Know thyself: emotional expression

This next part of the Know Thyself series focuses on exploring our emotional expression. Interestingly, understanding, processing, experiencing, and communicating our emotions is something that is not incorporated into our standard education system. Of course, every interest group believes that what they have to say is important and should be included in, what is often described as, an overcrowded syllabus. However, it baffles me that something that is at the centre of our well-being is rarely formally taught.

Most of us have strong intuitions regarding why we teach subjects such as mathematics, science, history, and physical education. The logic goes – people (much smarter than me) have made discoveries about these subjects, so let us give that collective wisdom, built over the last few years/decades, to our children so they do not have to make the discovery for themselves. Yet, despite the massive collection of research that has provided us with a host of ways to better regulate our emotions, we don’t believe this is something that should be part of formal education. This subject is meant to be in the realm of parents and caregivers – because, naturally, with age and experience comes wisdom. None of us has ever seen a middle-aged person breakdown, throw a tantrum, enter a bad relationship, say mean things, have a panic attack, become sulky etc… [raises eyebrow].

If we can accept that there are probably more useful and less useful ways to regulate and express our emotions, then there are undoubtedly ways that we can learn how to do it. In fact – that is literally my entire job as a psychologist. To this end, this post will not be covering specific ways to help self-regulate, but I want to pose a number of questions to start you thinking about yourself, your beliefs about different emotions, and how you currently go about communicating them.

  1. What emotions are you happy to show (anger, happiness, excitement, pride, sorrow, sadness, pain, disappointment)?
  2. Would you describe yourself as typically more open, or more closed, to expressing emotions?
  3. When thinking about your childhood, what emotions most stand out for you?
  4. Which emotions were acceptable in your household growing up (was it ok for you to feel anger, anxiety, sadness, disappointment)? Do these emotions match what you are comfortable showing now? Or are they the opposite or different somehow?
  5. Are there certain people in your life who you would/wouldn’t express certain emotions with? Anger in front of your dad, emotional pain in front of your mum, vulnerability in front of your romantic partner? What does that say or mean about those relationships?
  6. Does showing certain emotions make you “weak”? What is it about them that makes you weak? Do you actually believe that you’re weak for showing these emotions or do you believe other people see you as weak?
  7. How readily would you let someone know that they had hurt your feelings? How would you normally approach this situation? How readily does another emotion, perhaps anger, cover up feelings of hurt or disappointment?
  8. Do you often feel pride or recognise your achievements? If not, why? Is it wrong or sinful? If you feel pride is it likely that something will come along and knock you off your pedestal?
  9. How readily do you express anger or irritability? What are the thoughts you have towards yourself when you express anger?
  10. How often do you avoid things that make you feel nervous or anxious? Are you typically someone who can tolerate the uncomfortable sensations of anxiety?
  11. Would you consider yourself a happy person? What does being happy or having a happy life mean to you – what does that look like? Is that life realistic? On a scale of 0 – 10, where 10 was your happiest life and 0 your worst, where would you put yourself? What would you need to be doing to be one point higher on that scale?

Recognising that we have learnt to subjugate, dismiss, or express specific types of emotions can be an important first step in taking control of our emotional experience. While you cannot change the past, you can choose to learn and implement new ways of experiencing how past experiences have shaped the way you express (or suppress) emotions. If you notice that there are persistent problems in certain areas of your life – perhaps deepening friendships, perhaps coping with work or with your children, perhaps in navigating romantic relationships – it may be that you hold on to unhelpful ways of interpreting, experiencing, and expressing your emotions. Further exploration with a mental health professional may be warranted.

I hope these questions continue to help you on a journey of self-discovery.

In kindness,

Daniel J Brown

Know thyself: our inner voice

Inside all of us sits a voice that provides a running commentary on our actions, our success and failures, our attempts, our private moments, and our thoughts (how meta). It may tell us our desires are “good” or “bad”, it may push us to try harder or give up sooner, it may remind us that we’re actually worthless, or perhaps that we can only rely on ourself.

This inner voice has a remarkable role in boosting or dampening our self-esteem and self-worth. Yet, for many of us, this voice lies somewhere out of our consciousness. It is like the gentle humming of music on the radio or in a movie that fades into general background noise (unless we purposely choose to tune in) yet has a remarkable ability to make us feel at ease, or tense, or uplifted. It can be hard to notice the voice despite the clear results it can have on our mood. For example, if our inner voice consistently evaluates situations as potentially dangerous or involving too many factors we cannot control (which must be bad, right?), it is likely we’ll feel a level of chronic anxiety. Or perhaps that voice is particularly astute at noticing every and any flaw or failure, constantly reminding us not to get ahead of ourselves or feel too much joy or pride as we are clearly such an imperfect thing (unlike everyone else, right…?). This, naturally, leads to feelings of dissatisfaction or sadness and further thoughts of inadequacy. The problem isn’t even that the thoughts themselves are wrong but the negative or catastrophic judgement we attach to the thought (e.g., that being out of control is terrible; making mistakes is proof I’m crap) typically causes the suffering we feel.

