The Unlikely Story of a Clinical Psychology Solopreneur — Doing and Being

When I was a kid and someone asked me what I wanted to be, I knew I would do something artistic. Broadway. Local theatre. Whatever would get me on stage. I started piano lessons at age 5, attended month long summer arts academies in the woods of Michigan, took every kind of dance lesson possible, and sold tickets to my parents for the shows I put on in our living room. I could be an artist and do so many things with that identity.

Choosing between paths as a railroad track goes into the hills. Photo by Lance Grandahl on Unsplash.
Photo by Lance Grandahl on Unsplash

But something changed as I got older. Instead of the curious, open-ended questions about what I wanted to be, I started to hear more about what do you want to do. In high school, it was “what college will you go to? During college freshman year, it was “what is your major?” During sophomore year, it was “you’ve had how many majors?” It all of a sudden felt like I needed to figure out what I was going to do and THAT would shape who I would be. The direction was reversed. The DO replaced the BE.

I ended up finding psychology (a few majors into college) and fell in love with it. I has stumbled into something that examined humanity, cognition, and behavior through a scientific lens. I dove into my books, making trips to the store to get more highlighters and giggling at the nerdiness of running out of ink in a Sharpie. The journey was about the joy of discovery. I was beginning a new story.

I decided to apply to PhD programs. I worked hard, did grunt research, learned a ton, and continued to shape my story. I was asking myself about the world and discovering amazing things about myself and human behavior.

Studying in a coffee shop. Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash

Things started to become muddled when the question shifted to “what should I do in graduate school and with this degree?” I bought into the idea that the path forward had to look a certain way. The path through and to academia can be a wonderful fit for many people. The problem was, so much of it wasn’t a fit for me. Instead of saying “this is not my story” and figuring out how to pivot, I criticized myself for not fitting into a mold. Instead of asking for support to idiosyncratically shape the doctoral process, I focused on my shortcomings. I became depressed and anxious due to all of the ways I wasn’t “doing” things like I “should.” I got so stuck I couldn’t be honest with myself or other people. And I was in a clinical psychology program — I should have done something, right?!

[By the way, shoulds are an especially debilitating form of automatic thoughts. In other words, the thoughts that automatically pop into your head include “should” (an external force) rather than “want to” (an internal force).]

There was nothing particularly special about my journey. The push towards doing has been engrained in us for years. While I still argue with my husband if I fit better with GenX or as an older Millennial (also called “geriatric millennials” which is ridiculous), I have long felt the intense pressure to succeed. The pressure became so internalized that I began to loose the artist, the creative, and the adventurer. I am not saying those qualities disappeared but they felt “less than” in comparison to the professional path I set for myself. So I have to wonder, is this pressure to do helping? While I don’t agree with the literal interpretation of the article title, Melanie Curtain speaks to the difficulties caused by the push to succeed by doing.

“67 percent of [millennials] said they felt “extreme” pressure to succeed, compared to 40 percent of GenXers and 23 percent of Boomers. There was a marked difference in the open-ended responses of Millennials, too — an overall mood of anxiety and self-reproach. The majority felt the same way I did: They hadn’t done enough yet, and time was running out.”

So much to worry about and so little time. Lucian Alexe on Unsplash

It has been over a decade since I began the journey of what to do as a clinical psychologist. While I have loved many of the jobs I’ve held and teams I have been a part of, I have not spent much time focusing on who I want to be in my profession.

Just like many of my peers, I asked myself.. “do I continue on a leadership track or do something different?” In an examination of older millennial work patterns, Jennifer Liu notes there is a split between wanting to be challenged in the workplace and advance while also feeling burned out and starting to consider how work/life could look different. If your achievement drive is strong and you value hard work, can that exist professionally without having to fit in a box that says “Director” or “C-Suite?” Can you focus on who you are and let that drive your story?

My clinical and personal opinion is, absolutely. Each day is a chance to take a breath and ask “what is my story? who am I?”

Name your story. Think about if it is the one you want to continue living? If it is no longer serving a positive purpose in your life, you don’t have to hold onto it or continue to chase it. You have the choice to say “that other one, that one over there looks interesting. I am going to follow it to see where it can go.”

The difficult work of self-discovery is never done.

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