The Tough Mudder Trilogy: Obstacles and Challenges

The Tough Mudder Trilogy: Second instalment

Obstacles and Challenges

On May 11th 2013, I took part in the Tough Mudder race, a 16km obstacle course inspired by the British Special Forces training protocol. This is the second of three posts about the experience.

It’s race day.

We make it to the off-site parking lot, where contestants are piled onto yellow school buses. With an apprehensive cheer, someone passes along yellow and black face paint that we smother across our cheeks without thinking twice about the bacteria we are sharing. The camaraderie has begun.

TM Pre-race picture Megan Rana Chanel

Registration – check.

Meet up with the rest of our team, “99 problems and Tough Mudder ain’t one” – check.

The area between registration/bag check and the start line is a unique sight. Muscular men wearing tutus or suspenders – or both – are gulping down sports drinks; women in brightly coloured tights and wigs are hugging each other as if its last call on prom night. Nervous smiles and arrogant rants are plenty. It was a tornado of excitement and anxiety, mostly the latter.

The main topic of conversations I eavesdropped on was the cold weather. At approximately 8 degrees  (46 degrees for you Americans), no one could imagine running through icy cold waters, running up a mountain, or climbing mud piles. Having hoped for a sunny day, I wore short and a tank top but the sun was being lazy, and my rain coat felt very cozy in the misty weather. My teammates’ hugs and attempts to convince me that “I’ll warm up anyway” simply did not register.

TM pre-race group picture

At the start line the four of us were kneeling in mud along with 60 other “mudders” while an obnoxious MC reminded us of the 78-page waiver we signed and made us repeat the mudder pledge. I scream “BOYAAAH” while the rest of the crowd screams “HORAAAY” because for some reason I am racing in 1995.  We remind Rachel and Brooke to be silent during the National Anthem….eye and tactile contact only remember?

TM pledge

I am excited and I fearless; I can do this.

After the first few obstacles that included the Glory Blades, where 10 foot wooden walls are tilted to a 20 degree angle, the infamous Arctic Enema, which left us invigorated instead of as walking popsicles, I realized that Tough Mudder is composed of obstacles and challenges.

Obstacles are occupational hazards we subjectively agree to when accepting a contract. They may be time-consuming, annoying, and mildly painful, but in the end obstacles are “check marks” before the Finish Line. In Tough Mudder, I considered the Dirty Ballerina and the Boa Constrictor as obstacles because jumping over mud piles or squirming through watery tubes is uncomfortable and tiring, but not life threatening.

Obstacles in Tough Mudder are comparable to the research ethics application in graduate school, where I had to explain that a treatment group for parents of anxious children will not have a detrimental impact on any fetuses. For many, the weekly lab meeting, where articles are discussed and the annual Easter egg hunt is organized, is an occupation hazard. A dark spot in the weekly schedule that is inherent in the graduate school curriculum.

You know you’ve hit a challenge when your brain freezes, heart sinks into your stomach, and your diaphragm forgets to expand and allow air to flow from my lungs. A challenge is a sudden, not-so-subtle reminder of your mortality and the fact that you did not send your mother flowers on Mother’s day. From an evolutionary perspective, your body’s response to a challenge is a reminder that you should not be doing this.

I should not crawl in water while being electrocuted.

I should not jump over a mountain of burning logs.

A challenge is the possibility of failing my comprehensive exams and being kicked out of the program (or gently asked not to return). A challenge is having my dissertation committee tell me that I have to rework my project (i.e., two years of work) and submit a new proposal in two weeks.

The tricky thing about obstacles and challenges is that when you skip one, it becomes easier to skip another. Avoiding fear gives you a free pass to continuously sidestep other uncomfortable situations. For instance, delegating a public speaking opportunity or continuously communicating over email as opposed to setting up a meeting with your supervisor. Avoidance yields more anxiety, it increases the threat. For reasons I still do not understand, I decided to skip the Firewalker challenge, where contestants jump over a pile of burning logs into cold water. After skipping one challenge, the “by pass challenge line” became more tempting every time. I had to push myself not to skip subsequent events – take a deep breath and remind myself of the commitment I made by accepting the Tough Mudder challenge. On a less philosophical and more coercive note, Megan regularly reminded us that “if you skip a challenge you didn’t do Tough Mudder”.