It may be useful for us to start proactively seeking out that voice. Tuning in to it. Listening to what it is saying (note – this doesn’t mean we have to agree or endorse it). Only once we understand the way in which our inner voice is trying to colour our lives can we start the process of changing it to a different and more useful narrative.

The first thing we need to do is recognise that just because the interpretation of the inner voice is the first and automatic judgement of an event, doesn’t make it correct, meaningful, or necessary.

Lets practice. What do you think is happening in the following picture? Who are these people? Where are they? What are they doing? What are they discussing? How are they feeling?

workplace-1245776_1280

This picture is purposely vague and ambiguous.

Perhaps they’re university students coming together to work on an assignment. Perhaps it is a group of people at a start-up company, having a team meeting. Maybe it is a group of friends who are just about to video-chat with another friend who is overseas. Perhaps the middle lady is planning a wedding and is having a meeting with the event organisers. Or, perhaps it a random group of people who are posing for a stock image.

It doesn’t matter which interpretation is correct, however, I wanted you to recognise that there are multiple interpretations of this photo, just like most situations we find ourself in. When you find yourself having a strong emotional reaction I would encourage you to check-in with your thoughts and ask yourself if this is the only way to interpret the situation. Can you provide yourself with enough examples of other interpretations to reduce how strongly you accept the first, automatic interpretation made by your inner voice?

To further acquaint yourself with your inner voice try answering the following questions.

  1. If you make a mistake on something you’ve done many times before, what do you say to yourself? How do you feel?
  2. If someone cancels their plans with you, what would you typically presume is the reason?
  3. Do you believe that the world is fundamentally a dangerous place? What are the things that make it (not) so? In what way does your belief help you and in what way may it hinder you?
  4. Do you believe that people are fundamentally selfish and will end up taking advantage of you? What experiences have you had that might inform your view? Can you think of experiences that are contrary to your belief?
  5. Do you believe it is worth having people get close to you? What would you worry about the most in someone getting to know the real you?
  6. On the whole, are you a good person? When answering that question did you think about what other people have told you or by the things you have done? What are the benefits and drawbacks of this approach?
  7. When you do well at something, what do you say to yourself?
  8. When you feel unmotivated, what would you tell yourself?
  9. Often when you feel guilty, was it even something that was in/should have been in your control?
  10. When you feel angry, what do you think about yourself?
  11. If you’re doing something pretty difficult, what would you be telling yourself to make sure you finish?
  12. Overall, what is your inner-voice like? Helpful? Kind? Punitive? Cautious? Encouraging? Belittling? Is there a dominant theme in the narrative of the inner-voice (e.g., failure, mistrust, dependence, entitlement, approval-seeking, critical)?
  13. Is this voice actually helpful? Does it motivate you, help you, make you feel good?

Hopefully, some of these questions have allowed you to take a more critical look at you inner-voice and become more familiar with it. Often, this inner-voice started off as an outer-voice – perhaps a teacher, a parent, a bully we once knew. While this can be very useful if you were loved and encouraged, this can be detrimental if we were regularly criticised or belittled. Changing that inner-voice is often hard work but can be achieved, particularly with the help of a trained mental health professional.

Thank you for reading,

In kindness,

Daniel J Brown

Know thyself: sex

My last post asked you to explore your beliefs and expectations about romantic relationships, yet I had purposely left a specific but important topic out – sex. Sex is a significant enough topic I thought it would be best to devote an entire post to it.

One of the many problems with the Romantic view of relationships is that it expects our partner to be the perfect friend, accountant, housekeeper, maintenance person, counsellor, parent, chef, event planner, and sexual entity. How one person is meant to fulfil all of these roles is beyond me and it seems inevitable we can only be left feeling disappointed. Especially the idea that our partner will start off as, and continue to be, our best sexual mate. They are expected to “just know” what pleases us, what evokes our erotic desire, what are fantasies entail, or what we find uncomfortable or awkward doing. Even more so, they are meant to “just know” how these things change over the years, as our sexual needs and desires mature or change. Romanticism sneers at open and honest communication because surely if they really loved you they would just know.

If you accept that this seems a tad unfair then perhaps, like all other aspects of a good relationship, continual discussions about your sex is in order. But again, for our partners to know and understand us we first must know and understand ourselves.

One of the key assumptions that destroy relationships and douses the erotic fire is the belief that you already know everything about your partner. You don’t. You can’t. Most people don’t even know themself very well so I can almost guarantee you don’t know all about them. People change, grow, and have new and different experiences which change their desires over time. Don’t be complacent in your beliefs about your partner.

Here is a list of questions you might like to reflect upon and, when ready, I would invite you to discuss and explore with your partner. It can be an interesting exercise to first guess what your partner’s answer will be before allowing them to agree or update your answer with their own reflection.

