Do Less, Be More: A slightly cliché, but true, story of doing graduate school all wrong.

By Wendell Robinson, CPA Student Member

In July 2018, I got engaged. Amidst the excitement and reveling in the love I felt, I had a realization that stopped me in my tracks—I was too tired, too burnt out, and to overworked to enjoy the moment. When my fiancé and I were starting to plan the wedding date, I asked him if we could put the wedding off for two years because I didn’t think I had time in my graduate school schedule to show up for a wedding, much less plan one. He took a deep sigh, one look at me and said, “Are you going to put your life on hold forever? If it isn’t graduate school, it will be your career. When will we come first? When will you come first?”

 

His comment came at the end of a week where I turned in another report late, rushed into another, okay multiple, counseling sessions without thorough preparation, and wasn’t able to take my dog to the vet for a paw injury he had. As cliché as it sounds, when he said that, things fell into focus. I was averaging 30 direct client hours a week, plus at least 7 supervision hours, and clocking countless more with documentation, report writing, school assignments, being a TA and being in class. All great things for my resume, right?

 

For me, everything I was doing was tied to my desire to be “good-enough.” A good enough student. A good enough clinician-in-training.  If I could just do it all then maybe my imposter syndrome would melt away. Maybe looking good on paper would translate to being good. Turns out, I could not have been more wrong.

 

It is not my proudest moment, by any means, but it was the moment when things started to change. I had been so busy being insecure in my roles—as a supervisee, a student-therapist, a graduate school student, that I had stretched myself too thin. Sure, on paper I looked great but looking past the paper, at the actual work I was doing and the person I was being, was a grim sight. I was doing too much, and I was doing most of it poorly. I realized then that I had to cut back, say no, and slow down. I needed to be present.

 

A recent supervisor had been encouraging me to “show up” in the room with my clients. Frustrated at the feedback, I floundered to implement this in the room. I AM showing up, I would think angrily to myself. I watched and re-watched clips of myself in therapy and began to notice how not present I actually was. I watched myself try too hard to get things “right.” In essence, I was far from showing up, I was hiding out. Hiding behind theory, insecurity, and a desire to be a “good” therapist.

 

One day I was hiking with my dogs and took time to watch my yellow lab, Diamond. She had her nose to the ground, as she usually does, when she caught the scent of a rabbit several feet in front of her. She lifted her head, saw the rabbit, and chased. She didn’t catch the rabbit, but she put all of her effort into catching it in that moment. Diamond hadn’t been thinking about catching the rabbit before and probably wouldn’t think about it again after, but she poured herself into catching it in that moment. I thought to myself: that is what “showing up” really looked like. It wasn’t about planning, having the answers, or worrying about the future. Diamond showed me it is about being present for the chase. Being present enough to notice the smells, sights and sounds and only then can you pursue the chase wholly.

 

So, I’ve started emulating Diamond. I cut back my schedule so that I could take in the sights and smells, so that I could be present. I’ve been working to not “do” so much but to “be” more. It’s an uncomfortable place for me to be and I’ve noticed my mind trying to hook me with thoughts of not being good enough. Just yesterday I had the thought—what if this slowed-down schedule costs me the internship I want? What if I am missing out on an opportunity that will make me look like a better applicant?

 

Although the thoughts are present, I am not letting them hook me into behaviors that were not working. I could add another thing to my schedule, but I probably wouldn’t learn much from it because it would be too much. I may miss out on an opportunity by saying no to something, but I am gaining opportunities to truly learn, immerse myself in my training, and my relationships. Over the last several months I have begun to truly become the graduate student and clinician in training that I have wanted to be.

 

I’ve stopped worrying about how I look on paper and started focusing on who I am right now. I work every day to show up—with my supervisors, with my clients, my peers, my friends, my partner. I work to be present and like Diamond, to enjoy the chase.

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Perpetual Pupil Problems

By Sally McGregor, MC, LPCC

COPAGS Chair

I have spent the bulk of my life enrolled in school.  Granted, there were some hiccups along the way. I transferred universities, studied internationally, and there was a brief period in which I took classes only part time and worked 2-3 jobs just to get by. But mostly, I have been a full-time student, and only a part-time working and functioning human, forever.

