Andrew kindly asked me to write a piece for his blog. Perhaps two months ago. I feverishly got writing and then thought it was crap and a little too preachy. Hence the lag time from his request to this posting. He also gave me some ideas to write about. But I didn’t like any of them. Not because I think they were bad ideas. Warning signs of ill metal health, top tips to improve mental health, what therapy is, etc, are all very important topics. But I think I wanted my first post to be a little less serious and perhaps give a sense of who I am as a psychologist, but more importantly as a person.
I hope that by reading on you will find that I am just another neurotic human being that has trained to apply psychological theory to reduce suffering and improve wellbeing. I cannot read minds, I don’t decide if people are good/bad or crazy/insane, and I certainly don’t have a magic wand (although I was given one by a client and the end of our sessions. She told me that one of the important lessons she had learnt was that there was no magic wand and that managing life with mental health difficulties was really about a lot of hard work).
I still find what I do to be really quite strange. Not the mental health side of it, but more how I experience it as a psychologist. Clients often say “you will never believe this…”, because what they are telling me shocks them and often they have never spoken about it before. In my head (and sometimes out loud) I say nothing you say will surprise me. And it doesn’t. I feel comfortable talking about suicidal thoughts, watching people cry, and holding on to really deep and personal secrets. I now equate it to the surgeon who finds sticking his hands into the guts of a living person to be just another day at the office. And this is what makes me the abnormal one in the therapy room. What happens in people’s minds when they go through periods of anxiety and depression, struggle with eating disorders, depersonalisation, delusions, substance dependencies etc. just seems to make sense to me now.
The comfort I have being with distress is potentially dangerous. I have to keep on my toes and remember that the experience for the person I am with is very new, very scary, and often riddled with shame. Empathy is key to my job.
I get imposter syndrome. This is when I sense that I really don’t know what I am doing and can’t get my head around the fact that I help people deal with some of the most devastating and debilitating circumstances in their life. It tends to be worse after a long holiday, however it disappears as soon as I see my first client of the day. Luckily I learnt on a reputable website that people with imposter syndrome tend to work hard and do well at their job.
I am constantly in awe of the bravery of the people that sit across from me in the therapy room. Talking about the shit in their lives, their sensitivities, and shameful experiences is not easy, but luckily for me it tends to be really helpful if done in the appropriate therapeutic context. One thing I have had to get used to is meeting so many nice, genuine, and interesting people. Knowing all too well that our relationship will remain therapeutic and never cross the boundary into friendship. This is really important for therapy to work and be safe.
I have over the years come up with some phrases that have stuck with me. They seem weird at first and that is perhaps why I like them. They work for me as reminders of the way I would like to engage with life. Here are three that come to mind. I hope you like them:
1. Treat yourself like a dog.
We have had a dog for five years now and I think we may spoil him a little too much. But if we were being proper dog owners we would be careful of what we put in his mouth (food and drink), give him regular exercise, make sure he had good rest (not being poked and prodded by our children), and experienced fun/love. If we didn’t do these things for our dog we would be considered bad owners.
2. Treat people like ice cream.
If you can create an ice cream that everyone likes you would be a billionaire. Häagen-Dazs would go out of business and Ben and Jerry would be sending spies into your ice cream shop. But I don’t think this is possible. Keep the day job. Everyone has different tastes in ice cream and that is fine. No one ice cream can be liked by all. And there is no point eating ice cream that you don’t like. Except perhaps at weddings and funerals.
3. Don’t mistake your mind for yourself.
We are all constantly thinking (about 250 words a minute). We don’t choose what we think and we can have ridiculously funny, anxiety-creating, and downright horrible thoughts. But our thoughts are not who we are. We are the place where are thoughts occur. We can make that place a kind place, a curious place, and a gentle place. We can decorate the place with our values (a big word for psychologists right now). Values are the things that we consider to be important (perhaps family, or friendship, or peace). Values can also be thought of as the adverbs for our life. My daughter is currently doing year six SATS so I know what an adverb is. An adverb is a word that describes a verb (a doing word). I listened COMPASSIONATELY. I watched CAREFULLY. I danced GRACEFULLY (my wife would laugh at me writing this one. Dad dancing is my speciality when I have the guts to get on the dance floor).
I have been told that it can take a while to understand my humour and that I can often speak in metaphor. For some reason this is just the way I think. However, if I don’t make sense then I want people to tell me so. I was once told by a esteemed professor that a theory is only any use if you can describe it to your bartender.
That’s enough from me for now. I hope it has given you some sense of me as a person and as a psychologist. And to be honest I hope you found it entertaining and somewhat interesting. Maybe even a little thought provoking. Bust most of all I hope it helps with Andrew’s brave mission to reduce the stigma around mental health and contribute to better mental health for all of us. So thank you Andrew for helping me take my first step into the land of the blog. Perhaps old dogs can learn new tricks if they have a good teacher.
Martin is a clinical psychologist at the Cardinal Clinic in Windsor where he is head of psychological therapies. He also works at the NHS. I've had the privilege of working with him, receiving his support and deciphering his metaphor for over the last 2 years. I'm really pleased he's been able to contribute his views and experiences to this blog - he proclaims to have no idea what he's doing but his writing leaves me unconvinced.
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