  1. How is sex meant to happen? Is it meant to be spontaneous? Can it be planned and organised? Why?
  2. How is sex initiated? Is there a place, setting, or time of day when it happens? Who is meant to initiate it and why?
  3. How easy do you find it to talk about different aspects of sex with your partner (e.g., your fantasies, your fulfilment of a sexual activity, your expectations of frequency, discussing engaging in new activities, etc)?
  4. Can people in relationships watch porn? Does it have to be together or separately? If you watch porn, does the other person in the relationship need to know?
  5. Do you like the idea of being more dominant or more submissive? Do you also hold other beliefs that make it difficult to come to terms with your desires (e.g., a female who likes to be dominated but also feels conflicted because she holds beliefs about what it means to be a “strong” woman; a male who likes to dominate but also doesn’t want to come across as “pushy”; a male who likes to be submissive but also holds beliefs about what it means to be “a man”).
  6. What is something you would want to do sexually that you don’t believe your partner would?
  7. What is something you believe your partner would want to do sexually that you wouldn’t want to do?
  8. What is one of your most pleasant and memorable sexual memories? What was it about the experience that made it so pleasant and memorable? Can you purposely recreate some of the circumstances that made that experience so nice?
  9. How was sex discussed in your family of origin?
  10. What were the messages you received from your family about sex and how do you think that has influenced your beliefs and experiences of sex?

 

Hopefully, these questions have been able to evoke some introspection about your beliefs regarding sex and perhaps open some discussions with your partner. The next series of questions are designed to specifically discussed with your partner. While you may be able to reflect on them by yourself, they will be even more useful with your partner.

  1. Can you describe a perfect night (or morning/day/afternoon) of sex where the sole purpose is to satisfy you? Where would it start? What would we be doing? How does it progress? What do we use along the journey? What would be done to you? What would you be in control of? How would it peak?
  2. What do you think is the most attractive part of your body?
  3. What is the type of fantasy you do, or would, masturbate to?
  4. What is something you would like to try, but have found difficult to do, with regards to sex?
  5. What aspect of inviting other people into the bedroom (i.e., having a threesome or swapping partners) do you find most difficult to come to terms with? What is the most dominant emotion when thinking about such an experience and what might that say about you (i.e., excitement about trying, anxiety about being naked in front of or intimate with others, jealously that your partner finds other people attractive, shame that you want to try even though you love your partner, etc).
  6. If you wanted to be intimate without having penetrative sex, what might you do?
  7. If you’re not in the mood for sex, what helps you get there?
  8. What is something your partner might get wrong about you, with regards to your beliefs and desires about sex?
  9. If you could put on hold your current sexual orientation, who of the same/opposite sex would you have a sexual experience with? What would happen?
  10. What is the riskiest sexual experience would you have (e.g., this could be using something, in a particular place, with someone, or because it might not strictly be legal)?

 

I hope some of the questions and ideas in this post allows you some interesting introspection and opens up a useful conversation with your partner.

In kindness,

Daniel J Brown

Know thyself: romantic relationships

Given many of us are going to be spending A LOT more time with our partner over the next several months, I thought it would be apt to start this series with some thoughts and activities regarding our romantic relationships.

One of the most important beliefs I often try to deconstruct with some of my clients is that “it is my partner’s job to understand me and meet my needs”. Of course, this would be incredible if our partner somehow could just understand us, read us, and know our every need. But this is typically not realistic.

In fact, Romantics (i.e., those who adhere to the philosophical movement of romanticism [think of a Disney princess conception of love]) would say that that if a partner cannot somehow deduce our exact thoughts, needs, and desires then it must be proof they are not the right person for us. I call bullshit. Nobody is this person. Nobody can be this person. It is, in fact, OUR job to shape our partner and give them the tools into becoming the best version of our partner, as it is their job to shape us into their version of the best partner. To do this we must understand our “stuff” – the beliefs and expectations that shape our feelings and interactions about/with our partner. Only then can we appropriately communicate those needs, in the hope our partner will at least try and meet them.

So here are some questions to first ask yourself, and then to ask your partner. If your partner is happy to play along then perhaps describe what you believe your partner’s answer might be before they tell you. This can be a great way to start to understand how your partner sees you and how you see your partner.

Importantly, the purpose of these questions are not to start a blame or criticism game. If you are going to discuss and ask these questions with and to your partner, start by making a pact that you will be open-minded and kind in hearing your partner describe some difficult things about you. If they get some things wrong, thank them for giving it a go before gently letting them know how your reflection is different.

  1. In what ways [note plural] are you a difficult person to be around or live with?
  2. In what circumstances might these attributes be a strength or be useful?
  3. What are the things that you find most difficult to ask for in a relationship?
  4. What are the things you find most difficult to give in a relationship?
  5. How do you believe people show they care about someone else? What do they do or say? How often do you need to do these things?
  6. What do you believe are “good enough” ways to communicate your frustrations or problems in a relationship? Is this typically how you go about communicating your concerns or problems in a relationship?
  7. How did your parents go about communicating and solving problems? In what way have you been influenced by that?
  8. How did your parents show affection? In what ways have you been influenced by that?
  9. What are some of the most important things you’ve learnt about yourself from previous relationships? In what ways have you not changed (for better or worse) from those previous relationships?
  10. When you see other happy couples, what are the things that are most different about them compared to your relationship?
  11. What are the things that you do well as a couple?
  12. What are the strengths you bring to the relationship?
  13. What are the attributes you find most valuable in a partner?
  14. Which, if any, of these questions have you found most difficult and easy to answer and what do you believe it means about yourself?