While I forge through weeks of classes and clients, and weekends filled with homework assignments and other projects, I often neglect to pause and realize that I am lucky to be so busy. It is a privilege to have access to higher education, as there are numerous barriers to entry and legitimate reasons people are unable to complete their degrees (i.e. financial hardship, institutional racism, family obligations, cultural expectations, etc.) I am quite fortunate that each time I faced serious barriers to completing my programs – undergraduate, masters, and doctorate (pending!) – I was awarded the benefit of the doubt, and found that someone else supported my dreams and pushed me not to give up. This blog post intends to support my fellow graduate students in psychology with the particular schedule-related oddities that come along with being a perpetual student.

Academic life is made up of clearly defined beginnings and endings. For the most part, every academic year, semester, and quarter I finish my work, and shift into something entirely new. In undergrad this meant I took brand new classes every semester. My masters program added clinical work, and pretty soon each year I was working at a new practicum placement. In my doctoral program, our academic year is split into quarters rather than semesters, which means every 10 weeks I have a completely different course load. This is all coupled, of course, with ever shifting clinical work. One year I worked in a jail every week, and the next, a university counseling center. Some days I attend class from 8am to 8pm, and some days I commute across town to see clients in various specialty clinics. I often wonder if other graduate students in psychology can relate to enjoying the perpetual change, and the stimulation that is this constant newness of things. Some people prefer the stable, reliable schedule that characterizes the majority of the workforce. I love learning novel ideas, meeting new people, and exploring different environments and systems. I think I will miss the pace of change that is inherent in schooling in general, but especially prominent in graduate, clinical training.

My main coping skill for surviving graduate school has been a steadfast focus on the future. If I am taking a difficult class, I often remind myself that it will be behind me forever in less than 10 weeks. I cannot count the number of times I have declared to myself and to other students, “In (insert time frame) this (insert stressor) will be over!” I suspect other students use the same strategy as well. While this is not a totally problematic method for getting through difficult experiences, it will not necessarily translate well to long-term employment. I risk setting myself up to be constantly looking forward to Friday, to vacation, to a promotion, or to some future career move. It is important to remember that the pace of academic life is unique and is bound to eventually slow down. I aim to be more present, and to develop more tolerance for discomfort in the difficult times. I hope other graduate students also find small ways to enjoy each step in this arduous, but thrilling journey toward graduation day!

Taking A Break

By Leigh Kunkle, COPAGS Communications Chair

It sometimes is almost shocking to me how much my graduate training shows up outside of clinical settings. I feel it especially during the holidays when visiting family and childhood friends. While I am technically “off the clock”, being thoughtful, attuned and empathic in my interactions certainly does not go away. This is, all in all, a great thing. I feel grateful for clinical training that have emphasized integrating effective interpersonal skills in all situations. It is also exhausting at times, especially when the individuals with whom I am engaging are not making similar efforts.

In these more trying moments, I wonder what it means for a mental health professional/psychologist to “take a break”. Sure, I’m not writing notes or doing therapy, but am certainly employing skills vital to my professional success much more frequently than my peers who work in others fields. Again, I feel this is beneficial, even if it does require a great deal of mental energy at times. This is due, in part, to the fact that I believe social consciousness is an important aspect of practicing in clinical psychology and something one cannot just “turn off”. In other words, with an increase passion for addressing complex social issues in clinical work comes the same desire to address them in conversations with friends and family. And if I am going to “go there” with my loved ones (who invariably will not agree 100% with what I have to say), I better bring my handy dandy clinical skills along to help me out.

Now, this is not to say that being a psychologist requires one to have frustrating conversations with their family members about sociopolitical issues. But it seems fair to me that it involve having the wherewithal to manage difficult conversations when they do arise and mitigate conflict, even in an argument with a parent that feels uncomfortably reminiscent of your high school years.

So, even though it can feel as though I’m making more explicit efforts to be understanding in the midst of disagreement, I am quickly reminded that doing so is an important part of maintaining good relationships with loved ones, and that clinical skills are meant to be transferable, not conditional. While holding the boundary between being supportive and therapizing your family members doesn’t totally feel like a break, I’ve learned to enjoy the break from writing notes and take pride in the personal growth my graduate training has afforded me.

