“Help others.” This is my personal mission statement I shared with you when I wrote my first blog Why I Became a Psychologist where I described how I came to be a Psychologist with influences from both social/personal and educational areas of life intersecting. This blog addresses the other side of my development. There are several reasons why I should not have become a Psychologist (but did anyway), and I feel compelled to write and share with you. This is the story of my personal development. If I expect people to open up with me and share information they do not share with anyone else, I should hold myself to the same standard. I hope this piece of writing allows you to know more about me personally, but I also have the goal of inspiring personal development-however this happens to look for you. Because my work is really about helping others develop and overcome some of the obstacles of their past. People are capable of extraordinary change. I am humbled and privileged to be a part of this growth every time I meet with clients. At the same time, I am a living example of change. And, I am just getting started on my personal development. I can hardly wait to see what the future holds for me. I hope you feel the same about your development and growth.
Where I Came From
First, I came from a value system (influenced by culture, family, peers, etc.) which is not consistent with the values and ethics of my profession. Psychology advocates for respect of and an appreciation for diversity in many forms. However, I grew up in a family full of racism, homophobia, and sexism. These forms of bigotry were also a large part of the culture of the time and both family and culture had influences on me before I became educated and experienced in the world. For example, before I began college, I was covertly racist. You may know the kind: the white kid who laughs at racist jokes of others without doing anything to stop these micro-aggressions. Also, I was actively homophobic along with most of my peers. This was easier to get away with because it was much more acceptable in the culture of the time. I was more apt to make homophobic jokes, say the term, “gay” in a derogatory way, and use a ‘safety’ seat between me and a friend in the movie theater. The most acceptable form of discrimination I remember from my childhood was sexism. It was so much a norm that I barely recognized when it was happening. Like trying to explain water to a fish. It did not occur to me how damaging these forms of discrimination were until later in life. I am ashamed of this part of my past.
At the same time I was very limited in my awareness of privilege. I do not know if I missed something (most) everyone else knew about or if privilege was an unpopular concept during my childhood. I grew up in the ‘80’s and as I go back to watch movies from this era (which is the best way to spend a lazy afternoon in my opinion), I am surprised by the amount of racism, misogyny, and homophobia. I was not aware of it back then, and I laughed along in my ignorance. Also, I had very little exposure to most forms of diversity. The high school I attended in DeSoto, Texas (Go Eagles!) was ethnically diverse, but there were few people of different religions or countries of origin, no openly gay students, and individuals with disabilities were teased. Being a white, heterosexual male it was easy to ignore power differences among different groups of people. After all, it did not harm me. I did not suffer. I was in the majority. So, add self-centered to the list of my characteristics. In other words, the opposite of my mission statement about helping others. Being self-centered is common for someone during adolescence, so I have some self-compassion about it, but it also drives me to make up for my past transgressions.
Because of my education and social experiences, I have worked hard to overcome these marginalizing values of my youth. For example, I had a close friend during college (Jeff) with whom I worked. We were restaurant servers together for a summer. When he came out to me as gay, I simplified the issue into two options in my mind: 1) I could hold onto my homophobic values and lose a friend or 2) I could do the more difficult thing of changing my values and keep my friendship with Jeff. Obviously, I chose the latter. I have learned to become aware of and examine my biases, intervene with others when witnessing micro-aggressions, and understand the perspective of others. I have been very intentional about putting myself in situations in which I am a minority to get a taste of this experience while recognizing I could easily get back to my many areas of demographic privilege (e.g., simply driving off campus of the minority institution where I worked). I have become an ally and advocate for others which fuels my passion for social justice issues, and I now have values consistent with my profession of Psychology. This includes leading trainings and presentations on topics such as how to be a supportive ally, heterosexism, and homophobia. I learned how to have conversations with people about these issues in a way which reduces defensiveness (including my own), guilt, and misunderstandings. This growth has been exhilarating and challenging at times. I have lost relationships (including family) over my change in values with absolutely no regrets. Except for one regret: I wish I had made these changes sooner.
