What Very Important thing have you lost or found on your psychology journey?
For this Voices in Psychology Programme, we asked what has been lost or found on the journey to (and through) psychology. We received creative submissions that considered complex issues such as ableism, (in)equalities, and the tricky business of rejection, as well as some uplifting stories about the lightbulb moments when psychology has helped to piece things together. Taken together, these winning entries show how psychology journeys are rarely linear, and there is great value in incorporating ‘the psychologist’ into discussions about ‘the psychology’.
Madeleine Pownall, University of Leeds and
Associate Editor for Voices In Psychology
Pieces of the puzzle
Along my psychology journey, which is not dissimilar to other pre-qualified psychologists, I have found confidence in myself and my own voice.
On the first day of my undergraduate psychology degree, we were told not to bother applying for clinical psychology training because ‘you won’t get in’. While this motivated me to prove them wrong, it instilled in me that I was not going to be ‘good enough’. This did not really sink in until I started applying for jobs after graduating. I received 165 rejections from 165 jobs I applied to; I internalised the lack of success to mean that I, as a person, was a ‘failure’. The only explanation I could come up with at that time was ‘you are not good enough’. My inner critical voice latched onto this with all its might and maliciously whispered this to me for years.
On reflection, I wonder if my family scripts may have had an impact. One of my family scripts is ‘if you work hard, you’ll achieve whatever you want to achieve’. In the case of the 165 job applications, I worked hard. Still, I had not achieved. My critical voice hissed at me ‘you haven’t worked hard enough; you are not good enough’.
After further work, I was finally offered an interview. It was my first NHS interview, and it did not go well. They offered me detailed feedback on NHS interviews and encouraged me to keep applying. Two months later, I received a call offering me that very job. The person they had hired had left. I immediately accepted the job.
Relief was easy to feel. Pride in myself was more difficult to accept. My critical voice shouted, ‘you only got offered this because the other person left; you are still not good enough’. Thankfully, this job included working within a supportive team alongside two psychologists. I started to gather information ‘puzzle pieces’ about clinical psychology to help me understand more about it. Indeed, I collected more puzzle pieces throughout my other positions although they did not quite fit together. My critical voice was whispering ‘you still don’t understand; you are not good enough’.
Fast forward to my fourth job after graduating, I finally gained an assistant psychologist position in the NHS. My critical voice focused on the fact that I did not belong there, after four long years of applying. However, through supervision with two consultant clinical psychologists, I collected some puzzle pieces on reflective practice and clinical psychology. I was able to spend time reflecting and become aware of my critical voice, when it was likely to be triggered, when it can be helpful, and when is best to dismiss it. I started to learn how to control my critical voice and use it as a tool to improve my work.
The puzzle pieces began to fit together, and I started to see a picture of myself in the context of clinical psychology. I could see that much of the puzzle picture was obscured by a dark cloud, my critical voice. Using reflection, I started to understand more about myself as a person in the context of my family and friends. For the first time professionally, I was able to acknowledge my strengths and be proud of myself. This gave me ammunition to challenge my critical voice and, at times, silence it.
Now, the puzzle is more complete than ever, with some pieces missing that I will be able to collect on clinical training and beyond. Without reflective models and tools, I would still be trying to fit the puzzle pieces together to the soundtrack of my critical voice.
When I think back to the 165 job rejections, I am strangely grateful for this time as it served as a rich source for reflection and personal development. All of this contributes to my more measured, encouraging, and curious inner voice which I have found on my psychology journey.
Holly Risdon is an Assistant Psychologist (NHS Wales) and Welsh Representative for the British Psychological Society’s Division of Clinical Psychology Pre-qualified Group committee.
‘I have just submitted my sixth application for training in clinical psychology (and hope not to write a seventh!). I am particularly interested in body image and appearance-related issues. I currently work in a Primary Care Mental Health Support Service in South Wales.
I hope to provide some insight into being a pre-qualified psychologist at the moment and to help others in my position understand that they are not alone in struggling.’
grieving, rejected, despondent;
for the past year or two
I could only search for something
I felt other people took claim of.
I’d seen it fading with every life event,
every avoidance of Clearing House, and
I watched it hover over every line,
I even wrote a poem and asked for it back:
If anyone knows where I’ve left it, I begged,
please contact me, please, please.