Overcoming a challenge brings about an anticlimactic sense of exhilaration. After allowing myself to drop through the Smoke Chute, a 15 foot “slide” similar to an air conduct, I emerged from the muddy waters thinking “that’s it?” Similar to when I walked out of (successfully!) completing my oral comprehensive exam. I was happy but could not ignore how lack luster the achievement was.

Perhaps writing about my Tough Mudder experience, or graduate school in general, is a way to stretch my “achievement” as much as possible. Milking as much satisfaction I can from events in order to justify the effort.

What are your graduate school obstacles? Challenges?

Did you manage to skip any?

Where any achievements anticlimactic?

Averagely yours,

the candidate

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The Tough Mudder Trilogy: The Path of Ignorance

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Last weekend I completed the Tough Mudder challenge: a 16km obstacle course inspired by the British Special Forces training protocol, which takes place mostly in – you guessed it – mud. I blindly signed up for the race after a friend’s recommendation, much like I decide to pick up broccoli at the grocery store because a friend forwarded a broccoli and cheese soup recipe to me. “Sure – I’ll do it”. The recipe never made it from my inbox onto my dining table. Tough Mudder on the other hand, left bruises and scratches.

There are multiple analogies I can draw between an obstacle course and graduate school or my work as a clinical psychologist (in training), and I will explore them through a trilogy of posts.

The first analogy is obvious. I was well aware that graduate school and Tough Mudder would be challenging (read: exhausting) and scary (read: terrifying). Despite the blood (don’t underestimate paper cuts), sweat, and tears that I expected from graduate school and Tough Mudder, I signed up for both.

sure, I’ll do it

The Path of Ignorance

Arrive in Barrie Ontario – check-in at the hotel.

There were five us: Rob, the Tough Mudder veteran, who spoke about the endless hills, treacherous roads, and painful obstacles the way university professors discuss their research: confidently disregarding the audience’s angst and ignorance of the topic.

There were Rachel and Brooke, two sisters who had done similar races and athletic training in the past. I did not know what to expect from them, but knew one thing: neither would be wearing hearing aids during the race, meaning that they could not hear anything. No cheering, no booing, no “get out of the way because this 200 pound man is about to fall on top of you”. Communication with them would be with eye or tactile contact.

Finally, there was Megan, the back-to-back-group-exercise-classes-at-the-gym friend who gently coerced me into signing up for Tough Mudder. Megan spent hours – nay days – researching the Tough Mudder obstacles and learning how to mentally and physically prepare for the event. She was the equivalent of the person who compulsively examines the statistics regarding funding applications for graduate students, and who constantly reminds you the odds and timelines. From time to time, a video illustrating a Tough Mudder challenge found its way into my email inbox. I reluctantly clicked on the link, watched the first five seconds where a camera lens is splattered with mud with rock music in the background, then stopped it. I chose ignorance.

In fact, I steered clear from any sort of information before the race. Conversely from my “day job” as a graduate student and clinical psychologist, where I am required to understand my clients and their mental illness from every angle, I chose not to delve into the ins and outs of the Tough Mudder challenges. I chose ignorance over the knowledge of how and when I will be injured or terrified (read: die).  I rather prance through the event blindly and cope with its challenges as they arose. After all, the focus of my doctoral research is the treatment of anxiety– what is a better place to put my “expert” knowledge to good use than an event where my mental stamina will be tested?

