I have taken a break from my work as a Psychologist. It has been almost one year since I have worked full time in the field. I guess that at age 49 I was due for a mid-life work crisis and I certainly got one. I came late to Psychology, being a ‘mature age’ student at the ripe old age of 28. I ran away from my home and family after another developmentally well-timed crisis (marital break up) and decided to study Psychology.
I can’t say that I knew what Psychology was. I was aware of Psychological therapy, but at that stage counselling in Australia was a foreign concept that inspired all kinds of snide opinions about the ‘American-isation’ (or New York-isation) of our culture. I was drifting in life and felt that Psychology would give my life some sort of inner and outer discipline to follow. It seems to me that I often do not know the true intention of my life decisions until I am immersed in them. Only by entering into academic study and the field itself did I really begin to understand why I was so suited to and satisfied by the field of Psychology.
It is said that most people begin the study of Psychology because they wish to gain some insight into their own family of origin or adult relationships and into the confusion of their own thoughts, feelings and patterns. Many a counsellor has been motivated by the hostility, coldness or entanglements that existed in their relationship with their mothers or fathers. I can see that my baffling relationship with a loving but wounded mother most likely ignited my ambition to work in the field.
But I think that the reason why I felt so fulfilled and ‘right’ in my choice of work was because I have always felt a hunger to relate more deeply with people than every day life allowed. I have never understood social small-talk or the protection and deflection devices that people use to guard their inner lives. I have noticed that with protection, inevitably there is a castration of the ability to access spontaneity, expression and joy. I have loved my years in the counselling room because for me that room represents a place where humans can meet in all of the truth of the human experience. It is the place where people learn not to be afraid of their sadness, loss and anger, and to separate unquestioned fallacies regarding issues such as aloneness, separation, death, ageing from their more liberating reality.
I never became a rockstar counsellor and my style of therapy is not for everyone, but I have always kept in touch with my integrity whilst working as a psychologist. I had a particularly good university education in which I was encouraged to see research as more than statistics and evidence for pre-existing theories. I was encouraged to question, to observe, to take a perspective, to notice problems with theories and to point them out. In short, I was trained to think as a scientist and psychologist, not just to follow yesterday’s best practice methods or to blindly digest new research without first giving them informed, reflexive consideration.
As many counsellors know, it is difficult to find validation within our field. Validation from clients can often fit into a complex relationship of transference. Also, there are times when the discomfort of entering into a process of self-witnessing is so strong for a client that they are not left with a positive experience of therapy. Much of the healthy validation or support in this field comes from our colleagues. They may not be able to observe sessions, but they are able to get a sense of each others’ philosophies, techniques, or even a simple sense of each others’ insightfulness, compassion and kindness.
In my work as a Psychologist in the various not-for-profit services I have been employed at, most of the stress of the position has come from tensions and unjust practices occurring within the workplace; never from the behaviours or experiences of my clients. And it seems that this is the experience of many of my peers. The employment of managers and supervisors who know nothing of the field of counselling or the needs of its practitioners and certainly nothing about how to create healthy, creative, happy teams seems to be the norm. The ubiquitous micro-management styles, over-supervision and lack of access to external supervision goes unquestioned. Further, managers and supervisors often are not trained or willing to identify how vicarious trauma can materialise within the dynamics of the workplace.
I have been placed in the position of trying to speak out within the workplace and to navigate the, for me, frightening process of professional assertiveness. Although there have been some moments in which I have been acknowledged for my strength and intelligence, for the most part I have failed to stand up for myself and others in the workplace. And I allowed these failures to get the better of me. In March last year I decided that if Psychologists and other therapists do not have the ability to self-reflect; if therapists must endure bullying and ridiculous acts of jealousy, competitiveness and power-play often at the hand of fellow therapists, then it was a field that was not capable of practicing what it ‘preaches’.
So except from some contract work, I have stopped identifying myself as a counsellor and psychologist. I have begun retraining in another area. I will write more about that at some other time. It has been invigorating and I have been amazed at what happens to me when I dare to begin learning again; bringing all of my experience and training and applying it to a new field.
But life has not really let me move on. I find myself still engaged in discussions about therapy, best practice, the place of contemporary Psychology in the world and so on. I have not really found work elsewhere.
My work as a relationship therapist has taught me that the decision to end a relationship often occurs just as the opportunity to move into a deeper, richer phase of relating reveals itself. The moment of emancipation is often confused with failure. Irvin Yalom has described his role as a relationship therapist as that of ‘love’s executioner’ for this very reason. The idea of love often needs to die so that the truth of love can finally be born. The sexy glamorous notion of love ends, but maturity begins.
Last week I recognised that my time as a therapist has not ended. Not yet and not like this. Not in trauma and anger. Not in burn out. Not as a victim of ignorance and vindictiveness in the workplace. I am ready. I can’t be sure that the disillusionment I felt will re-emerge as illumination and maturity in my work, but I am prepared to find out. I have no idea of what will be different: in my workplace choices or in my way of being ‘in the room’; I am really travelling blind. Just the kind of journey I have always loved.