WANTED: Mental Health (Professional) Connection

By Alex Littleton, MA- COPAGS Programming Chair

Hoping to find cool events to meet other mental health professionals, I recently googled “Denver Mental Health Networking.” To my dismay, plenty of options came up, but only for folks WITH mental health issues (not for those treating it).

Denver has done a great job at making spaces for folks with mental illness to get together and connect. We have companies such as Project Helping, which offers volunteer opportunities for folks with mental illness. We have Colorado Mental Wellness Network, which connects people in recovery from mental illness through workshops and community events. What we DON’T have is a space for mental health professionals to meaningfully connect. Yes, we have conferences. And yes, we have training events. But we don’t have a lot of informal fun.

The implication of confidentiality and client privacy can lead us to feel as if we, as professionals, must also be private. As much as we need client confidentiality, we often over-extend this privacy in a way that siloes us, both socially and professionally.

Our work feels private, so we become private.

We’re further separated by private practice work, which -unless it’s a collaborative group practice- does little to create natural opportunities to connect.

So why not create spaces for Denver mental health professionals to connect…?

This January, the Colorado Psychological Association will be hosting their first Denver Mental Health Networking Series event. We’ve been working with local community partners, including New Image Brewery, Project Helping, and GRIT Digital Health, to host a fun, FREE networking event for mental health professionals in Denver.

The event will be held on Thursday, January 24th from 6-9pm. It will feature free beer, hands-on volunteer activities, a food truck, and an interactive networking space at a local start-up in downtown Denver. The idea is to connect a mix of students, professionals, and mental health advocates in the community to share ideas, learn about resources, drink beer, and have fun!

***For information about free tickets, please email COPAGS Programming Chair, Alex Littleton, at Alex.Littleton@du.edu. *Space is limited, and tickets will be distributed on a first come, first serve basis*

Massage Therapy

By Alex Littleton- Programming Chair

During a 30-minute chair-massage that counted as VA training hours (I know, sweet deal), I got to thinking about pain relief. I’ve struggled with back pain for the better part of the last decade, and was quick to volunteer for a free treatment at a massage school down the street from the Colorado Springs VA Clinic.

As the massage therapist worked through the various knots and tension spots in my lumbar area, I felt immediate relief. As the session woefully came to an end, I remember thinking, “wow, it would feel GREAT to have this every week.” And indeed it would- massages make me feel good!

But I’ve struggled with my body long enough to know that weekly massages won’t solve my problem long term. As an astutely observant yoga teacher recently pointed out (what up Stephen!), I have a bum ankle that causes my left foot to turn too far inward when I stand or walk. This causes my knee to rotate, which in turn contributes to the misalignment of my hips. Hello back problems!

Although the pain shows up in my back, the root of the problem is structural- my back pain isn’t the problem, it’s the symptom. The root cause of the pain is further upstream (or in my case, downleg).

Being the broke grad student I am, it wouldn’t be a good investment to pay for weekly massages. Sure, it feels pretty dang good, but I’d have to continue coming back week after week to receive the healing benefits. If I really want to fix my problem, I’ll need to address this bum ankle.

As an early-career therapist, I’ve seen myself become a massage therapist for my clients. I want to help people feel less pain (which, no surprise, is often what my clients want too). After all, I joined this helping profession because I like to help.

But pain relief can’t be the only goal. If the client needs to come in week after week to receive the healing benefits of my therapeutic listening skills, then I might be treating the symptom and not the problem.

For example, if I identify “depression” as the problem, I might use my listening skills, validate the client, and attune to their emotional experience. And this may have a healing effect on the client in the room.

But looking upstream, I may find that the depression is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.  Maladaptive behaviors, inflexible attitudes, and negative self-concepts- these all could be the bum ankles that keep the back pain coming back again and again.

I’m not suggesting that emotional validation and empathy are unimportant- they’re crucial for treatment. But for beginning therapists, it’s important to understand that by focusing solely on symptoms, you may be missing the long-term, structural, and behavioral components of distress.