So what now?

What do these questions mean about you and your beliefs and expectations about a relationship? I want you to start to reflect on and perhaps discuss with your partner how you can work together to enable each other to overcome any unhelpful beliefs or expectations you may have.

For example, if you recognise that you find it very difficult or awkward to ask for alone time, away from your partner or kids (obviously not because you don’t love or care for them, you just also need some “me” time), you could discuss how you could make this a regular part of your weekly/monthly routine.

Or, perhaps you recognise that, just like your parents, you believe that when a problem arises it must be sorted out immediately (because you can’t possibly go to bed angry, right??), even though you or your partner are rarely in a calm enough state to talk about it calmly, therefore creating more problems than solving. You could decide together that if either of you recognises that things are too heated to solve in the moment, you will agree to raincheck the discussion for 1 / 6 / or 12 hours. In this way, you’re communicating that you believe that this problem needs to be solved but similarly recognising you aren’t in a place to do justice to it, yet.

Have a think about what else you may want to change. Are there ways you can help your partner communicate their needs? Is there something you do to remind yourself to show affection in the way your partner values? Can you set up a regular date to continue these discussions?

I hope this has been helpful.

In kindness,

Daniel J Brown

Know thyself series

What an incredibly complex world we are living in at the moment. For many experts, we’re only entering the end of the beginning of the impact of COVID-19 globally with the economic ramifications likely lasting for years.

Many of us are grappling with how to best respond in this crisis: how do we look after our own physical and mental health; how do we support others in similar to worse circumstances than our own; in what ways do I need to adapt, develop, or resist change?

Almost inevitably, many of our existing self-care activities are going to be disrupted. We can’t go to the gym, we may not be able to purchase extra art supplies, we can’t access the library, we can’t share a hug with many of our friends and family. It is likely, therefore, that we have some more free time on our hands – or – perhaps we need to create some space by purposely disengaging from the endless scrolling on social and news media.

To that end, I thought I would do a series on understanding yourself. The purpose of this series is to focus on different aspects of our life to think deeply about. I aim to pose questions about your values, experiences, and hopes about the future to start an internal conversation about who you are.

In the words of Socrates, “an unexamined life, is not worth living”. 

I’ll update this page with a link to the relevant topics, as I write them.

First up, here are some questions to ponder about your beliefs and expectations of your romantic relationships.

My next post builds on the first blog by asking you to consider your beliefs about sex.

Psychoeducation

Psychoeducation is an important part of most psychological interventions and has a good evidence base as a brief, passive, standalone intervention for a range of psycho-emotional problems (Devine & Westlake, 1995; Donkers et al, 2009).

Psychoeducation simply refers to providing information to a client about the treatment they’ll receive or about the nature of their illness.

There is a whole lot of misinformation about psychological treatments and specific disorders and providing simple, clear, and jargon-free education to clients about therapy can facilitate understanding and “the buy-in” to therapy.

Many of us have probably had the experience of “having things done to us” by a medical specialist without really understanding why. This could include undergoing assessments, taking medicine, or even knowing why we are at a particular appointment. This can increase anxiety and reduce ongoing treatment adherence, clearly mitigating any potential benefits of the treatment.

Not only is it a good idea to facilitate client understanding but could also be regarded as an explicit way to meet our ethical obligation of informed consent.

Here is a standard script of the psychoeducation I provide to clients. I’ve developed this over time, based on the my particular style. A hugely important omission is all the non-verbals that I use, which make a significant impact on the delivery of this information. At times I’ll add other things, change the order of things, or make it more personalised (depending on what information I have from the client) but I think I’ve provided a reasonable outline of the basics.

Similarly, here is a pdf version and a word version of a double-sided handout that I’ve made that matches the things I discuss in the psychoeducation session. It is very simplistic and you could probably google lots of other variations – but it does a good enough job for me. I included the word version so you can adapt it to your own use.

I would really appreciate feedback regarding how other people deliver psychoeducation and suggestions on how I can improve (e.g., am I missing something that you always tell/explain to clients?)

In kindness,

Daniel J. Brown

 

References

Donker, T., Griffiths, K. M., Cuijpers, P., & Christensen, H. (2009). Psychoeducation for depression, anxiety and psychological distress: a meta-analysis. BMC medicine7(1), 79.

Devine, E. C., & Westlake, S. K. (1995). The effects of psychoeducational care provided to adults with cancer: meta-analysis of 116 studies. In Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects (DARE): Quality-assessed Reviews. Centre for Reviews and Dissemination (UK).

“Do you have a moment…?”: A quote that shaped my training

Do you have a moment… ” is probably one of the things I’ve said most during my PhD and training as a psychologist.