Over-controlled Order vs. Unrestricted Chaos
Because of several of my childhood experiences I have a strong preference for order over chaos. I came from a dysfunctional family system which included substance use, poverty, instability, and domestic violence. My childhood and adolescence were chaotic in several different ways. So, I understand and have a lot of self-compassion about why I prefer order over chaos. I like predictability, stability, and consistency because these were missing during the early part of my life. More than once I would come home from school to learn we were unexpectedly moving that day due to being evicted. This preference for order is part of my character and I really appreciate the traits of consistency and stability in other people. Also, this is one of the reasons I really enjoy jigsaw puzzles. It brings order to chaos as every piece has its place.
However, preferring order over chaos is not exactly the best approach to the people I serve. Often their lives are chaotic, so it takes some comfort with and familiarity for a lack of order. While at the same time remaining calm, or at least appearing to remain calm. For example, on the surface a duck swimming looks very serene; but if you looked under-water you would see a lot of movement. This has been hard for me. It would be easier if every client came in and predictably discussed their issues in a rational manner. But, it is unrealistic and so I have had to adjust so I could be mentally present for them. Learning to tolerate ambiguity, irrationality, and chaos while understanding these are not necessarily destructive was something which took time. Chaos is part of the change process and I have learned to trust the process (thanks to a late mentor, Don).
Related to my increased comfort with chaos is my familiarity with ambiguity. One of the skills of a good therapist is to be able to sit in the space of uncertainty with clients (“betwixt and between”), sometimes never getting to see the decisions or results of the therapy. Another reason I like puzzles: the satisfaction of seeing the final product. I have not always been comfortable nor familiar with ambiguity. Earlier in life I could be described as somewhat compulsive. For example, before we were married my wife stopped by my house to write me a sweet little love note one day. I called her back and immediately asked her where the cap to my pen was. Talk about missing the importance of the moment! But, back then I mistakenly figured there was an answer or place for everything and believed calm and peace would come from putting everything in order. I did not see the value in chaos or ambiguity. Work with clients and my education along with becoming a father have taught me there are not always clear answers for the questions of life and it can be okay to ride a wave of uncertainty. Now I often get feedback about how calm I am (or appear to be) which surprises me when I am freaking out on the inside-which happens more than I would like to admit.
I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying
I did not have the luxury of growing up with empathy role models. When I was hurting emotionally the messages I got were typical masculinity themes of ‘suck it up’ or ‘walk it off’ or ‘boys don’t cry’. No wonder I didn’t understand emotions of others. I could not understand nor receive support for my own emotional experience. I didn’t even quite understand exactly what empathy was until graduate school. But, it is a cornerstone skill to my work. I’m surprised they let me into my graduate program at Texas Tech University (Go Red Raiders!) until I realize they saw potential in me and not a final product. They were prepared to teach me empathy, and I was a willing student.
More generally, Psychology is a woman/female dominated field and influences from traditional masculine value systems taught me anything feminine was to be avoided at all costs. I grew up believing the feminine is weak and the masculine is strong. It is a challenge to overcome this type of limited thinking. Masculinity was a large part of my upbringing with 3 older brothers and a male dominated household. Being the youngest, I was often in the least powerful position of any conflict, and there was a lot of conflict, especially with my next oldest brother, Derrick. Derrick, for whatever reason, enjoyed torturing his younger brother physically and emotionally despite the large age difference. For example, he would convince me of lies which still have a hint of impacting me today. I cringe every time I hear the word, “Volvo” because I was deviously taught at the age of 6 it was the worst swear word imaginable. He would also tease me in front of my peers. A “Welcome Home, Pooh Bear!” sign at our mailbox and every other junior high student on the bus laughing at me as I got off is a memory which comes to mind. And, he often avoided punishment for such abuse! What these experiences taught me was the emotions of others (including hurt) are meaningless and success comes from over-powering another person (even if they are quite a bit younger) mentally and physically. These experiences and culture also taught me to pretend I was right and strong which meant not expressing feelings, unless it was anger. It became physically and emotionally dangerous to share my hurt with others.
“I never could admit when I was wrong, man
even when I felt it in my bones.
I always thought it meant I was a strong man.
And, I wondered why I was alone.”