It could be possible that the depression and subsequent emotional repair by the therapist is part of a reinforcement pattern that keeps the client stuck in life. This would mean that we’re passively participating in keeping a client stuck with our repeated efforts to heal them.

In the same way massages may help relieve back pain, therapeutic attunement may help relieve emotional pain. And while temporary relief may feel good (for both you and the client), it’s also important to look upstream for any bum ankles that might keep the problem coming back.

Text-a-Therapist: Psychotherapy in the Digital Age

By Sally McGregor, MC, NCC, LPCC

COPAGS Programming Chair

 

Online therapy is not just a fleeting fad, but rather a paradigm shift in our profession, and it should be treated as such. Life is increasingly automated, and numerous services and transactions exist entirely online. The same is true of psychotherapy. Some consumers are determining that it is more practical to utilize our services from the privacy and comfort of their living rooms. Rather than resist this change, perhaps we should embrace it.

Did I just call therapy patients “consumers”? Let me explain. I am extremely uncomfortable with regarding clients as consumers in the context of the actual therapy. Words are important, and we should watch how we use them. We stop doing our job the minute we begin to relate to our clients more as paying customers than as people seeking an overall more satisfying and meaningful life. However, as professionals seeking to provide a service, we also need to consider that our clients are demanding that we become more tech savvy, in some of the same ways that non-medical service providers are. On a macro level, considering our patients as consumers allows us to think about how to make psychotherapy accessible to as many people as possible. Truthfully, I also think resistance to change is futile. In any profession, if you do not adapt to the demands of a changing world, and modernize as the technology does, you are bound to be left behind. So, it is time to take this whole distance therapy phenomenon a lot more seriously.

Telepsychology is the umbrella term for any interaction with a psychologist through a website, phone, or mobile app. It can be attractive to people who otherwise may not interested or able to attend in-person appointments. For example, people who are housebound with mobility issues can find virtual therapy extremely useful. That being said, the use of technology places a pretty tangible barrier between the client and their psychologist. For relational therapies, which place an emphasis on the interpersonal, moment-to-moment process as a healing factor, I can understand the trepidation on the part of professionals. How much do we lose when the complexity of human connection is reduced to an exchange of text messages? Ideally, you would be able to use a HIPPA compliant video conferencing app to avoid sacrificing face-to-face contact, and a real-time conversation. But, even then, technology can still feel like a barrier.

On the other hand, it is interesting to consider whether treatment entirely via text message could be therapeutic. More than one of my clients (particularly my adolescent clients) spend a portion of their session with me reviewing text message exchanges they have had with their romantic interests and friends. This is clearly an opportunity for them to illuminate and process the interpersonal issues they are experiencing. I realized the amount of emotional investment they place in these forms of communication. Entire arguments are initiated and resolved via iMessages. If text messages are one of the most significant and meaningful ways in which they communicate with other people, who is to say text-therapy cannot be beneficial as well?

I do not want to end this blog post without acknowledging that there are important issues with online therapy, and that this post is a very small part of a much larger conversation. At this juncture, it can be difficult to secure insurance coverage for such services. Technology frequently fails to work correctly and concerns about confidentiality are an entirely new beast when your communication is over the internet. Most importantly, considering how you will respond to a crisis situation becomes very important when your client has never stepped foot into your office, in real life. However, for those clients who live in remote areas, or who otherwise experience barriers to attending therapy in person, we have an obligation as professionals to consider the options. When our clients have transformed how they communicate with others, why should we be so determined to sticking to our old forms of communication?

 

COPAGS Board Elections

Are you interested in shaping the future of the Colorado Psychological Association of Graduate Students (COPAGS)? Several of our board seats are open and interested psychology doctoral students in the State of Colorado are invited to apply. Involvement in COPAGS is a great chance to gain leadership experience, network and collaborate with psychologists in our state who are members of the Colorado Psychological Association (CPA), and represent the interests of fellow graduate students in our field.