  • Do you have a moment…to run through this idea
  • Do you have a moment…to have a coffee
  • Do you have a moment…to debrief
  • Do you have a moment…to read this
  • Do you have a moment…to give me a hug
  • Do you have a moment…to share a bottle of red 🙂

“Do you have a moment” hinges on there being someone to give you that moment and I think that is the theme of my (continued) coping throughout my clinical and research training. I have been surrounded by family, friends, peers, and supervisors who support me in their own unique way. In turn, I hope I provide them with the type of moments they need. Just as importantly, I feel I continue to grow in my ability to recognise when I need a moment to myself; away from the literature, away from the data, away from teaching or marking, away from my responsibilities and straight into a moment of (guilt-free?) self-care.

I believe there are a number of reasons both in and outside of my control which has shaped my ability to take advantage and share in these moments: a supportive team, firm boundaries, and an understanding of appropriate self-care.

A Supportive Team

While we don’t always have the ability to pick who is within a formal work/research team – such as if we’re placed in a default research lab at uni – I think there are practices we can cultivate to increase our ability to cope through our clinical/research training. Luckily, I’m a part of a research lab team who I genuinely enjoy spending time with and care about. We have been encouraged to develop a culture of openness and shared learning. There is an implicit expectation that if one of us develops a skill in something (e.g., stats software or methodology) we pass that knowledge throughout our team. Such an inclusive and open environment is a needed contrast to the, at times, ego-driven protectionism traditionally seen in academia.

During our applied training, we don’t often have a choice over who we share our office with or who else is doing the training program. We, therefore, may have to be the agent of change to cultivate an environment that works for us. Perhaps designated “quiet time”, where everyone can respect that people are hard at work, scoring assessment or planning our sessions. Similarly, designated “debrief time”, where everyone can be honest and vulnerable about classes or clients, etc.

This can often be even less in our control as a psychologist in private practice. The nature of conducting 50-minute sessions for 8 hours doesn’t leave a whole lot of room to be around the other psychologists or create much of a team. The onus, again, is on ourselves to create such a culture or seek opportunities to build our own support team.

Firm Boundaries

To me, firm boundaries do not equate to rigid boundaries. By this, I mean I have a sense of what I think is an appropriate time to be working or relaxing. However, I also understand that the nature of doing research and being a clinician is that there are deadlines that sometimes just need to be met. So, while on the whole, I do not want to be filling my evenings or weekends with more follow-up emails, survey constructions, or letters to GP’s, I am prepared to do that when there are important deadlines looming. The inevitable sacrifices being made are in the parameters of what I find appropriate in my life, given my circumstances. This is, of course, deeply personal and likely affected by factors such as family and other work commitments. Being flexible does not, however, mean regularly sacrificing important events or moments which are fundamental to a meaningful and value-driven life. Saying no, asking for help, or requesting extensions are not evidence that we are failures or don’t care about our research or clients – it means that they are just one of many important parts of our lives.

Therefore, asking “Do you have a moment to help me with X” to a colleague, or “Do you have a moment to spend time with me doing [SELF-CARE]” to a friend, or perhaps “Do you have a moment to listen while I tell you I need to be left alone all Saturday morning” to your partner, is deeply important.

Self-Care

I think we all know – intellectually – the importance of self-care. We hear people talking about it, we see workshops about it, we may even preach to our students, peers, or clients about it. Somehow, we still convince ourselves it doesn’t apply to us.  Given there are so many resources around about self-care, I won’t harp on about it here. It has taken me a number of times to feel completely overwhelmed, exceptionally low in mood, irritable and frustrated, all accompanied by a healthy dose of tears to recognise that I deserve to look after myself. For me to be available and ready for all the demands of a PhD and the demands of seeing clients as a psychologist, I have to be physically and emotionally ready. I still struggle to prioritise structured self-care, but the more I let go of the guilt, the easier it gets.

So perhaps ask yourself “Can I make a moment to spend time reading for fun”, or asking family whether they “Have a moment to walk around a park”, or asking your partner whether they “Have a moment to cook for you tonight”, might make all the difference.

So – thank you for this moment, indulging me in some thoughts and considerations of the practices I have to keep me sane through my PhD and clinical training.

How does this map to your experience?

In kindness,

Daniel J. Brown

Note to an undergraduate me…

I’m right at the end of my formal psychology training; I’ve just submitted my PhD thesis. Given this milestone and also being the start of the year, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting about my time completing my training and thought I would describe what I would tell the undergraduate me…

1. Know my options

There are so many legitimate vocational options that could come out of a psychology degree. Becoming a clinical psychologist is only one. In fact, statistically, the vast majority of people doing a psych undergrad will not go on to become a clinical psychologist – or any form of a psychologist for that matter. And that is OK. Looking back, I think many of my decisions were likely based on a belief that becoming a clinical psychologist and completing my training at university was the only real or good option; everything else was a failure. Perhaps if I understood the breadth of options available to me I would have made other decisions, have been less stressed, and perhaps even slightly kinder to myself.

Simply knowing the differences between the 4+2 program, 5+1 program, and a masters program would have been helpful. I have friends who believe that the 4+2 program is only for people wanting to go down the counselling/therapy route, for example. This is not true!

