa Don

Leigh Nolan

Intro Psych


  1. I like to read incredibly unrealistic and badly written romance novels.
  2. The happiest time was …I can’t remember.
  3. Back home the house smells like incense all the time.
  4. I regret buying Avril’s first album on the basis of one song.
  5. At bedtime I make up stories in my head.
  6. I am very sensitive about the weirdest things.
  7. What annoys me is when people confuse “you’re” with “your” or “its” with “it’s.”
  8. People are stupid. (see above)
  9. A mother can really embarrass you sometimes, especially when she insists on bringing her tarot cards to all parent-teacher conferences.
  10. I feel a low level of dread on a regular basis.
  11. My greatest fear is of being stranded in the desert or buried alive. Or never finding happiness.
  12. When I was a child I liked to play “pretend” a lot.
  13. I suffer every time I have to drive my car.
  14. I failed geometry…twice.
  15. Guys are confusing, but nice to have around.
  16. I need Dunkin’ Donuts coffee to live.
  17. I hate the way parking services hunts you down.
  18. This school is a small liberal arts college in California.
  19. My father wears an eye patch as an affectation.
  20. I wish Rotter had never graduated with a psychology degree.

COGNITIVE DISSONANCE: An inconsistency between what a person believes to be true and what a person knows to be true. In dissonance theory, this sets up an unpleasant state that people try to reduce by reinterpreting some part of their experiences to make them consistent with others.

“PSYCHOLOGY is a load of crap.”

Considering I had been rehearsing this declaration ever since it first dawned on me about ten minutes ago, I was a little disappointed with my roommate’s response. Ami didn’t even look up from what she was doing, which appeared to involve painting sparkly nail polish on strips of bubble wrap. She’s an art major who specializes in (of all things) installation art. I’ve totally given up on understanding it. I don’t even throw away dirty paper plates she’s left out anymore, in the off chance that they were meant to be some kind of statement on consumerism in this culture.

“Psychology,” Ami corrected, “is your life.” Lifting the bubble wrap to her lips, she blew on it carefully, as if it were a thirty-dollar pedicure from that place in the mall that made my cuticles bleed. Luckily for America, I don’t know any government secrets, because I would have told those women anything to get the pain to stop.

“Well then, my life is crap.” I collapsed on my bed, flinging my arm across the row of Jailhouse Rock Elvises on my quilt. The quilt was a graduation present from my mother. She made it so that every time I lay down to sleep, I’d remember that she and my father were missing me. Seriously, her words. And it’s not like going away to college was what made her get all Oxygen network on me, that’s just how she is. If anyone can pull off saying really flowery, profound things, though, it’s my mom. It’s kind of how she makes her living, after all.

Of course, the quilt also reminded me that acoustic guitar Elvis was way better than fat, reflective-suit Elvis, and that you can find anything in the novelty fabrics section of Wal-Mart. But that was just a bonus.

Ami put the nail polish down and turned to look at me. “Your life is not crap, Leigh. Why would you even say that?”

Propping myself up on one elbow, I dug through my backpack and pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper with “Rotter Incomplete Sentences Blank” written across the top. I gave it one last disgusted look-over before thrusting it at Ami.

She scanned it, her gaze darting quickly around the page before settling again on me. “So?”

So? Do you know what this is?” Ami didn’t respond, and I didn’t wait for her to. “You know about free association, right?”

“Um…it doesn’t cost anything?”

“Ha,” I said with little real humor. “Knowing Freud, it probably cost you a vital organ every fifty-minute session. Free association is another of his little tricks to get at your subconscious desires or whatever. And that’s basically the idea behind these sentences. You’re given, like, no time to complete them, and what you say is supposedly revealing of your true thoughts and feelings.”

Ami was giving me what I think of as her “psychology look”—nose wrinkled up, eyes squinted with doubt. “That sounds like crap,” she agreed.