The open positions are Chair-Elect and Advocacy Chair. Position Descriptions:

  • Chair-Elect – organize and document meetings, act as contact for CPA student members, support activities of other board members and the Chair, act as back-up to attend bi-monthly CPA meetings. This role has a 3-year commitment (Chair-Elect in year 1, Chair in year 2, Past-Chair support resource in year 3). In the first year, responsibilities will include solely COPAGS tasks (i.e., planning board meetings, being the main contact person for student members) to allow time to understand what is needed to run the student executive board, as well as to familiarize themselves with the various roles and expectations for CPA. In the second year, this person will be the Chair and will be an active board member for the Colorado Psychological Association, including a vote on each initiative that the board will address when the CPA executive board meets (every other month). The last year you will serve as a mentor for the current Chair.

 

  • Advocacy Chair – responsible for leadership projects geared towards advocating for Colorado graduate students and/or disenfranchised groups. Activities of prior advocacy chairs have included: facilitating an event about refugee mental health, publicizing and participating in a social media town hall to connect graduate students with a senator supporting mental health reform, and connecting COPAGS members with CPA Psychologists to increase COPAGS’ presence within CPA. The scope of the Advocacy Chair position is in no way limited to the activities of previous Advocacy Chairs, and the new Advocacy Chair can make their responsibilities as narrow or broad as they wish. All that we ask is that the new Advocacy Chair be passionate about giving a voice to individuals who may not have the power to speak for themselves, and about building and nurturing an empowered community of Colorado graduate students.

The application deadline is Sunday, June 10. Please email your resume / CV and a brief cover letter in one PDF document to the incoming COPAGS Chair, Kait Ross, at kaitlin.ross@du.edu. Please describe your interest in the organization and position, as well as what you hope to accomplish as a board member. COPAGS board members must be a member of the Colorado Psychological Association to be on our board. The new term starts on July 1. Please contact Kait if you’d like to learn more about these roles!

CPA Website: https://www.coloradopsych.org/

What is Your Responsibility and What is Not?

By Christy Jersin Woods, Academic/Research Chair

 

In my program we get the privilege of supervising masters and doctoral students for a supervision practicum course. This semester, I was assigned to a couples and family practicum supervising masters-level therapists in their second practicum. My supervision is always triadic, as our couples and family practicum practices with cotherapy teams, meaning our clients see two counselors at once. In an effort to honor the systems at work, I have two supervisee teams that I meet with for triadic supervision on a weekly basis. Given that I am in my first supervision practicum, I also make an effort to meet with each of my supervisees individually to understand how their supervision experience has been and ways I can improve as a supervisor.

Recently, I met with a supervisee in which her burning question was, “How do I balance sticking with the emotion of the family while also giving the family advice on how to fix their problem?” I was struck by her question. Surely, I’ve had that question before, and surely, I’ve had a client who just begged me to fix it. I remember clearly a client who flat out asked me, “What do I do?” and in that moment I felt compelled to fix it. I wanted to fix my client.

And that’s not all I wanted to fix.

I wanted to fix my friend’s rocky relationship with her longtime partner. I wanted to fix the way my parents related to my brother who is on the autism spectrum. I wanted to fix my mentee’s home life. I wanted to fix my partner’s anxiety and depression. I wanted to fix everything. And then at some point, one by one, I realized I couldn’t fix anyone. I could be the best friend, the best daughter, the best mentor, and the best partner and no matter my efforts, I couldn’t fix anyone. I simply couldn’t do it.

So when my supervisee asked me how to balance between letting the family sit in their despair and giving them advice on how they could fix their “problem” I asked myself, is this my supervisee’s responsibility? What is her role as a therapist? Is it to manufacture a solution to whatever her client’s problem may be? So I turned it back on her and I asked, “What is your role as someone’s therapist?” and after some debate she came up with many roles none of which included being a client’s problem solver.

And then it hit me.

It is not our responsibility to fix our clients. Just like it is not our responsibility to fix our friends, or our parents, or our mentees, or our partners.

Our responsibility is to ourselves. To build our own awareness, to address our biases, to be reflective and responsive to our clients.

We may guide our clients to the mirror, but it is up to them to look.

So let them look.