Also, I wish I found out about the types of employees that hire people with a 3 or 4-year behavioural science or psychology degree. For example, I now know that I could have explored becoming a counsellor, worked within rehabilitation, developed skills in other chronic diseases or health management, become a parole officer, a human resource manager, worked in marketing, or become a behavioural research assistant just to name a few.

This is an amazing website I wish I knew about 10 years ago: https://psychologycareers.org.au/

Also, you can create alerts on employment websites like Seek that can deliver frequent emails about potential jobs. Perhaps create these alerts to start to understand the scope of job opportunities you might be interested in.

https://www.seek.com.au; https://smartjobs.qld.gov.au/; https://au.indeed.com/

2. Do some research assistant work

I hadn’t really considered doing research while early in my undergrad (now look at me, handing in my PhD thesis!!!). I wish I had given up some time and volunteered in a research lab though. Most academics would kill to get some free help. This would have given me a first-hand experience of what it is really like doing research. The anxiety of doing face-to-face recruitment, the monotony of data-entry, the excitement of conceptualising ideas, and hard work and dedication it takes. Some people love it, some people hate it. Again, I may have made different decisions about my career if I had given research a try that bit earlier.

I understand, however, that giving up your time for free incorporates a certain amount of privilege. You must be in a position that allows you the time and flexibility to do this.  Many people from a working-class background, who have family or other occupational responsibilities, or those who have a chronic illness (to name a few) may not have this privilege.

3. Seek other experiences

Further to my point about getting research experience, I also wish I sought other real-work, practical experiences that may have further increased my professional identity. Research demonstrates that exposure to a professional environment builds a professional identity, which is often lacking while completing a psychology degree (given the focus on learning theory over skill development).

I don’t know quite what this would look like though. Perhaps, again, doing some type of volunteer work in community organisations in the areas I was interested in. Perhaps looking for other paid work. Perhaps being more engaged in professional bodies or organisations.

4. Network

I’ve been fortunate enough to have engaged in a number of awesome opportunities over the last year or so. Not generically awesome like a specific holiday but being involved in things with people I admire, which only arose because I knew the right people.

Luckily, I’ve always been quite gregarious but I wish I had taken more advantage of this by networking the shit out of everything. Who knows who I would have met, what opportunities I could have made, what fun I could have had, or how little would have changed?! How can we ever know? I am reaping the rewards of some networking right now though, so I imagine if I did it more often sooner, other positive things could have also come of it.

P.S. These organisations relate to number 3 and 4.

https://www.psychology.org.au/; https://asbhm.com/; https://www.theaca.net.au/; https://www.aacbt.org.au/; https://www.mhpn.org.au/

5. Reflect more

In some way, this is related to number 1 but I wish I took more time to reflect on the breadth of skills I was accruing. It is so easy to miss these skills when so much of our degree focuses on theory and content knowledge. The mere act of being at and doing moderately well at university affords many skills (time management, organisational skills, critical thinking, research, etc.). I know it is much easier when we have discrete and concrete skills to sell to employees (or even our family) but in a world that will be increasingly taken over by AI, recognising that we are adept at learning, communicating, prioritising, and critically analysing would have been invaluable to my confidence and appreciation of my degree.

What other thoughts or reflections do you wish you had told your undergraduate self?

In kindness,

Daniel J. Brown

1000 sessions in…

I’ve been working in private practice for the last two years as I complete the research component of my PhD in Clinical Psychology (a dual program that includes the components of both a master of clinical psychology and a research PhD – my research is focused on health psychology). During that time I’ve typically worked 2 – 3 days a week, typically working with 5 – 8 clients a day.

A few months ago I realised that I had delivered my 1000th session as a registered psychologist! I couldn’t believe it. That I, Daniel Brown, after all this time and training, had conducted over 1000 sessions as a psychologist.

Given this, I thought I would write some reflections on the things that have become much clearer to me. Most of them I would have probably said I always intellectually knew but now have a deeper appreciation for.

1. Supervision

I cannot stress how vital good supervision is for professional development as a psychologist. I believe a significant portion of my learning and growth as a therapist has been because of my clinical supervision. A good supervisor, like a good psychologist, nurtures, challenges, confirms, corrects, and supports.

On the clinical psychology registrar program, I engage in fortnightly supervision, which means that at times I don’t feel I need to discuss a specific client or problem I’ve encountered. Given I’ve paid good money to be there, it forced me to think about topics or themes that we could discuss. At times, this has turned into exploring my beliefs about my clients and therapy. For example, I realised I had an underlying belief that most people would not want to prioritise spending money on seeing a psychologist after their medicare/WorkCover/insurance ran out for the year. We explored what this may mean: Do I go too fast with some clients? Do I focus on short-term problems? What is my relationship with money and how has my background affected this? Do I also believe that clients do not prioritise therapy, in general? etc…. Never in my training did we have an opportunity to think about such (obscure?) beliefs, that may have an impact on the way I conduct therapy.