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This is as good a time as any for me to tell you that I am not a dare-devil. I am a nervous wreck who is susceptible to peer pressure. That is a dangerous combination.  I was not the child who jumped from the rooftop into the pool or who tried to do a cart-wheel on a balance beam. Roller coasters were the highest ranking item on my “extreme activity” list, until I somehow agreed to skydive five years ago. I am the child who wore a helmet and who ducked down every time the ball steered into her direction at dodge ball. Lifeguards never warned me about running on the side of the pool:  I was age-inappropriately alert about the possibility of slipping and breaking my front teeth. The fear of losing my front teeth is also the reason why I do not know how to ice skate. Shameful for a Canadian, I know.

At dinner on the night before the Tough Mudder race, my teammates further dissected the obstacles. Every other sentence began with some variation of “I’m really worried about _______”. The blank was filled in with terms such as “Arctic Enema”, a challenge where contestants jump shoulder deep into freezing water and swim under a barricade, or “Everest”, where contestants run up a quarter-pipe and pull themselves to the other side. My chest was pounding and I was short of breath. I felt as if I accidentally walked into a seminar about structural equation modeling: embarrassingly confused and terrified.

As I gorged down my pasta meal, in the midst of nearby conversations and the hockey game playing the back ground, I heard the following combination of words:

Electric.

Shock.

Water.

I looked up at Rachel and my eyes requested that she repeat her statement. What Rachel was describing was the “Electric Eel”, a challenge where contestants crawl in water, with electrical wires hanging overhead. In short: you crawl in water while being shocked. I paid to do this. I paid to squirm through water while being electrocuted. I held back tears while Rob attempted to minimize the potential damage of the event, much like my supervisor would try to convince me that presenting at a conference is no big deal.  Megan attempted to mitigate my anxiety by reminding me that Arctic Enema would be much worse. Thanks Megan.

My teammates’ general response to my panicked state was “relaaaaaxxxx, you’ll be fiiiinnneee”. Telling an anxious person to “relax” is as effective as trying to explain to undergraduate students that the required readings for a course can be found in the course syllabus. Then trying to tell them where to find the syllabus…..and telling them what the “syllabus” is.

The same way I teach my anxious clients to relax, I took deep breaths and reminded myself that the likelihood of dying while crawling in water under electrical wires is slim. I took deep breaths and reminded myself that no amount of research could have prepared me for these challenges. I took more deep breaths and reminded myself that I paid for the event, drove over 5 hours to the site, and publicly announced my participation. I took deep breath and gobbled down more pasta.

Anxiety is the overestimation of danger and underestimation of coping abilities. In preparation for Tough Mudder, I chose ignorance to prevent exaggeration of threat. I chose ignorance so I wouldn’t be reminded of what I cannot do. However, 12 hours before the race, I was flooded with information I did not want. Most of that information was threatening and my brain refused to process any evidence of safety or ability to cope.

I wonder if the path of ignorance was the correct one to take.  Would I have been less anxious if I knew what was coming?

Would you rather know or be ignorant before an event like Tough Mudder?

Are you typically under-prepared or over-prepared? 

Averagely yours,

the candidate

Dear Annual Report

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Spring is the time for graduate students to meet with their supervisors and complete the “Annual Report”, or as I like to call it, the “Annual-Reminder-That-My-Goals-Aren’t-In-Line-With-The-Department’s-Expectations”.

The Annual Report is a grown-up version of the report card, where I tell the university what I’ve “accomplished” (based on the university’s definition of achievement) in the past 12 months, in three categories: publications, dissertation, and professional development. My university (like many) is research focused (as opposed to clinically focused), so the first two categories weight more than the third.  There are no grades or gold stars in response to this report. Depending on the year, the Department Head might send me a generic email to remind me that I am in good standing.

report card

When did the email become the Graduate Studies version of a Gold Star?

Truth be told, almost five years into my graduate studies, I have no idea what the department expects from me, but based on my responses on the Annual Report, I missed honour roll.  In response to this deficient but necessary process, I wrote a letter to the Graduate Studies Annual Report.