This is why Ami is the best random-selection roommate ever. At first, I hated her because she hogged the closet space. But it only took me a week to realize that she’s totally awesome, and let’s be honest—she needs the closet space way more than I do, since she has this funky-vintage-mod thing goin’ on. She also always backs me up, and she totally humors my need to dissect everything. We’ve spent hours criticizing an issue of Cosmopolitan or an episode of Gossip Girl, down to the last detail. One time I commented to her (half jokingly) that we could verbally rip a glass of water to shreds if we wanted to. An hour later, we had covered water’s lack of flavor and moved on to glass versus cup as a drinking receptacle.

I gestured now to the sheet of paper. “Like here,” I said, “all I wrote was that I liked reading romance novels.”

“Which you do,” Ami affirmed, her eyes going to the rows of dime-store novels on my bookshelves. There are books of real literary merit mixed in there—mostly ones that I had to read in high school—but the majority of them have titles like Sweet Sanctuary or The Scandalous Proposition or, my personal favorite, The Greek Playboy Tycoon’s Virgin Mistress.

“Which I do,” I agreed ruefully. “And then later on I mentioned that I played ‘pretend’ a lot as a kid. Who didn’t make up secret lands when they were five, with names like Monkey Land or Castle Land or whatever?”

“That’s a lot of lands,” Ami said, her mouth twitching. Note to self: Keep fantastical childhood worlds to myself from now on. My parents had promised me it wasn’t that weird, but what do they know? My mom teaches shamanic dance at the local Y, and my dad takes a weeklong vow of silence every year. Their view of “normal” is a little skewed.

It’s obvious why my mother is the way she is. Her dad was this superconservative military dude, and she ran away from home at a young age and joined the hippie movement. Clearly, complete reaction formation to her upbringing. But my dad? The jury was out on him. It’s like the old nature versus nurture debate—was he born being a huge weirdo, or did my mom turn him into one with her fruitiness?

“Whatever. Somehow those two statements are supposed to represent an overall theme that I don’t face things and that I prefer fiction to reality.”

The line between Ami’s brows deepened. “All that because you said you liked to read?”

“Also because I said I liked to make up stories in my head,” I was forced to admit. “And because, apparently, I show a preoccupation with details instead of the bigger picture, which supposedly hints at a desire not to see the bigger picture.”

An expression flitted across Ami’s face for a minute. I couldn’t be sure, but it almost looked like agreement. “Where exactly did you hear about all this?” she asked. “I thought you were taking classes, not therapy.”

“Yeah, but today in Intro Psych we did some of these subjective measures and then ‘analyzed’ each other.” I snorted. “As if it’s ethical to let people with fewer than two months of college analyze each other. We haven’t even officially declared a major yet.”

“Who analyzed you?” Ami asked. Trust Ami to get to the heart of the matter.

“Ellen.” Ami sucked in her lips and nodded knowingly. Ellen actually carries around The Dictionary of Psychology with her wherever she goes. The worst part? She memorized it over the summer. Now she just carries it for show.

In gymnastics, Ellen would be that gymnast who knows she’s not as talented as other girls and spends ten hours a day in the gym trying to make up for it. She also happens to be my biggest competition for pretty much everything, since I found out on the first day of Intro Psych that she wants to go into the exact same field as I do: body image and eating disorders research. She’s convinced that she has the edge because she was bulimic for two months in high school. Meanwhile, I know that she has the edge because, when we filled out a first-day assessment (for informational purposes only! We didn’t even turn it in!), she kept muttering to herself, “You can do it, Ellen. Just focus. Focus.” Yeah, ’cause that’s not a little psycho.

Ami grabbed the paper from me again. “So where is Ellen getting the whole ‘preoccupation with details’ thing from?” she asked, her eyes searching the page as if the answer were hidden among the letters in a word search.

I didn’t have to look. My responses were already burned in my brain. “The preoccupation with bad grammar. But it just bugs me! It’s not ‘How’s things?,’ it’s ‘How ARE things?’ That’s, like, English 101.”

Of course, Ellen also maintained that there were another five sentences or so where I showed too much “concern over little things,” not the least of which was the sentence about my father wearing an eye patch. Well, he does. And it’s not like he has a bad eye—although he probably does now from never using the damned thing. He just thinks it’s good for business.