Tell me you’ve spotted it somewhere
and can go the extra mile to return it.
But I also felt the pressure of I shoulds:
I should be putting that poster up by now,
and as I lay low, I heard its enemy speak:
it probably wouldn’t get accepted.
I thought about writing an article
but would it be published?
As I sat alone, I wondered about those I had sat next to
[now in training],
at events and conferences, in meetings and crowded spaces,
had I left it there?
Would someone remember it filtrating the air between us
as we talked about our interests.
Had I poured out too much on the mic stand
performing at the Fringe;
had I had too much, was I not good enough?
I doubted myself but I was sure I’d had it at one point,
and I thought hard about where I’d been:
I was still wandering corridors where health anxiety lingered,
and I’d been present in Very Important discussions post-death;
I accepted no one could return my mother
but if you don’t mind, I hoped,
package my [secondary] loss with professional love.
I’d be eternally grateful if you’d write a note
so I’d know who to acknowledge in my book,
that one I mentioned years ago
slowly dying from a lack of ink,
and an unrecognised hook.
And in the meantime, a long time;
lines that would fill this magazine
over and over,
I lamented how often it comes
that elusive thing,
so often FOUND
at the end of a warm sentence.
Eventually I felt called to say
- thank you for returning it with kindness.
It was only weeks ago it finally got my full attention,
I’d observed it travelling near me on my walk to work,
I noticed it sitting in the space between my mouth and mask.
I felt it in me as I saw a patient,
it bubbled as I reflected back.
During the first wave, I was recovering from burnout.
By the second wave, I was ignited
in the face of a burning world.
My triggers were screaming with irony;
illness and isolation had been extra titles
long-bestowed as a young carer.
My thinking changed as my posture strengthened:
the heavy load I trudged to work
became a bus ride to freedom.
The year I wore a mask the most
was the same one I let it slip,
and my vulnerable status
became my super power.
This week I put it down on the application form,
and my whole being waved back at me.
I heard it cross the network,
I recognised it in my own voice,
I let it laugh in the face of more loss.
The hardest task I will ever face now
will be to keep it close.
It will be Very Important to not lose it
for so long next time.
But I have learnt that if I do
someone will help me look for it:
a peer, a colleague, a supervisor, a manager,
now I know they can help.
Now I have confidence to say I have been disabled
Now I belong to multiple minorities
and now I feel heard and seen.
Now I know there is care for the carer.
Now I’m no longer punctuating my life
like I deserve it to end as a
Now I wait to take my own stride forward -
thank you to everyone who has helped me re-find myself.
I reign [rain!] from Bury (and descend from Victor Hugo, according to my grandma). I work as Senior Assistant Psychologist by day and poet by night (send your costume designs). My writing career began at the tender age of nine with a column in the local newspaper (my stock answer to ‘tell us one interesting thing about yourself’). My inspiration for combining both Clinical Psychology and writing stems from experiences as an unidentified young carer. I currently work in stroke rehab, and I’m particularly passionate about giving voice to those adjusting to illness and their carers, reducing stigma around lived experience, and opening-up conversations on grief, loss and spirituality. My poetry has been published in the BPS Clinical Psychology Forum magazine and I can often be found on Instagram @thepoetfolio, combining my love of nature and photography, and growing confidence to be more than a re-tweeter as Psychojournojill.
Gaining a new word in my vocabulary: ‘reflection’
My first experience of reflective practice was being on a Zoom meeting with no agenda apart from an invitation to ‘reflect’. I was drowning in the awkward silences and pregnant pauses, not knowing what to say or what the ‘rules’ were.
As I understand it, reflection is the practice of looking at oneself: sometimes critically, sometimes analytically, always compassionately, and hopefully not self-indulgently. More than simply ‘looking’ and hopefully ‘seeing’, however, it is about making meaning out of what we see and using it to act more authentically and beneficially in the world.
As hard as it is to define, it is harder to practice.
As the old proverb says: the teeth cannot bite themselves; the eyes cannot see themselves; the fingertip cannot touch itself. How is it then that the mind can think about itself? How can we as humans think honestly and accurately about ourselves and what we think, feel and do?