Dear Graduate Studies’ Annual Report,

Thank you for making your yearly cameo in my life, around the time when the weather gets warmer, undergrads slowly (finally!) leave campus, and I allow myself to contemplate about how unproductive I will be over the summer.

Fortunately, you and I never spend too much time together, because the questions you ask of me are not the ones I tried to answer during the year. For instance, you ask me about the number of publications I submitted. I could tell you that one of my manuscript was rejected…not once, but twice. However, I don’t think you would be proud of me, so I will carefully omit this information. I wish I could include the two editorials I wrote for a CPA newsletter, but I cannot since they are not research.

You also ask me about book chapters I published in the past 12 months. I understand that some graduate students work in labs where their supervisor is asked to write and edits books. Consequently, they have the opportunity to publish book chapters. I am not one of those students. So this section will remain empty.

Finally, you ask me about presentations I presented or submitted in the past year. I managed to squeeze some data out of my minuscule sample, so I can add one scientific poster presentation to this section….but its acceptance is pending. Is that of any value to you?

A third of way through, it is obvious that you and I are not on the same page. You evaluate me on criteria that I chose not to value. How can we mend our differences Annual Report? How can I avoid the feeling of inadequacy that your questions create?

Next, you ask me about the progress on my dissertation. I hold back my tears as I write that I have recruited only half of the participants I had planned to have by now. Unfortunately, the multiple choice format does not allow me to explain that I work with a difficult population in a strict setting. There is no room for me to tell you how convincing parents to bring an anxious child to the hospital for one more appointment is tedious and unbearable for them. All I do is check the “incomplete” box and hope that you will understand.

After being reminded for three pages that I did not focus on publications this year,  I finally shine when it comes to Professional Development. I report a page worth of workshops and seminars. This year, I learnt about the long-term impact of trauma, the theory and practice of mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy, and ethical considerations in private practice. Unfortunately, Annual Report, I heard through the grapevine that you do not care much for PD. I’ve been told that you ask about workshops and seminars simply to be “comprehensive”, not because you believe it is an important aspect of graduate studies in clinical psychology. Is that true? For a fleeting moment, I thought you and I connected.

Gold-Star

Annual Report, why don’t you ask me about professional affiliations? Why don’t you ask me about supplementary engagements? I would tell you about everything I accomplished in the past 12 months. If you only had one more page where I could tell you that I am now a certified yoga instructor; that I am working on another treatment study with a psychologist in the community; that I am editor of newsletter for the Canadian Psychological Association; that I published a research review on an popular science blog; I climbed Table Mountain; two students wrote me “thank you” notes for the way I marked their assignment… Sadly, these are negligible details to someone who cares only about publications and data. They are crumbs of a cake.

See you next year,

Averagely Yours,

the candidate. 

Burst my Bubble

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Losing an illusion makes you wiser than finding a truth – Ludwig Borne

For about a month now I have been volunteering as an assistant at a local yoga studio. In a class for 40 yogis, it’s helpful for the teacher to have someone walking around, making manual adjustments.

The first day I stepped in the crowded yoga studio, the feeling was strangely similar to the first time I walked into a therapy session alone. Four years ago, I sat across a girl who hadn’t attended school in three months because of delibetating anxiety. With trepidation and excitement, I was prepared to follow the procedure for treatment of separation anxiety, expecting that the little girl would jump right on board and together we could conquer her anxiety! I imagined a shrink-client relationship from the movies: she would open up to me, I would make her laugh, we would hit a bump in the road, she would cry, followed by an “ah ha” moment, and bam! – she would return to school.  We would prance down a scenic road with a single bump (necessary for drama).

The illusion I had when watching the yoga students on their mats, chatting, meditating, or stretching in preparation for the class was similar to my experience before that first therapy session. In my imagination’s movie, the slender lululemon mannequins would breathe and move in unison to the teacher’s voice, they would all touch their toes without bending their knees in a standing forward bend, and I would simply have to brush their necks with my fingertips to release tension.