So, there is a lot of baggage I had to overcome to become an effective and empathic therapist. Part of this work was done with my own therapy which has been extremely helpful. Another aspect of this growth has been putting distance between myself and toxic, dysfunctional relationships/people while putting more energy in my healthy support system. Not easy things to do, but totally worth it. Again, absolutely no regrets for the changes I have made. As I began to become an empathic person, I would thirst for more knowledge. I read books on the subject including Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman (more on this in the next section). I would ask supervisors and mentors for resources and feedback about my empathy. It became something I worked on all the time. Like any skill, it was difficult and full of challenges in the beginning while becoming easier with practice and experience. I often use momentum analogies with my clients to normalize and prepare them for their change processes. Now I see the world much differently and cannot imagine living or working without empathy.
Add Emotional Intelligence to the List
When I was first learning about Psychology during college, I was not very emotionally intelligent. Think Michael Scott from The Office, but much less extreme. Saying things without consideration for the potential responses or feelings of other people. Taking jokes way too far. I wonder where this came from. Not really: it was Derrick. But, I was also sensitive and sincerely loyal to the people I cared about.
Part of emotional intelligence is the ability to be comfortable with yourself and to extend this comfort by being genuine and sincere with others. Since I spent a lot of time not comfortable with myself and being socially anxious for decades, the latter part of this was impossible. I was constantly worried what others thought of me or about the possibility of doing something embarrassing. I would practice what I wanted to say beforehand to get it right even with the most casual of conversations. Part of this was due to a childhood speech impediment which comes out every now and then in the form of mumbling as an adult. I have heard stories about no one understanding anything I said before I attended speech therapy during elementary school, but my brother Derrick ‘interpreted’ for me. I cannot imagine what he described me saying, but I am guessing it was not for my benefit. Also, I did not feel great about my looks and consistently compared myself with other people, often unfavorably. This guy is taller than me. She has a much better fashion sense. I wish I could have hair like them. Anxiety breeds anxiety, partially due to an anxiety-avoidance loop. As an anxious person, I would avoid the things which would make me uncomfortable, like social interaction. This did not improve the situation any. It would make it worse and I would worry even more about my social skills because of my lack of practice.
This has been my most difficult work in personal development: getting to a point where I am comfortable enough with who I am to be myself and not worry how others might react. It took a lot of physical relaxation to get through scary moments for me as well as pushing myself to stop avoiding the uncomfortable interactions. I would put myself out there despite my fear and introduce myself to people. I would put my worries on the back burner and would often fake it until I made it. Also, I would be on the lookout for my tendency to judge others and myself and would actively change those thought patterns. Eventually I would worry less what others thought of me as my social skills grew and I matured which included increased comfort with who I consider myself to be. The book, Self-Esteem by McKay and Fanning, is a great resource to battle self-critical thinking.
Having the ability to be genuine and vulnerable is another step. It was easier to fake confidence and put myself out there. Then, I began being more genuine and sharing what I really thought and felt. Surprise flooded me when some people stuck around and did not treat me any different. I found my ‘tribe’ of friends who accepted me for who I am rather than some fake version of me. So, I owe a lot of credit for my growth to the people around me now-my current friends. Acceptance is a beautiful and empowering experience and I have tried to re-pay this kindness with every opportunity. I am still sensitive to rejection since I have a long-term history of rejection by both myself and others. I, now, simply choose to invest my energy into relationships where there is much more acceptance and this has made a world of difference to me and my self-esteem. Writing and publishing this blog which has some very personal details about me feels very vulnerable. I hope Brené Brown would be proud of me.
“My heart’s like an open book for the whole world to read.”
I’m not shy. I promise.
I have been an introvert for as long as I can remember. I have only recently become more accepting of this in myself. Books like Quiet by Susan Cain and talking with other introverts can go a long way to normalizing this less common personality trait. Psychology is often a social endeavor. In fact, it is classified as a ‘Social Science’. Typically the more introverted psychology students gravitate towards more academic positions filling their time with research, supervising, and teaching. I did not go that route despite encouragement from my mentor. I went the more extraverted route of training and pursuing professional positions in higher education counseling centers. Staff and committee meetings were brutal for me. 20-30 other people forced to be in the same room for hours at a time. I could sense the excitement from some of my extraverted colleagues as I continually checked the clock. In fact, for several semesters I opted to be on-call for emergency and walk-in appointments during staff meeting times just to limit this extraverted activity. Introverts are not un-social (definitely not anti-social which means something else entirely). Introverts receive their energy from within (the world of thoughts and feelings). One-on-one or small group interaction is fine for introverts, while large group situations can be energy draining. Like training hundreds of residential life staff every August: exhausting! Also, introverts abhor small talk. I prefer to get to know someone with a focus on the deeper stuff as soon as I can-even in a first meeting, although I recognize this breaks a social norm.