My parents run a psychic boardinghouse in Sedona, Arizona. For only $129.95 a night, you get continental breakfast and a ten-minute psychic reading. My parents whole-heartedly believe in what they do, but they’re not above a few marketable gimmicks. That’s where my father’s eye patch comes in. I think it may have broken their hearts when I chose psychology over psychic ability.

“You failed geometry twice?” Ami said, and snickered, looking up from the paper. “That sounds more like me. I thought you loved math.”

“Statistics,” I corrected, “I love statistics. Statistics actually mean something. Geometry is just a whole bunch of proofs and triangles. Why prove what you already know? If it looks like a triangle, I’m going to go ahead and call it a triangle without using that side-angle-side business.”

“You just like statistics because they stretch the truth even more than you do sometimes,” Ami pointed out— incorrectly, I might add.

I’ve always thought statistics were kind of like that saying you see on T-shirts. You know, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”? Well, statistics don’t lie. People lie. Sometimes statistics can make a lie sound better, but that’s just good math.

That’s not even why I like statistics, either. Mostly I like it because, with the exception of long division, it’s the only math I’ve ever been good at. Fortunately, it’s also the only math I will have to deal with as a psychology major.

When I tell people I’m planning on majoring in psychology, I usually get one of three responses: A) Oh! Are you analyzing me right now? B) Psychology…hardly an exact science, is it? or C) So what’s wrong with you?

I know the answers to the first two. A) Probably, yes. B) No, it isn’t, but that’s why I like it. It’s that last one that always gets me. People assume that psychology students have something wrong with them, something that they hope to learn about or maybe even fix. I’m not saying there’s nothing wrong with me. I have plenty of problems—as Rotter’s little busywork exemplifies—I just don’t know if they’re definable as any kind of disorder or condition.

I don’t like strangers or strange situations. I am way too stubborn. I can be almost eerily calm and then get disproportionately upset about something stupid. I get some kind of sick pleasure out of waiting until the absolute last minute to do anything, as if I need the extra challenge in my life. I would prefer to have gum on my face than own up to the fact that I accidentally got gum on my face. And of course, one sentence out of every ten that comes from my mouth is probably not one hundred percent true.

(Okay, even that could be stretching the truth, but it sure does sound good when backed up by numbers, doesn’t it?)

I’d always assumed that all my problems were personality defects, things that can’t really be fixed any more than a natural pessimist can be taught to see the glass as half full. But the more I think about it, the more I see the main problem: I just don’t like change. I’ll spend countless hours every day wishing that I could undo something about myself, but when it comes down to it, I hug every last little foible of mine as though it were my security blanket.

It’s like that classic joke—how many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? One, if the lightbulb wants to change.

Ami, of course, continued without any regard for my introspective silence. “You don’t really mention Andrew in here,” she observed.

Oh, crap. “Andrew!” I leaped up from my bed in a flurry of twin extralong sheets. “I totally forgot about our date tonight!”

There are times—like this—when I’m really glad Ami isn’t a psych major. Freud—or even Ellen—would have a field day with the fact that I forgot a date with my boyfriend of over a year. Especially since I was the one who suggested the date in the first place.

Ami sprang up from her cross-legged position on the floor and followed me to the narrow hallway between the room and the bathroom that served as our closet space. I was rummaging through clothes like a madwoman, so I couldn’t see her face, but I had a pretty good guess what it looked like. Ami’s “Andrew” face—a mixture of frustration, distaste, and resignation—was even worse than her “psychology” look.

Ami’s analytical abilities are not to be underestimated, either. You should’ve heard her break it down in our “glass of water” critique. “So what’s up with that?” she pressed. “You managed to work in a plug for your favorite coffee and Avril Lavigne, even though I don’t buy that you regret getting that CD when I find her playlist up on your iPod all the time. But you didn’t even mention your high school sweetheart.”

The way Ami said the word sweetheart made it sound like a disease, and I didn’t respond. This was partly because I was busy trying to find an outfit that would look cute without seeming like I was trying too hard to look cute—not an easy task. But I also wasn’t sure what to say, and, for once, I couldn’t think of a way to spin it.