In both situations, I lived in a shiny bubble that would inevitably burst. Most novice researchers, clinicians, writers, and yogis have flawless illusions and expectations of simplicity.

Illusion is the first of all pleasures” – Voltaire

My therapy illusion bubble burst when the anxious six-year old refused to speak during the first session.  She dropped her forehead on her forearms and gazed at her feet. I offered her crayons and paper to colour, juices and crackers – anything that would make her look at me. I stared at her curly hair wondering what to do.

In the first yoga class, the first “inhale” was enough to snap me out of the yoga clothing commercial. My expectation of coordinated movements was met with jerky contortions and wobbly stances. My imaginary models had forgot to shave and were wearing pajama pants. The room quickly became sweaty and smelly. Despite the presence of a single teacher, there seemed to be 40 individual yoga classes happening at the same time.

I had to think on my feet, leaving the therapy room was not an option – I wanted to connect with the anxious little girl. I looked around the therapy room, picked up a book about emotions from a shelf, and started reading. I first read without asking any questions (including asking for her permission!). Next, I handed the little girl one green crayon and one red crayon. She snapped the red crayon in half while keeping her forehead on her arm. Refusing to be defeated, I read the book a second time, and after every page (i.e., every emotion) I asked “I wonder if you’re feeling like that….show me the green crayon if you are feeling like that and show me the red crayon if you’re not feeling like that”.  Are you feeling sad? Half a red crayon came up. Are you feeling angry? [green], happy? [half a red], scared? [green], lonely? [half a red]…and so on. Without exchanging any words, I learned how this anxious little girl experienced our first therapy session. After the third reading, we were colouring together in silence.

Leaving the yoga class was also not an option. Taken aback, confused, and a little scared, I started walking around the room. I zig-zaged between wobbly arms and legs, watched breath enter and exit the students’ lungs. I did not touch anyone for a first ten minutes, until I noticed the calm and serenity on the yogis faces. Something switched as I reached to touch the first student. I gently drew their hips back, assisted in harm extensions, and applied gentle pressure on necks. While the yogis rested in the final relaxation pose, I glanced around the room, and I saw beauty in the silence.

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We tend to have a whimsical image of what our lives as researchers, clinicians, writers, or yogis will be like. More often than not, these illusions mimic what media has presented to us. However, when reality bursts our bubble, one natural response is to look for an escape.  When our bubble of hope and expectations bursts, it leaves us with wet socks and shivering shoulders in an unknown environment. It’s surprising what a deep breath, patience, and a little imagination can do. There is a world, far more beautiful beyond our bubbles; it’s up to us to discover it.

Did your bubble burst? What did that look like?

How did you cope with it?

Averagely yours,

the candidate.

Strong Spine, Humble Chin

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Strong Spine, Humble Chin

Humility is to make a right estimate of one’s self – Charles Spurgeon

A large part of my work as a (future) clinical psychologist is interviewing. Interviewing clients for the first few years of my clinical psychology degree was like entering a large crowded mall. There is information zipping from every direction and too many paths I could take to get to my destination. Although I had a road map with the basic information I should collect (confidentiality agreement, informed consent, medical history, academic background, family history, presenting problem…), I was easily distracted by minor off-topic comments (read: a sale at Banana Republic when I’m shopping for eyeliner). The result was a stilted interaction filled with “okay let’s go back to when you told me about…” and “we’ll come back to this in a minute”. I would step out of the interview confused, exhausted, and missing information.

In other words, my initial interviews were like making half a dozen detours on the way to the makeup counter.

Over time, I have less of what sports psychologists refer to as “cognitive anxiety”, or negatives beliefs and expectations about myself and my performance. For instance, I’m less likely to have thoughts like “I am going to screw this up”. This confidence comes with practice, preparation, and supervision. Over time, I’ve learned to flag items of interest without breaking the flow of the conversation. I learned that a nod or tilting my head to the side with eye contact can be as effective as a follow up question. I have more practice, more skills, and I am more confident.

