Growing as a Provisional Psychologist

I wrote a while ago about my journey towards provisional registration. I’m now nearly nine months into my 4+2. My 6 month report has been accepted, my caseload is full. I’ve done lots of professional development activities, lots of supervision, and have been reading voraciously. This time in my life is all about career, and about what I want in my career. I’m lucky to be in a position to focus!

A couple of weeks ago, I was at my supervision with Harriet.

We finished a long and productive session, and then Harriet said, ‘I’d like you to do some homework for me this week. I want you to reflect on your journey since provisional registration – not the skills or techniques you’ve learned, but on yourself as a Provisional Psychologist, where you’ve grown and where you’re perhaps ready to start growing more.’ I responded with a smile, ‘sure, Harriet. It’ll make a good blog entry.’

Here’s a bit more of what actually went through my mind:

Capture

I’m pretty sure Harriet is onto me, and if she didn’t read my mind, at least had a pretty good idea of the sorts of things that would be on it.

You see, for a Provisional Psychologist, I am reasonably skilled, experienced and knowledgeable, and I have a history of doing all sorts of things in my work, from supervising mental health professionals, to program development, client-facing work across the lifespan, and all manner of other things. I’ve been working in psychology-related roles with complex clients for nearly a decade now so those are things I’ve been lucky enough to have experience in. Those are all about the work. The work is the easy part.

Thinking and talking about myself, as a Psychologist? This is the hard part.

You see, I have strong perfectionistic tendencies and can be a bit very obsessive at times, not exactly uncommon personality traits in Psychologists given the sheer level of obsession required to be willing to take the time and do the work to register. And despite my robustly good mental health, my resilience has been hard-won and it can be a knock-down mental battle to not say ‘sorry’ more than I need to, to withstand the inevitable judgement of others, or to admit (to myself, and to others) that I’m actually seriously, really truly pretty awesome. And this is after having identified and worked on these challenges from adolescence onward. No wonder I find myself easily relating to the struggles of many of my young clients. I may not have walked in their shoes, but my path has not been so different either, for all that my journey at this point has been 10-15 years longer.

But I digress. On to the task at hand. My development.

What’s changed for me since starting my 4+2? Professionally I’ve continued to build skills, much as I always have. I’ve always read voraciously. I’ve always attended as many PD days and sessions as I can. So my professional development has simply continued on it’s usual trajectory, perhaps a little accelerated as is inevitable given I’ve moved from adult mental health to youth mental health and have had a whole new language to learn, and the time and space to do a lot of learning at work.

But most of my development is about becoming. Becoming what? Why, myself of course.

Before I started my 4+2, I had some fears. I was worried that I could have a supervisor with a radically different view of what Psychology is to me. We’re a diverse profession after all. Given the availability of supervisors, it was entirely possible that I could have ended up with a supervisor with less experience in practice than I have, given my own career journey, or one whose underlying philosophies fundamentally clashed with my own, expressed in a way that didn’t challenge me to think, consider and grow, but rather served to constrain me, limit me, or invalidate me – exactly the things I try to avoid in my work with clients!

I’ve had experiences of not feeling that I can be myself in my work, of my skills and knowledge being dismissed, of feeling that I have had to be less than I am to fit in. And having had those experiences lead to a much greater sense of trepidation about the next step in my journey than I may have experienced otherwise. I did not know if I would be encouraged to be me. I was armed with my knowledge that my actual work role certainly allowed (and encouraged) me to be myself and use myself in my work, and that I have plenty of research to back up my orientation to practice. I knew that I could stay congruent to myself, but I also knew that the right supervisor could be an immense help in my journey. I feel very lucky to be supervised by Harriet!

I find it interesting that my biggest fear in this journey isn’t about my practice, but about myself as a Provisional Psychologist. And what is more interesting is that my growth has mostly been in the intersection between the personal and the professional. I suspect some of that is because I’m really, fundamentally a bit of an existential humanist philosophically – for all that I can talk diagnosis, RCT’s and manualized treatments confidently enough, there’s always been a part of me that’s been more interested in the search for meaning and purpose in both myself and those around me.

