I ate the marshmallow: Lessons in impulsivity.

Logo2

I ate the marshmallow: Lessons in impulsivity.

It was a simple experiment that changed the way psychologists understands self-control and the ability to delay gratification. Preschoolers were asked to sit at a table, with a plate of marshmallows. The experimenter left the room and gave the child an important choice: eat the marshmallow right away or wait until the experimenter returned and have two marshmallows instead.

Have one marshmallow now, or wait and have two marshmallows.

Some children ate the marshmallow. Other children stared at the sweets intensively and reminded themselves that it’s better to have two later than one now. They covered their eyes, looked away from the marshmallow, or even pretended to eat it, licking their lips from its imagined deliciousness. Yet they resisted temptation and delayed gratification for a better outcome in the future.

eat me.

eat me.

I would have eaten the marshmallow – no doubt. As soon as the door clicked closed, and the experimenter was out of sight, I would have told myself something along the lines of “Just wait. You can do this…. just – ohhh…that was delicious!”

End of experiment.

To clinical psychologists (or to-be-ones like me), self-control is essential. We have to inhibit our judgment, advices, and responses, and allow the client to lead the session. Delaying such reactions can be challenging for someone like me (i.e., impulsive and extroverted).

Inhibiting social responses is difficult. I want to jump with excitement when a client has done their homework and gasp when I hear sad news. Although these reactions may be appropriate between friends (although I don’t know why I would congratulate my friends for doing their assignments), positive feedback in a therapeutic setting be should attuned to the client’s mood and personality.

I notice improvement, I jump on it.

I hear change, I highlight it.

I see a marshmallow, I eat it.

Withholding advice is also challenging. Lawyers and doctors have it easy. Lawyers are (over?)paid to tell you what to do in order to get the best outcome and doctors write it out on a prescription pad. Whether or not you choose to follow their advice is your business. Psychologists on the other hand are taught to guide clients through their own recovery. Success is defined by the client, not the therapist. This is a challenging and time consuming process that requires – you guessed it – self-control. It would be too easy (and ineffective) to tell my client how to think, behave, and feel. In my work with offenders I have found myself sitting on my hands, biting my lips, while containing the urge to stand up and yell “THEN JUST STOP BREAKING THE LAW!” Thankfully I have managed to curb that urge so far.

I like to think of my impulsive nature as a reflection of my genuine interest in the client’s experience. Once in a while, my spontaneity fits the situation and engages the client. Particularly with children – they light up when you show excitement and interest. Perhaps there is such a thing as planned impulsivity: an oxymoron describing a therapist’s ability to assess whether it is best to be restrained and matter-a-fact or be more spontaneous and direct.

Averagely yours,

the candidate
Impulsive

Is this your first time?

Logo2

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.