'The role is not about me, it's about the Society'

One on One with… Kate Bullen, incoming President of the British Psychological Society.

Professor Kate Bullen takes over as President of the British Psychological Society at its Annual General Meeting at the end of August. We thought we'd get to know her in advance…

One person who inspired you

It is difficult to choose one person, but there have been some hugely inspirational women in my life. My mother, Gwyneth and her best friend Jean were of the generation of bright working-class women who left school at 14 or 15 years of age and took jobs until they married. Both were intelligent, curious and great readers, but lacked the opportunity to engage with education. They both encouraged and supported me to achieve more than they did. 

At school, later as a student radiographer, and when I was newly qualified, I was fortunate to be taught by a series of unmarried women who had chosen their professions rather than a family life. They taught me that developing an educated mind is what matters, regardless of the subject you study, because training your thinking enables you to see the world in a different way. 

And my famous inspirational figure has to be Dame Cicely Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice movement. She saw what had to be done and got on with it.

One moment that changed the course of your career

An industrial accident in work, on 18 January 2002. It left me with a chronic injury and enduring pain; it also ended my career as a therapeutic radiographer. It was the following year after surgery that my GP suggested that I take a psychology degree (I had already started counselling training). My 35th birthday in 1993 saw me starting that degree, changing my career and helping me to re-assert my sense of identity and worth. I owe Swansea University and Psychology a debt of gratitude for turning my life around.

One book that you think all psychologists should read

That’s a tough one; psychology is such a broad subject. But one book I have always enjoyed is Aging with Grace: The Nun Study and the Science of Old Age by David Snowdon. It’s a really interesting epidemiological study with a specialist group of participants, and I learnt so much from it. 

One thing I’m aware of as incoming Society President 

The role is not about me, it’s about the Society. As President you are just passing through, and your role is to act as a trustee and critical friend to the CEO and the management team. In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy challenged his audience saying ‘ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country’. I think it is worth any incoming President to take note by just substituting ‘Society’ for ‘country’. 

One regret

That my darling mum didn’t live long enough to see me become a professor. She died the year after I received my PhD.

One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists

Whenever possible find opportunities to work in multidisciplinary teams. Psychologists know a lot, but looking at problems without psychological blinkers really does help to broaden perspectives. It’s one of the reasons why the whole cross- and inter-disciplinary research perspective is so exciting. Complex human problems can rarely be solved in simplistic ways – nice as that would be.

One alternative career path you may have chosen

I’ve already had two! Knowing what I know now I think a degree in Law and then becoming a coroner. It’s a difficult job, but having had some experience of a coroner’s court, the combination of the legal and the psychological, together with the human skills of dealing with people who are experiencing grief, is one that I think I would have been good at. Other than that, I think I would enjoy running a tea shop, or an inter-generational play café! 

One thing that makes me laugh

My daughter Alys, who has an acerbic wit – both spoken and written – that has reduced me to helplessness many a time. 

One of my greatest achievements

Professionally, two achievements. Firstly, setting up a successful and thriving cancer support charity in South Wales during the time I was injured and before starting my degree. Secondly, establishing the Psychology Department at Aberystwyth University. On the personal front, seeing my daughter develop and overcome challenges to become the inspirational doctor and fantastic mother she is.

One hero from psychology past or present

Not a psychologist, but a philosopher: Baroness Onora O’Neill. She has always been clear in her commitment to equality, human rights, international justice and ethics. I attended an ethics event with her in Keele some years and ago and almost fell off my chair when she said that I had made a ‘very good point’ during a debate. An extraordinarily talented but deeply ‘human’ individual. 

One great thing that psychology has achieved

I think it’s tricky to single psychology out uniquely in many situations, but if it has achieved anything it’s the way in which it has been able to identify the uniqueness of every human being. I still find it spine tingling to think of how we have found that, even in apparently genetically identical twins, they can become such very different people due to their experiences and their interpretations of those experiences. The plasticity of the brain, and the resilience of human beings to survive and thrive despite huge challenges, is extraordinary. 

One psychological superpower you’d like to have

The ability to bring about effective and lasting behaviour change to promote tolerance and acceptance of difference in society.

One proud moment

The birth of my grandson Marcus, who will be three years old in October. I had always been told that becoming a grandparent is a completely unique experience; and now I know that is true. He is a total joy and the times we spend together are so very special.

One final observation

I remain optimistic about human beings. We are an intensely frustrating but constantly intriguing group who continue to fascinate me. My sadness is that all too often we concentrate on our differences rather than on our shared humanity. A bit more listening and a little less talking could really make a difference. Carl Rogers quoted Epictetus stating that ‘God gave us two ears and one mouth, so we ought to listen twice as much as we speak’. I try to heed that advice, sometimes with more success than others.

Photo: Tony Dale

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