Is This your First Time?
Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open
– my man DL (aka, Dalai Lama)
As I escorted my client and her mother to the door, it was obvious that she was taking longer than necessary to put on her jacket. Her child was jumping about, inspecting toys in the psychology clinic waiting room. I pretended to be busy: filling papers, closing books, doodling smiley faces on my clipboard.
“So is this your first time?”
Her voice broke through the thick atmosphere.
I looked up and shook my head “no” too fast for it to be natural: It was more as if I was trying to shake something off my head while over-blinking.
“I’ve sat in on assessments before”
“Right, but you’ve never actually done one have you?”
“We practice the tests before administering them, and all graduate students in clinical psychology are supervised by our clinic director.”
I felt like a novice tennis player playing against a tennis-ball machine on overdrive. She fired shots at me; I hit the ball back but it barely made it to the other side of the net.
“Well my child is a special case. You know that. It won’t be easy.”
She was now on expert mode. Our exchange went on for another minute-that-felt-like-an-hour or so, until I finally told the mother that her daughter was in good hands and I will see her next week.
The machine stopped, turned around, and rolled out of the office.
This happened three years ago, and the thought of that exchange makes my hands shake.
My initial reaction was anger. I “knew” that she wanted me to admit my novice status or acknowledge the difficulty of the case. Why wasn’t I able to admit that to her? To myself? Anger is a normal reaction when we feel that we have been treated unfairly…but she wasn’t unfair…was she?
Anger turned into confusion: why would she ask me these questions? Did I do something to exhume incompetence? Would she ask another student? Again, I looked at my behaviours, my thoughts, and myself as a clinical psychology student and assumed that she saw weakness and incapacity. I assumed that she was poking at my weak spots, scratching on my insecurity scabs, and waiting for blood.
I finally applied one of the simplest but most effective cognitive behavioural therapy methods to myself. I asked myself what evidence I had that the mother was targeting me, or attempting to expose my weaknesses. As I tell my young clients, I played detective for my thoughts! My investigation looked a little something like this:
Evidence for the possibility that she is targeting me and attempting to expose my weaknesses
Evidence against the possibility that she is targeting me and attempting to expose my weaknesses
|She asked questions about my experience.||She talked about her child being a “special case”, not me being a poor clinician.
She asked about the services offered at the clinic.
She asked about the consequences of the findings.
She asked about timeline.
She did not ask to speak to my supervisor after each assessment (she could have).
She came back and her daughter completed the assessment.
Chances are this awkward tennis match was not about me at all.
It was maybe the mother’s insecurities regarding the assessment and its findings. What could we find out and what would that mean for her daughter?
Once I looked at the situation from a different perspective, I felt compassion for her. It can be difficult to have a loved one poked and probed to figure out “what’s wrong” with him or her.
On the other hand, I was biased in the way I heard the mother’s questions – I assumed they were about me, and that my abilities were being questioned (on some level, maybe my abilities were being questioned). That is a classic symptom of the imposter syndrome but also a very selfish way to think.
As a clinical psychologist in training, and hopefully a “full” psychologist someday, I have to accept that there will always be people who doubt my profession and my abilities.
What I learned from this experience is this:
- Not everything is about me (unacceptable!)
- Not everyone is out to get me (shocking!)
- The tools I use with my clients can work for me (imagine that, I am average!)
- Looking at a situation objectively can help me shift perspectives
- Taking a compassionate approach is soothing (My man DL says it best)