 

Self-Compassion Continued…

by Kait Ross

 

This is a follow-up on the topic of Self-Compassion, which Elizabeth Shum addressed in a 2017 post. Really, it’s a rallying call for increased self-compassion in psychology graduate students.

Self-compassion is defined as self-kindness (rather than self-judgment), mindfulness (instead of rumination), and common humanity (instead of isolation; Neff, 2003). Self-compassion has been associated with improved well-being, including lower levels of anxiety, depression, rumination, shame, and stress and higher levels of happiness, curiosity, optimism, life satisfaction, gratitude, and social connectedness.

Like our clients, we are each on a journey with ourselves. Improvement in our relationship to ourselves can have an important impact of the quality of our current lives, our relationships, and our future well-being. You may find yourself talking with clients about self-compassion and helping them to increase this. How are you doing though? Are you finding ways to care for yourself as you endeavor to help others? One study reported that 25-41% of therapist trainees experience anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and work adjustment (Boellinghaus, Jones & Hutton, 2013). Clearly, many of us could use some support and new skills to help us manage the difficulties of life as a psychology graduate student.

A leading researcher in self-compassion, Kristin Neff, has a website full of useful resources and meditations that are free for you to access. Please find it here: http://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/. You can also brainstorm your own strategies for increasing self-compassion in the realms of physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual well-being. What are you already doing in these areas? What might you add to your life to enhance self-care in one of these areas? Even 10 minutes of practicing self-compassion each day can help.

As we work toward our future careers, I hope that we can prioritize our own well-being and set an example for our clients by practicing these skills and modeling the importance of self-compassion.

 

 

 

 

Boellinghaus, I., Jones, F. W., & Hutton, J. (2013). Cultivating self-care and compassion in psychological therapists in training: The experience of practicing loving-kindness meditation. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 7(4), 267-277.

Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion:  An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself.  Self and Identity, 2(2), 85-102.

Neff, K. D. (2018). Self-Compassion Guided Meditations and Exercises. Retrieved from http://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/.

Funny Therapy

by Leigh Kunkle- Communications Chair

At the risk of losing you right off the bat, I’m going to start this post off with a cliché and say I am a huge believer that laughter is the best medicine. I know some of you might be rolling your eyes, but in all seriousness, I think there is a place for humor in nearly all of our most difficult moments. The situation itself may not be funny but being able to laugh about something when things are hard can be extremely powerful. And I don’t know about you, but nothing cheers me up faster than a good laugh.

I believe I have a pretty healthy sense of humor and it has in many ways shaped my relationship with friends and family and how I cope. While humor is not the sole way I connect with others or manage my stress, I’d be lying if I said it was not towards the top of the list. However, when I started grad school, I was not sure how it was supposed to fit into my clinical work. I spent most of my first year treading too lightly when it came to letting my sense of humor show in session. Part of the reason is that doing so actually felt pretty vulnerable, like a self-disclosure of sorts. Now none of us want to feel like therapy robots to our clients, but one’s sense of humor can be a very personal thing and sometimes it is much easier to hide it away than figure out an appropriate way to share it with them. No surprise, this muffling of a big part of myself got in the way of connecting with my clients. When I finally started to learn how to bring my sense of humor into the room is when I felt like I was really showing up.

Now I’m sure there are people on both sides of this coin; they either always or never use humor with a client. In my experience; like the answer to nearly every other question I’ve ever asked in this program; it depends. There are clients who are not inclined to make a joke during session, with whom I have connected in ways unrelated to my sense of humor. Others tend more easily towards laughter, even in difficult times.  So, for me the real task of incorporating humor into the therapy session is sorting out if either of us are using it as a defense or something more productive. That is sometimes easier said that done but I will say that my clients who acknowledge the full weight of their problems and find humor in them tend to be more resilient. And I see that in my personal life too; my strongest moments are not when I laugh off my pain as nothing but when I can fully sit with it and also have a laugh.

In a field where we ask a great deal of our clients in terms of vulnerability, opening up the part of ourselves designed to find lightness and comedy in every day situations feels like the least we can do. And I’ve found there are few things more humbling and meaningful than when a client invites you into their heaviest moment and cracks a joke.