In short, I know that Banana Republic will still be there once I pick up my eyeliner. Or that the eyeliner will still be there even if I stop by BR.

At least in sports psychology, anxiety and self-confidence independently impact performance: they are not opposite ends of the same spectrum. Self-confidence is the personal belief that one has the ability to complete a task (i.e. “I can do this!”). Intuitively, self-confidence has a positive impact on performance. Meaning that the more I believe I can do it, the better my performance will be (Many American Idol participants will relate to this finding). Cognitive anxiety on the other hand, has a negative relationship with performance.

Therefore, the better I feel about myself and my skills, the better my interview should be. The fewer negative beliefs I have about myself, then I the better I should perform.

Got it.

Not quite.

The incremental sense of assurance about my interviewing skills bit me in the ass when I chose to enter a feedback sessions (a concluding session with a client where the results of an assessment are discussed) without reviewing the history and main findings. I figured I would “wing it” since I had given feedback for a similar disorder before. Unfortunately, during the appointment I struggled to find my words, shuffled through the file and papers, and looked back at my supervisor one too many times to fill the awkward silences. I felt lost. As we left the interview room, he smiled and said “trouble finding your words today?”

No, my words weren’t lost; they were not prepared to begin with.

I once again struggled between confidence and complacency when I tried a new yoga studio. The typical yoga studio etiquette is that more advanced students set up at the front of room, to provide a visual cue for more novice students. Being a recently certified yoga teacher, I confidently unrolled my mat at the front of room thinking “I got this”. I stood tall, with my chin a little too high in confidence. Within 20 minutes of the class, I lost half of my body weight in sweat and wobbled on my feet between poses. My ego dripped from my forehead every time I turned in to a downward facing dog.

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Confidence (just like curiosity) can kill the cat*.

And the ego.

Confidence comes with practice, but maintaining humility as we develop our skills can be as challenging as the skill itself. Confidence can actually result in a weaker performance. When confidence increases, we are more likely to develop complacency, or self-contentment while being oblivious to limitations or dangers. Confident individuals are more likely to use short-cuts, put less effort in the task, and subsequently make mistakes.

In the interviewing situation, I felt confident because I had performed well in a similar task in the past, so I did not prepare as much. The result was a stilted, embarrassing, and confusing session for all parties involved. At the new yoga studio, I felt that my experience and new “status” would result in a better performance. I did not take into account the new challenges that each situation could present, and fell smack on the face – literally.

As some psychologists are discovering, a little bit of self-doubt can actually improve performance, shedding doubt on the previously held belief that confidence is key. Doubt keeps us alert and open to the possibility of failure and ensures that we monitor our actions.

I think the key lies in knowing that I have ability, while accepting that I do not know what can be thrown at me. Maybe confidence and humility are on a spectrum?

I now try to walk into every interview, therapy session, or yoga class with a strong spine – acknowledging the work I have done and things I know – and a humble chin: accepting that I have so much to learn.

Averagely yours,

the candidate

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*no cats were harmed in the writing of this post

2.5 years in 3 minutes

A month ago, I signed up for the “3 Minute Thesis” competition at my university. The Three Minute Thesis (3MT® ) is an academic competition developed by The University of Queensland (UQ), Australia for research students. The concept is simple: graduate students describe their Master’s or Doctoral research to a non-specialized but intelligent audience in 3 minutes. The presentation can be accompanied by a single static slide. No animations, no props, no songs, no dance.

Being one of the few people who doesn’t dread public speaking I signed up without hesitation. My enjoyment of giving presentations is probably one of the few areas where I am not on top of the average curve.

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At first, I thought that summarizing my research in 3 minutes would be a breeze. I know my project inside out, and am still at a stage where I enjoy talking about it. It’s my intellectual baby.

I was wrong.