This is but one silly example of hundreds of moments I’ve experienced with my supervisor. I love that I so often get to say to her, “oh my god, there is so much still to learn”, or “yes, of course, I had never thought about it like that”. This is the wonder of supervision and psychology!

2. Process vs Content

A significant focus on all training is content knowledge: theoretical orientations, diagnosis, measurement, treatment, conceptualisation and the like. All of this knowledge must be learnt and reading books or listening to lectures is often appropriate. I believe the only way to learn about the therapeutic process is by doing therapy. Naturally, now I have more experience, I have a deeper appreciation for how vital process is in therapy.

For those unfamiliar with the term process, I am referring to the nature of the relationship between the client and therapist. This includes how things are said, what is left unsaid, the defences, distortions, and beliefs the client and the psychologist both bring to therapy and how they interact together.

There is a shit tonne of things to say about process and I would recommend reading up on specific types of process-oriented therapies to understand it (a great book to start is “Interpersonal process in therapy: An integrative model” by Teyber & Teyber).

3. Honesty

I find this an interesting one and is still something I continue to reflect on. What does it really mean to be honest as a therapist?

One part of what I mean is being open about what I’m doing and why. Not that I ever try to deceive clients, but I have recognised that at times I will be engaging in a specific but naturalistic technique (i.e., something that is embedded within a conversation, as opposed to a discrete/explicit technique that you do together, like making a SMART goal or identifying cognitive distortions from a worksheet) but won’t explicitly tell clients why I am doing that. For example, often I want to engage in “within-session emotional exposure” (i.e., I want the client to experience a specific emotion, such as sadness, in the therapy room, to reduce avoidance and build self-efficacy regarding their ability to tolerate uncomfortable emotions). The client may be describing an event where they happen to experience sadness. I will then encourage them to slow down and re-live that experience, asking them questions to evoke the beliefs, thoughts, and emotions that occurred at the time. This is, naturally, uncomfortable for the client and it can be easy to forget that they do not necessarily understand why I would be getting them to relive a painful experience (surely I’m here to make them feel good, right??). When we then reflect on the session or that particular part of the session, I try to ensure I am explicit with regards to why I “honed in on” that experience and how it fits within their treatment. I understand this seems so obvious, but I can’t help reiterate that I, at least, can so easily forget that most clients really have no idea how therapy works and it is an integral part of my job to let them know!

The other part of honesty is my frank evaluation of what my clients are doing. I still grapple with whether my evaluation is just an opinion or something that has more value. When I’ve raised this in supervision I’m reminded that 1. it is a good thing I continue to question what I am saying and how I am saying things to my clients and 2. my evaluation is an opinion, but all opinions are not created equally. My “opinion” is something that has been honed over the last decade of experience and training. I can misinterpret the ease of my “opinion” being generated to believing my “opinion” is whimsical or thoughtless, but of course, this is not true.

4. Ambiguity

I definitely, at times, have the feeling that I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing; I am much more comfortable with this now though. The nature of much of what we explore, as a treating psychologist, is grey and ambiguous with a bucket load of “perhaps”, “maybe”, and “it depends”. I vividly remember fearing not knowing the right thing to say to a client, or worse, not know what to say at all, while undergoing my clinical training. Similarly, I remember believing that I was meant to be comfortable with silence and how beneficial silence can be, but, deep-down, interpreting silence as my failure to once again come up with that life-changing, awe-inspiring phrase where everything just clicks together for the client. I’m still waiting to find that phrase, but in the meantime, I have learnt to take my own advice; accept and embrace the mild discomfort that ambiguity provokes and recognise that it has very little to do with my competence!

5. This is such a weird job

This is something I’ve reflected on with a number of my clients; what a weird fucking job this is?!?! I’m paid to sit there while strangers come in and tell me really personal stuff about themself. Things that, perhaps, they’ve never told anyone. And then I have to explore that stuff and work with them to make that stuff not happen again.

It is both utterly bizarre yet wonderful too. What a privilege I have, to bear witness to the courage and bravery that my clients go through each time they take the seat in my office. Despite this being such a weird job, I’m so glad I do it!

I would love, love, love to hear your comments, experiences, and reflections too.

In kindness,

Daniel J. Brown

The Servant of Two Masters

…..or rather of one Masters and one PhD. As per the play by Carlo Goldoni, is attempting to tame two beasts simultaneously (the combined Applied Psychology Masters and PhD program) going to satisfy your hunger or cause all parties to be left wanting more?

[I want to start with a disclaimer to remind everyone this is a personal blog-post so therefore merely representative of my subjective opinions and does not necessarily represent any objective “truth”. The post is meant to facilitate some critical thoughts or discussions about one post-graduate pathway.]

