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Do Psychologists Need Psychologists?

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In January this year, I became a chartered psychologist (CPsychol) through the British Psychological Society. It was the culmination of a 20-year journey spanning three university degrees and higher learning qualifications, a career swerve into advertising, five years of supervised applied practice and a final nerve-wracking viva. But this story is not a self-aggrandising pat on the back, it’s actually about self-care.

During the challenge of the Covid pandemic I had to make a decision about my full-time employment. For the previous five years I had been working for an advertising agency part-time, leaving plenty of bandwidth to focus on study, training, research, and building a trainee applied practice. But with the macroeconomic environment looking increasingly uncertain, I took a full-time job with a sports marketing company. In doing so, I also took a leap in seniority, managing a team across the European business.

I spoke with my supervisor ahead of making this change. We discussed how the job pivot would leave me with less time to dedicate to psychology training, however this employment change would give myself and my family stability during a time of global instability.

Six weeks into the job and I was experiencing an unprecedented level of stress, self-consciousness, and worry. “What if this job doesn’t work out?”, “Will I be able to pay the mortgage?”, “How am I going to fit in the time to complete my training?” Did I make the right decision?”. Being in a state of stress and worry is not an ideal circumstance when you are trying to help and assist others with their own challenges.

At this point I decided to seek psychological support to talk to someone about what I was experiencing. I saw the investment in a private practitioner as beneficial in two ways: 1) I wanted to speak to a qualified professional during a period of immense change to soundboard my thoughts; and 2) I thought that receiving psychological support first-hand would be beneficial to my own continued professional development as a practitioner.

Some of the professional practice literature in sport psychology advocates for trainee psychologists becoming clients themselves, and in counselling psychology it is mandatory. The experience of being on the other side of the relationship can help us better understand how our own clients experience service delivery, and the influence that our behaviours can have on them.

A conflicting factor in the experience was the dual purpose of the therapy. We discussed this upfront, and my practitioner did a great job of working on my personal challenges whilst illustrating nuggets of professional learning along the way. In a study of counselling and psychology student experiences of personal therapy, it was found that sometimes there exists a lack of clarity about expectations as to the purpose of the therapy. Is it primarily for personal or professional gain? The author writes that “there is a tacit understanding that personal therapy attended is for training purposes and, by comparison, personal therapy sought out because of personal distress are not one and the same”.

But aside from training purposes, psychologists will seek out professional support because, well, in the words of this professor at Cornell and Columbia – “shockingly enough, therapists are also people”. A 2017 survey by the British Psychological Society found that 46% of psychologists suffered from depression. Yes, it turns out that highly experienced problem solvers with a deep knowledge of psychology… are human too, “beautiful, imperfect humans like the rest of us” and just as vulnerable to “life’s trying and often painful events”.

This is why the Health Care Practitioner’s Council formalises self-care in their Standards of Proficiency for practitioner psychologists, and why recent papers in the sport psychology world have described self-care as the “bedrock” of service delivery.

My own experience of psychological support was very positive. It provided me with an opportunity to soundboard private and sensitive thoughts that I had not expressed before, work through different strands of thinking, validate current strategies and problem-solve new ones. As I continue the journey of applied practice post-Chartership, I will continue to utilise formal support. And if you are a qualified psychologist or trainee who has yet to experience life on the other side of the relationship, I would recommend you try it.

Pete Jackson is a chartered sport psychologist, registered with the British Psychological Society.

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