Since 2015, the APS Melbourne Branch Student Working Party has organised regular seminars to introduce students and provisional psychologists to different approaches and techniques in psychological assessment and therapy, and to provide opportunities to learn from the experiences of highly respected practitioners in the field of psychology. APS student members enjoy free admission to these events. In 2017, one of the most well-received of these workshops was by Janet Lowndes, Principal Psychologist and Director of Mind Body Well, on the topic, Things I wish someone had told me about being a psychologist. With more than 170 students and provisional psychologists in attendance, Janet generously shared some of the knowledge that she had acquired through her years of experience as a psychologist. The following is a summary of her presentation.
The road to becoming a psychologist and identifying one’s individual therapeutic approach can be unpredictable and yet highly enriching. After completing her studies in psychology, Janet began her career working in such areas as youth, community and women’s health, the prison system and with juvenile offenders. She subsequently moved into private practice, focusing on body image and eating disorders, as well as behavioural difficulties. After 10 years of practice, Janet spent time travelling in India to pursue her other passion of yoga. She spent time in a yoga ashram, trekked in the Himalayas and taught English to Buddhist monks. These experiences helped Janet to develop the therapeutic beliefs that subsequently informed her practice. Janet reminded attendees that aspects of their own experiences, both past and present, would similarly inform their practice as psychologists. She encouraged the audience to regularly check-in with themselves to assess for the presence of intentions, motivations, unmet needs, vulnerabilities and warning signs, to practice self-care, and to routinely consider how each of these would inform and influence their work with clients.
Much of the information psychologists have about their clients is from self-reports which may be unreliable, misstated, erroneous, subjective, selective, and/or self-serving. Janet went on to highlight the reasons this could occur including how clients frequently want their psychologist to approve of, and like, them. To achieve this, clients may present themselves in the most positive (or negative) manner possible to elicit sympathy, respect or validation. A psychologist may be consciously or subconsciously resistant to the idea that they were lied to or misled by a client, out of concerns that this reflects neglect, misjudgement, incompetence, or at least naiveté on the part of the therapist. A psychologist may see clients at their very worst, particularly when they choose to reveal hidden or secret parts of themselves in the course of therapy. As such, it is inevitable that a psychologist will encounter clients that test their tolerance, patience, ingenuity and even their values in various ways. It is imperative that a psychologist endeavours to apply the principles of unconditional positive regard, including respect, acceptance and compassion, to even the most challenging of clients.
There are also many different ways in which working as a psychologist can be hard on personal relationships. The difficulties in bringing loved ones into the world we work in as psychologists while still maintaining confidentiality; acquiring more intimate knowledge of clients than friends or loved ones; experiencing emotional over-reactions linked to lingering dissonance stemming from sessions; becoming so immersed in the role of therapist to the extent you cannot leave it in the course of personal relationships; becoming so exposed to emotions and trauma that one becomes desensitised to it in everyday life; and simple fatigue, both emotional and physical, can all have a negative impact on a psychologist’s relationship with the people in their lives. This may partially explain why psychologists report high levels of occupational stress. As such, self-care needs to be a number one priority. Such self-care needs to extend to the physical, emotional, social and spiritual realms. Good self-care is an enabler for sound and ethical practice. There are multiple ways in which a psychologist can practice self-care, including fostering supportive relationships with colleagues, acknowledging their own unmet needs, monitoring workload and taking sabbaticals when needed, taking part in regular professional development, maintaining personal relationships, participating in reflective supervision, diversifying life beyond psychology, and above all, prioritising their own wellbeing on all levels.
Finally, Janet discussed how attendees may spend their entire careers glad that they became psychologists. She noted that Miller (2007)2 found six characteristics common to ‘passionately committed psychotherapists’:
- balance between work and non-work passions
- adaptiveness and openness
- belief that the practice of psychotherapy has extraordinary significance
- intentional learning
- personal fit with the role
- passion-supporting beliefs
Janet encouraged attendees to nurture all six characteristics stating that a good psychologist need not be perfect, but rather committed to a lifelong pathway of self-discovery and learning. Janet concluded by listing five principles that she encouraged each prospective psychologist to keep in mind while on the pathway to registration:
- No matter what happens, don’t panic.
- The client is more nervous than you are.
- If you don’t know what’s happening, keep quiet until you do.
- The client will assume you know what you’re doing; and most importantly
- Just make it through the hour!
The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org