Here are some of the key ways I have grown since starting:

  1. I am becoming a little more comfortable in being vulnerable. This is very difficult for me because like all of us, my experiences have helped to shape me. I learned as the bullied ‘fat kid’ in school in the 90’s that to be vulnerable was to be a victim. So I became very good at being guarded as a survival response. I learned to brush off negative comments, to intellectualize, to explain human behaviours in distant, scientific language, to escape into theory. This tendency is actually at times quite useful in Psychology. But not necessarily such a good thing for being an effective psychotherapist because without vulnerability, connection can be difficult. I really started work on this particular journey well before my 4+2, back when I did my grad dip in counselling, and even more so when I started to supervise staff in mental health. It was hard, but I wanted my staff in challenging roles to feel safe, even whilst I also had to sometimes change practice. Doing this required a complete shift in how I engaged at work. I had a gifted social worker as my supervisor when I was team leading, and we’ve stayed friends since – she told me it took ‘a long time’ for her to really get me. I’m more vulnerable/less guarded now in my career than I’ve ever been – it’s taken years for me to feel psychologically safe enough at work to start to do it, and it’s getting easier, with both a fantastic workplace and great supervision. But it’s still hard and it’s still ongoing.
  2. I’m really working to show my imperfections to clients, to really be myself in my work. I work with young people, in an outreach capacity. Part of my role can involve modelling how to build relationships, how to have conversations, share stories, and how to feel safe doing so. This means that for my clients, I need to be able to be less than perfect. I need to be able to show that we all have struggles, and that sometimes these struggles persist, and that it’s ok to have doubts and worries, because we can still thrive in all our imperfect glory. That’s particularly important for me as an ‘authority figure’. So I’ve found myself doing timelines of procrastination with clients struggling with doing assignments, giving examples from my own life (my procrastination/being ‘too busy’ to write up a literature review is coming in handy). Clients and I have practiced conversations using resources such as the Deep Speak cards as question prompts. I’ve modeled courage in revealing myself and my stories for young people who are learning to sit with their own imperfections and fears and engage with the world despite them. Interestingly, I’ve always found it much easier to be ‘imperfect’ around clients than my own supervisors and colleagues. I suspect it’s something about power dynamics.
  3. Before I started my 4+2, I felt a little bit like a psychology outsider. There I was, 9 years of mental health experience, eligible to join the APS, knew many Psychologists through my professional networks, but I never felt very connected to the profession/professionals in Psychology, despite feeling very connected to the discipline of Psychology. Much of that relates to seldom having psychologist colleagues during my career. There are a whole range of things that have made me feel more connected to the Psychology profession/networks. Firstly, of course, was supervision. Finally I had the chance to have the lengthy conversations about Psychology, myself as a Psychologist and my work through the lens of Psychology and not other disciplines (valuable as those perspectives are). Another was joining the APS, and finding myself on the branch committee and being able to get involved with planning events and training. I don’t think I’d have gotten nearly as much out of the APS if I’d not started rocking up to branch meetings and meeting with Psychologists through that. Attending residential college through the College of Professional Psychology has been a lovely way to meet with many other provisional psychologists in person. And finally, being part of groups such as the Australian Provisional and Early Career Psychologists, the Provisional Psychologists ForumWe All Wear It Differently, and EDPNA has been a fantastic introduction to many colleagues both in Tasmania and interstate. I now feel that I am part of Psychology. I’m in the building instead of looking through a window from outside. That helps me to feel more confident.

It’s much easier to think of where I’ve grown then where I haven’t. That’s probably because we don’t know what we don’t know. But here are some directions in which I’d like to grow more:

  • I’d like to become more compassionate towards myself and let my perfectionism become a bit quieter. I’ve managed it in some areas, but not so much in others – usually by challenging myself to think about what I’d think about clients, or what I’d think about people I love. And I think it’s my own perfectionism that is driving some of my desire to be more compassionate, because I know that it what I need to continue to grow in my career. As perfectionism and self-compassion are more or less opposite in nature, I think there’s a tension between the two that I need to resolve.
  • I’d like to continue to build ways of better ‘switching off’ after work. I’m very good about keep my work phone off and not checking emails after I’m finished work or on weekends. I’ve long accepted that my work is a big part of who I am, that I’m someone who likes to spend a lot of time thinking about work, and that I would need to be a robot to never be impacted by the lives of the vulnerable people I work with. At the same time, lots of people I know from different contexts ask me how I fit everything in and whether I actually sleep, and doing my 4+2 does mean additional work and professional development time for me. Food for thought. And there are no easy answers to this one I think. I’ve never met anyone who cares who doesn’t experience challenges.

But what about you, reader? Where have you grown? Where would you like to grow next?