Right before graduation, when I had to have my wisdom teeth taken out and I couldn’t eat anything that required chewing, Andrew surprised me with an entire case of chocolate pudding cups. And when I refused to take the prescribed painkillers because I was worried I’d get addicted and then, like Winona Ryder, start filching stuff from high-end stores, he stayed by my side and assured me that the pain would be over soon. It was the sweetest thing anyone had ever done for me. So why didn’t I mention Andrew?

“Um…I wrote that guys are confusing but nice to have around,” I said, grabbing a silky red camisole to wear over jeans. I surreptitiously peeked down my T-shirt at the white cotton bra underneath before swiping a lacy black one from my dresser. I knew it wasn’t a crime, wanting to look nice for my boyfriend, but I still felt self-conscious being so obvious about it. I bundled the subversive bra in with my clothes and went into the bathroom to get ready, shutting the door behind me. I hoped that that would end the conversation.

Ami isn’t deterred by much, and certainly not by a badly painted wooden door that won’t even close all the way. “What’s confusing about Andrew?” she sneered. “He’s a pompous philosophy major who thinks he’s God’s gift to intellectualism.”

I’ve never completely understood why Ami and Andrew get along so badly. I mean, yes, she’s right. He can be a little overbearing when he gets started on one of his lectures about nihilism or what constitutes a soul. And he can be kind of arrogant to the point of sounding like a know-it-all. But that just means that he’s passionate about his convictions…right?

That was actually the same thing that first attracted me to Andrew. He was the only guy in my high school who cared more about Plato than pigskin, and believed in soul mates instead of random hookups at parties. Ironically, we did meet at a party, but we didn’t make out or anything. Instead, we talked for hours—I remember at one point he said something really profound about the human condition. Or it might have been about hair conditioner. It had been hard for me to concentrate with his brown hair flopping endearingly over one eye. No matter how many times he tossed his head, it always fell right back. It was the cutest thing I’d ever seen.

Obviously, Ami doesn’t have the benefit of all these great memories, so she continues to think that he doesn’t treat me as well as I deserve. Which, in a way, is totally loyal and cool of her—but completely unfounded. Well, mostly. If anything, his main problem is just that he’s too smart. He has so much going on in his brain at any given moment that it’s no wonder he’s a little absentminded sometimes.

And yet tonight, I was the one who’d almost blown off our date. Because of this, I took extra effort with my appearance, even applying Ami’s mascara to my eyelashes in the hope that a little definition would make my eyes appear more silver than gray. Andrew’s always going on about my hair—which is the exact color of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee the way I take it, with double cream and double sugar—and so I wore it the way he likes, falling in a straight curtain to the middle of my back.

My hair is the only thing about myself that I like. Not that I’ve got body image problems (well, aside from the normal ones). It’s just that my nose is too sharp, my chin too angular, and I have this weird constellation of freckles on the side of my neck. And although I haven’t had any problems being recognized as a girl since my second grade bowl-cut fiasco, let’s just say that I always have to look in the “boyish” section when magazines are giving tips about what kind of swimsuits to wear (FYI, it’s all about the halter tops).

It wasn’t until I opened the door and saw Ami still standing there that I even remembered that she had been talking to me. Underneath her olive coloring her skin looked a little gray, her face twisted up with guilt.

“Leigh, you know I don’t really mean that,” she said. “You and Andrew have been together a long time—I lose my car keys every two months, so there’s no way I could keep a boyfriend for a whole year


On Sale
Apr 17, 2012
Page Count
336 pages

Alicia Thompson

About the Author

Dominique Moceanu ( is the author of the New York Times best-selling Dominique Moceanu: An American Champion, as well as her memoir, Off Balance. As a member of the women’s gymnastics team, she won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games. She now tours the country as an ambassador for the sport, doing clinics and summer camps and speaking with young gymnasts. She lives in Cleveland, Ohio, with her husband and two children.

Alicia Thompson ( is the author of the young adult novel Psych Major Syndrome. She also co-wrote an updated version of The Secret Language of Birthdays for teens, and has contributed stories to Girls’ Life. She lives with her husband and two children in Riverview, Florida.

Together, they are the authors of The Go-for-Gold Gymnasts series: Winning Team, Balancing Act, Reaching High, and Unexpected Twist.

Learn more about this author