Psychologists are also human
When we decided to marry, a part of me was obviously very happy with taking this step, but there was also a part of me that knew that the type of marriage we wanted to enter would be, to say the least, a surprise for the Catholic side of my family. Because of the religious divide between me and my partner, we opted for the so-called interfaith marriage. After setting straight various church formalities, which were for us a good test of perseverance and patience in overcoming obstacles arising on our path, finally the time has come to give away wedding invitations. There wasn’t that many of them, but we had to do some travelling to visit relatives and chat over tea and pie. The people we invited were happy to hear about our wedding but also didn’t hide surprise at the information that it was going to be a mixed marriage ceremony. But during one such visit someone said a memorable thing that struck me: “You are a psychologist and you weren’t able to talk him into a normal marriage?”
Now, 10 years later, it’s easier to look at it from a distance. I remember, however, what kind of a shock it was for me at the time. When the question vibrated in my ears, I started to fight it back in my head, “It’s his personal thing” followed by “Well, that’s true, it speaks volumes about me as a psychologist and not in a good way” and wrapped up by “Hey, wait a minute, what exactly is their idea of what a psychologist does?”
What is a psychologist?
This question inspired me to write this article and elaborate on how the profession of a psychologist is perceived. At first, I myself fell into the trap of preconceptions what it is that a psychologist really does. What’s more, when choosing this field of study for my major, I was led by these expectations. Well, I imagined that thanks to studying psychology I would gain some secret access to other people’s inner worlds and knowledge of how a human being works, that is, I would know everything about you. Now, however, I understand my role in a completely different way and I want to apologize for those preconceptions both to myself and to all of you :-)
Although I no longer think about psychology this way, I get a lot of pearls of wisdom from other people on how they see the profession of a psychologist. I often hear statements like:
You can become a psychologist, too!
Funny as it may seem, what I am going to write now is actually not funny at all: in fact, everyone of us could have good access to their own and other people’s inner worlds, if only they created the right conditions for it to develop. These conditions are simple but not easy – they take some time, but also a lot of practicing mindfulness, developing empathy and withholding judgement. These are not secret ingredients available to a small group of psychologists. They are features as common and accessible to all people as, for instance, blood, but only some know how to use them while some have lost the access to them because of some blockages along the way.
So, each and every one of you could become a psychologist, if only you worked on the capabilities it takes. Interestingly, I didn’t acquire them during my studies, which gave me only theoretical knowledge. It has been after the graduation that I have gained (and still do) experience in refraining from judgement, showing empathy, mindfulness and listening. I dare say that I got ready to be a professional psychologist only after a few years of being in my own therapy process. Before that, I was in the dark and I am a bit ashamed that I hadn’t pulled my socks up sooner. I dare even say that every psychology student should undergo their own therapy at least once during the 5-year master studies.
The perception of this profession is entangled by another set of preconceptions. Well, it is often expected that a psychologist should:
- 1. get along well with everyone,
- 2. be in no conflict with anyone,
- 3. should be liked by everyone,
- 4. always react in the right way,
- 5. never get too carried away,
- 6. not have mood swings,
- 7. not show anger.
And not only other people expect all that from psychologists, but we psychologists often start to believe that these expectations are correct and that we are able to fulfil them and, all of a sudden, we are hoist by our own petard of perfectionism. We start to believe that a good psychologist is one who would never show any flaw, or mistake, or hesitation. This, in turn, makes us inflexible and inaccessible and ties a rope of perfectionism around our necks. We might want to seem like we have perfect marriages, perfect relations with children, perfect relations with colleagues, perfect reputation, perfect salaries, perfect academic achievements, perfect life, in general, because otherwise we will look bad as psychologists.
But here’s the kicker, a psychologist is also human! Just like a dentist can have cavities or an automobile workshop owner can have a broken car. We psychologists have the same emotions as others, therefore, we deal with various issues of our own, work on our behavioural patterns and automatic reactions. Greater self-awareness gives us better ground for self-work and choice, but we are no saints. We are subject to the law of gravity, too. We can make mistakes, turn white with rage, fall into self-judgement or self-pity and hear the voice of our inner critic just like everyone else.
There is no such thing as a perfect psychologist. Well, I haven’t met any yet. However, I know many who I look up to and admire for how they can tame their own flaws. These people, in order to change their impulsive reactions or behavioural patterns, take up their own therapy process, work under supervision, invest in self-development. What I love about them and what I love about this job is humility, which means that we are aware that neither we – psychologists, nor you – our clients, are or ever will be perfect human beings. Accepting this fact shall lift off the burden from both parties, but also give hope that together we can work on our internal and external worlds, which are no perfect either. One might want to conclude with a piece of advice: replace self-judgment with self-knowledge.
PS. My whole family survived our mixed marriage ceremony, and so did we ;-)