Through my career I have learned to find opportunities to help people in one-on-one situations mostly but have also increased my comfort with less introverted job duties. When I began teaching Introductory Psychology in graduate school, public speaking would send me into a panic. I would have most of the physical symptoms of panic attacks. Increased pulse-√. Shallow breathing-√. Sweating-√. Feeling like I need to urinate when I don’t-√ + embarrassment. With experience and physical relaxation strategies, I have come to love public speaking. It’s one of my favorite things to do nowadays. Another part of this development has been my social skills and working on social anxiety issues. With awareness, counseling, and support I have been able to conquer my social anxiety, practice social skills, and have become a really social person. In fact, I get questions all the time about my introversion given how social I appear in large and medium group situations. I can be social when I choose to be, but it is still exhausting.
A Little Help From My Friends
As previously mentioned, I did not discover Psychology until college. Back in my day, it was not common for high schools to offer Psychology as a course-at least where I attended. No one I had ever known had been a Psychologist or studied Psychology. Some people are fortunate enough to have a life-long mentor or role model. No such luck for me at first. I found and forged a path myself in the beginning. It would have helped a lot to have someone advise me on steps along the way in the early part of my educational/professional development. Also, I did not have many others pursue higher education in my family. Several of my extended family members were educated, but most were not people I was close enough with to have any real influence on me. My parents were no help in navigating college, both of them had dropped out. My Lubbock aunt thought I had joined a cult during graduate school because of how busy I was-true story. Graduate school was a very rare thing in my family and extended family which made it hard to explain. So, it was tempting to follow the paths of others and stop my education (i.e., stop incurring more student loan debt which I am still paying on) and begin working. I am grateful for my wife and parents for talking me out of such non-sense and continuing with my program.
Luckily, I found some mentors along the way once I got started. Dr. Susan Hendrick at Texas Tech University is amazingly supportive and very wise. Dr. Don Boswell at Oklahoma State University was crass, funny, and genuine. Dr. Pat Darlington in Stillwater is encouraging, assertive, and pushy in the best possible way. She sees potential in people even when they do not see it in themselves. Whatever your path, there are others who have been there before you. Find, collect, and cherish the wisdom, support, and the encouragement of these people along your journey even if you have to put in some extra effort in finding them.
It’s Dr. Sensitive Pants
I am a highly sensitive person. What this means is I experience emotions on a whole different level than most people. This can be an asset in my psychological work with regards to having developed empathy. However, it can also be a hindrance in some respects. I have trouble going out in public sometimes because I can pick up on the emotions of people around me, even if I don’t know them. I have learned over the years to tune them out. I have also learned to take care of myself when my energy level is low (e.g., alone time)-something extraverted family members and friends do not always understand. Additionally, I am very sensitive to criticism. Some people call me Mr. Sensitive Pants to which I correct them by reminding them I am a doctor. This was especially difficult during graduate school and my internship at Texas Woman’s University (not Women’s) as Psychology is a field in which the training involves being put ‘under the microscope’ in terms of have every nuanced action or inaction scrutinized by supervisors, peers, and faculty. This is done by video and audio recordings of sessions, live supervision behind a one way mirror, and co-therapy with others. As you might imagine, being sensitive to feedback and getting a lot of it over the course of several years can be a challenge. This is in addition to teaching evaluations, client satisfaction surveys, and course grades. There was just an overwhelming amount of feedback! I had to learn to use this feedback constructively taking solace in the good while correcting the bad.
Finally, one of my main ‘buttons’ is not being listened to. It’s a wonder I went into the field given I rely daily on the opportunity for people to listen to me or not. I was expecting to be automatically listened to upon my graduation. After all, I was a doctor-how arrogant of me! I figured once I became educated and got the title people would listen to me. I thought this would apply to older family members who never listened to me before and treated me like a child. But, this is not how things happened. Turns out, people tend to avoid advice. My family and friends knew me before graduate school and nothing changed from their perspective. Also, people are not great at listening at times, especially when they are distressed. This was a major source of frustration for me starting out in my career. Luckily, I stuck with it and got used to it by lowering my expectations to a more reasonable level and finding different ways of communicating. I have learned to use my sensitivity as a strength rather than a hindrance and highly value the importance of self-care.