The version was 8 minutes long and my first slide draft looked something like this:

3mt slide

This presentation forced me to squeeze 2.5 years of my life and hundreds of hours in 3 minutes. Not exactly straightforward. Or simple. It forced to pin point the most important aspects of my research, simplify it without dumb-ing it down, and conveying its importance to an audience that was there to support someone else.

I challenge you to do that about anything you are passionate about.

I wasn’t as anxious as I expected on qualification day. I stayed quiet as I sat with the other participants. Others chatted, discussing their study, explaining how difficult it was to squeeze everything into 3 minutes. The man next me introduced himself. I wasn’t in the mood the talk. I wanted to breathe and change my shoes. Thankfully, he didn’t really give me the opportunity to speak. He engaged in a monologue about his plans to invite the entire department to the finals if he made it, and since he is the president it shouldn’t be too hard. He took a short intermission to greet members of his fan club and turned back to me. I nodded while I vaguely gazed in his direction and took deep breaths. He was not rude, not even arrogant, simply too talkative…about himself. To me, his expression of confidence was a reflection of his insecurity.

It is sad how poorly attended departmental events when there is no free food. Looking around the old auditorium, I noticed that there were as many audience members as there were contestants – everyone managed to bring at least one person. Having posted a Facebook event, I was expected a handful of people. I reluctantly turned around every time the auditorium door clicked open. Finally, two friends walked in and smiled in my direction. My shoulders dropped from my ears – where they like to hang out when I’m anxious – and I was ready to start. It was comforting to know they took the time out of their busy schedule to watch me (and 10 others).

The next 20 minutes were a blur. Students stepped up one by one, described their work elegantly, concisely, and clearly. No mumbles, no “ums”, no trips, or falls. Even the man next to me presented. He had a reason to be confident.

My name appeared on the projector and I jumped up – I didn’t think it was my turn yet. Despite the clear instructions we were given about staying on the X marked on the ground, I wondered back and forth in front of my slide. I was in a trance while I told the story of my mother asking me if the stove was turned off when we left the house.

Let’s fast forward 3 minutes. Let’s imagine my friends giving me thumbs up as I step off the stage. Let’s fast forward through the fact that I finished second place in my qualification heat and made it to the finals!

The chatty guy? He didn’t make it, neither did all the members of his department.

Let’s fast forward to my final presentation, where again, I knew 3.5 people in the audience of about 100.

The .5 is a prof in our department that I don’t know at all, but saw his face on our website. So we he counts as half. I hope he doesn’t take offence. 

I didn’t win, the winner deserved to win though.

I could write about how hard it was to condense 2.5 years of my life in 3 minutes. I could also write about the sadness and loneliness I felt when very few people I knew showed up at the qualification rounds or the finals. I know that many people would have been there physically but instead sent positive vibes. This is not mean to be a criticism of who wasn’t there, it is meant to be a focus and appreciation for those who were.

The idea of support, like I wrote in a previous post, is like layers in the same cake. Layers support and complement each other, and that means showing up at a silly (read nerdy) event during a busy week, reading over each other’s work, or helping out through peer supervision. Thank you to all those who did. Thank you to those who asked about it and supported me through it from close or far. 

A dissertation, like anything else in life (read: graduate school), is not not a solo project. Sometimes supports means being critical of each other, other times it’s about shutting up and listening. Either way, it is critical to success.Support is also about saying (and meaning it!) when you say “good luck!” or “that’s sound so interesting”. Its about congratulating each other for our efforts, achievements, and successes and most importantly it’s about giving each other a little push when we need a little help.

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Averagely yours,

the candidate

Is this your first time?

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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.

lucy as psychologist

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:

  1. Not everything is about me (unacceptable!)
  2. Not everyone is out to get me (shocking!)
  3. The tools I use with my clients can work for me (imagine that, I am average!)
  4. Looking at a situation objectively can help me shift perspectives
  5. Taking a compassionate approach is soothing (My man DL says it best)

Averagely yours,

the candidate.