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.

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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.