Take Home Points
So, now I have developed these various qualities which make me a Psychologist, but they certainly did not come naturally-at least some of them. I guess the only qualities that came naturally (which I did not address in this blog focused on personal growth and development) were my ease of rapport with people, my inquisitive mind which seeks to know and understand, and how I tend to help others feel comfortable. I also have a pretty dry sense of humor and I am not yet sure how this helps people. Maybe a topic for a future blog. It can be easy for me to get lost in the weeds of all the things I need to think about and consider when I am with a client, but it seems most helpful to simply focus on being with them. Both the natural and developed qualities will come into play as needed, but I do my best work when I am my full self. Fully present. Fully empathic. Fully genuine.
· You are capable of changing your values and beliefs. It is hard work, but you get to choose what you believe and how this impacts your interactions with others.
Through growth, I have learned to be respectful and appreciative of those who are different from me and to advocate for those in less powerful/majority positions. Clients can expect to feel respect from me and not have the experience of me making assumptions about them. This has come with a lot of perspective taking and has not been easy to change the values and beliefs with which I was raised, but well worth it.
· If chaos scares you because of past experiences, it can be healing to learn to live with healthy chaos. Avoiding healthy chaos does not work and can lead to stunted growth. Continue avoiding unhealthy, destructive chaos which is a healthy and justified protection mechanism.
I have learned to become comfortable with chaos and a lack of order at times with the message that these are not necessarily destructive but rather a part of the change process. Clients can be in chaos and not have to ‘pull themselves together’ for my benefit. I will accompany them in their pain and disorder in whatever form it occurs while trusting this ‘soul’ work will lead to progress.
· Empathy is a skill. Just like any skill it is developed with practice. Giving up and saying you are just not an empathic person is a copout.
I have learned empathy. This helps ensure my clients feel heard and understood.
· Being comfortable with yourself and genuine with others is key to healthy psychological living. If there is something you reject in yourself-deal with it. Have some self-compassion and acceptance about aspects of yourself you are unable or unwilling to change.
Carl Rogers has been an inspiring and challenging icon in the field of Psychology who emulated genuineness and sincerity even at great risk. This sincerity allows my clients to know what I think and feel without having to ask. This also makes it easier for me to connect with others.
· Introversion is healthy. Learn to manage it and know it does not mean you cannot be social. It is an energy issue, so take care of your needs by having plenty of alone or one-on-one time, especially after a large social event.
I have learned to manage my energy due to being an introvert and valuing this trait rather than judging myself. I can share this appreciation and wisdom with clients who are also introverted and with clients who deal with others’ introversion.
· Role models are necessary for goals. They can provide support, guidance, and push you to work on areas in yourself you may not even be aware of. Find ones you can trust fully.
I am not sure where I would be without the role models I have had throughout my development, but I am sure I would not be nearly as effective with clients. I know there are times when I needed their help more than I communicated and their presence supported me more than they have known. I plan to return this level of support with others.
· Being sensitive is okay, but you might have extra challenges others do not have to deal with. This can be managed so you can function effectively and learn to enjoy your emotional world rather than be in a constant state of hurt or fear.
I have spent a lot of time judging myself for my sensitivity and feeling hurt or rejected by others who had a hard time accepting this aspect of me. This time is over. I have been able to turn this self-perceived ‘weakness’ to a strength and this guides my relationships. It still has its challenges at times, but I feel much more in-control and strengthened by this characteristic. Also, this helps me when I am normalizing to my more sensitive clients (and others). The look on their faces when they hear this trait has a label and is something which can be managed is priceless and well worth the suffering I have experienced in my personal life.
Aron, Elaine N. (1996). The highly sensitive person: How to thrive when the world overwhelms you. New York, NY: Harmony Books.
Cain, Susan. (2012). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York, NY: Broadway Paperbacks.
Goleman, Daniel. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
McKay, M., & Fanning, P. (2000). Self-esteem (3rd Ed.). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.