Multiple books and possibly a few religions exist to try and answer these questions, and I won’t pretend that I have any answers myself. What I do believe however, is that it is possible. Eyes can see themselves with the help of a mirror, and the mind can think about itself with the help of the right ‘mirrors’. Spaces, questions, silences, perspectives, and other people can all become mirrors.
They can become mirrors, but it is not inevitable. The key ingredient that brings it all together is a personal willingness to see what is really there, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.
A concept that has helped me start becoming somewhat reflective is the Jungian idea of ‘The Shadow’. In a nutshell, it is any part of us that we are unaware of, or are simply unwilling to acknowledge as ours. Accepting and integrating into our self-understanding is therefore an inherently uncomfortable process:
‘The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.’
Carl Jung, Aion (1951). CW 9, Part II: P.14.
Being willing to intellectually acknowledge that there are aspects of myself with which I feel profoundly uncomfortable is not the same thing as honestly looking at them when they emerge in day to day life. It has, however, meant I am more open to the idea that moments of discomfort might give way to moments of learning and growth if I stay with them and try to use them as a mirror.
That Zoom meeting where I felt uncomfortable in the silence following an invitation to ‘reflect’ gave me an insight into my own unwillingness to look inside and share my private thoughts with others. Being part of an anti-racist book group has made me much more aware of how my ‘shadow’ is riddled with biases and prejudices about others (including but not limited to race). Being in a relationship with an extraordinarily courageous and strong woman has made me aware of how deep my misogynistic attitudes can be. The whole world can be a space to reflect if we want it to be, and are willing to endure the discomfort for as long as it takes.
The paradox is, that far from being an exercise in self-denigration and chastisement, this kind of self-reflection has been steps on a path to wholeness and authenticity. When unacknowledged, the shadowy parts of me caused havoc and seemed to have a life of their own. As I look at them, they become distinct thoughts, feeling or potential actions that I can choose not to engage with or act upon. Most of the time, having acknowledged them, I don’t even want to engage with or act upon them anymore. By accepting my unpleasant internal realities, I become less harmful to myself and others.
Like all important things we find, it is something I want to share. Sometimes, I imagine what a world full of increasingly self-reflective people would be like. Consistent, sustained and honest reflection like this would be a human superpower. I am just a beginner. I hope I can continue to grow with practice.
This is not without its hazards, however. I have found that the danger of becoming more ‘reflective’ is that sense of superiority or self-indulgent introspection can piggy-back in with the growing self-awareness, and hinder genuine reflection. One can start to feel like one can diagnose other people’s shadows. Even if one could, being aware of the shadows of others does not make me any more whole than I was before.
As I continue my journey into Psychology, I expect that this tendency to lose reflective momentum will be something I need to be constantly mindful of. To complicate matters, just as individuals can have shadows, so can groups and whole societies: things that we all consistently allow ourselves and each other to ignore. What might the collective shadow of Psychology contain? How might I be tempted to collaborate in maintaining it? How can I be a part of a profession that is willing to look at itself and integrate any uncomfortable truths?
These are questions I think about when I consider my future journey into Psychology. But for now, I simply commend reflection and the willingness to acknowledge uncomfortable truths as a path to wholeness and humanness.
‘Having previously studied Theology and Religion, and worked a variety of different jobs, I am now seeking to change careers into psychology. I am currently doing an MSc Psychology (conversion) at the University of East London, intending to work in mental health services and one day train as a Clinical Psychologist. Having worked in Digital Marketing, I am well aware of how easily information can be disseminated online, both for good or ill. I believe that psychological concepts can be communicated online in a way which has enormous potential to benefit our mental health, individually and collectively. Human beings are beautifully complex, but the truths and techniques which help us live to our fullest can be beautifully simple.’
Joshua Sewell, London
Painting above by Leah Orme
'This acrylic painting marked a year into my role as an assistant psychologist.
Throughout my Psychology journey, I believe I have both lost and then subsequently found my passion for art and expressing emotions through the medium of painting. Whilst studying intensely at the University of Cambridge and the IoPPN, I lacked the time to paint. It was during the Covid-19 pandemic that I found myself with more time to rediscover my passion for painting. In particular, this image depicts the emotions that many of my service users reported whilst seeking treatment for their mental health during the pandemic.’
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