This post is written as a reflection (or rather ‘light-musings’) about undertaking the combined PhD/clinical Masters program. Even though I will make some conclusions, realistically, I probably wouldn’t have taken my own advice. When you start a PhD you’re (hopefully) enthusiastic, headstrong, and completely naïve to the reality of the current academic work-force. You are (well I was) definitely sure that I needed to complete as much as I can in as little time as I can. The combined program sounded amazing: a two-for-one deal which costs $0 (on the HECS bill) – just another four measly years of my life. I believed I would get to choose whether I’m an academic or a clinician. In fact, I imagined I’ll be beating away the offers from both sides as they try to take advantage of my broad skill-set. But now….I’m not so sure. I want to make clear that I think it is a positively wonderful idea to complete both an applied psychology Masters (such as a clinical psych Masters) AND a PhD – my question is whether it is worthwhile doing them at the same time?

So, first I am going to start with some of the potential benefits of completing the combined program. Of course, the benefits are exactly the same as those completing an applied Masters and a PhD separately. For one, you will be a registered psychologist at the end of the degree with the ability to enter a registrar program for endorsement in one of the Australian Psychological Societies (APS) colleges. You should also have a broad array of research skills to increase your capacity to become a scientist-practitioner. The combined program will then, hypothetically, give you access to two job markets: the academic/research market as a well as the applied psychology market, which will hopefully mean you’re never out of employment. Realistically though, the applied psychology market is booming at the moment so if you want to become a clinician, I’m not sure a PhD will be that much of an advantage. I certainly do not believe having “Dr” in front of your name is worth all the extra effort and time.

An additional benefit for some may be that you don’t have to pay for the Masters components. This only applies to universities which have a true combined program and not the universities who allow you to consecutively roll over from an applied Masters into a PhD. At Griffith University (where I am enrolled) there is a formal “Doctor of Philosophy in Clinical Psychology” program which incorporates the applied clinical Masters into a 4 year F.T.E PhD. This is (currently) a saving of about $12500 from your HECS bill.

It should technically also be quicker to do the combined program than it is to do them separately. On the whole, I think this is mostly true when you look at the full-time equivalent stats. As there are many people competing PhDs in psychology, the quality of PhDs is very high, which (unfortunately?) means even research-only PhDs take around 4 years to complete. If you want to do the two programs separately/consecutively, I imagine with some strategic planning with your supervisor you could design a study in your Master’s degree which lends itself to evolve into a three-year PhD after the Masters is completed though.

Last, when you have completed a PhD and Masters, you should be at an advantage compared with research-only PhDs to be employed and undertake clinically-related research in universities and other research teams (e.g., at hospitals). I have spoken to a number of hospital researchers who reported they would only employ researchers who have applied training as their research focus is mostly treatment driven.

There are undoubtedly a number of costs to undertaking the combined route though – more so if you want to be a researcher or academic at the end of your PhD.

First, IT’S BLOODY STRESSFUL. The Masters and PhD are both exceptionally stressful and when you combine them it exponentially compounds into a catastrophic calamity of cosmically cursed cadavers ripping out all that is good in the world *breathes in*. Or at least it sometimes it feel like that :-). I regularly feel like I am being pulled in every direction and am so thinly spread I’m not completing any of my tasks particularly well or making anyone happy. N.B This is of course only my perception; this imposter syndrome is pretty normal in a research-only PhD and in an applied Masters too I’ve been told. What has been wonderful is that through this difficulty (but still definitely rewarding) journey, I’ve been surrounded by an astounding team of peers and supervisors who can collectively support me and reduce my anxiety (and hopefully I do the same for them).

Now, this next one is probably the most significant cost IF you want to be a researcher/academic after the PhD. By doing the combined program you may have half the opportunities to build a track record in research and teaching which could put you at a disadvantage when competing against other early career researchers (ECRs). When I am in lectures or on placement three days a week some of my other PhD colleagues are undertaking extra research outside of their PhD, tutoring or lecturing, and doing research assistant (RA) work for other academics. So even though I believe I have the same research skills as most other ECRs, I may have fewer opportunities to demonstrate those skills prior to writing job applications. I may also have fewer networking opportunities because I do not have the same amount of time to do RA work for other academics. And while we might like to think universities are bastions of meritocracy by all accounts of people like the Thesis Whisperer this just isn’t the case (who you know>what you know). I would like to point out that as I haven’t completed my studies I am yet to see this first hand and I am secretly (naively) hoping that future employers will assess my skills and track record on the balance of opportunities and research quality (over quantity)…

There are a number of other things I could speak about but I’ll leave my last con as I’ve heard some academics view the combined PhD/Masters as “lesser” than a research-only PhD. This is hopefully/likely an idiosyncratic belief of only some researchers but it is worth considering. As previously mentioned though, this is unlikely going to matter if you want to be a clinician.

So overall, I wholeheartedly believe that completing a PhD AND an applied Masters in psychology is an amazing and useful thing to do. The two areas provide highly transferable skills which complement each other whether you’re a clinician or a researcher. As I’m nearing the last stages of my combined degree I’m just not convinced I should have completed them together – particularly as I want to be a researcher. While the combined program is cheaper and quicker it has potentially limited my ability to take advantage of some opportunities and thus reduced my ability to demonstrate the breadth of my skills in teaching and research.

I would love to hear what you think about this and whether your opinion/experience is (dis)similar to mine.