This week I want to dive a little more deeply into today’s JOY episode. I talk about the messy parts of process, making process not so precious and my own professional evolution from fine artist to psychotherapist to alchemist. Yeah, I’m surprised too. But alchemist feels the most true of all of those things. A bridge between the data driven scientist and the wildly creative fine artist. I’m not one or the other, but a third thing in between. And that place is a wilderness I have come to really love.
I have struggled so deeply to settle into this bridge. This wilderness. To be this third thing in between. I share in detail on the podcast, so I won’t repeat myself here, but I thought it worthwhile to share some notes on what it has been like getting to this place, professionally. In short, it’s been quite a journey.
The first day of my Clinical Psychology graduate studies, I met my colleague Aaron. Aaron and I would go on to share an office space together that first year. Ride the ups and downs of a very strenuous and often insane graduate program and remain close friends for the past nearly 20 years.
Aaron, if you are reading this, eres mi hermano, mi amigo.
We met over a brief cohort introduction as to how we found ourselves pursuing graduate study in psychology. “I’m actually a soccer player, “ he said. “Well good,” I said, “I’m actually an artist.” We mutually agreed that if psychology didn’t work out we would quite happily go back to being a soccer player and an artist. But in the meantime, we’d stick together as not fully belonging to one idea or the other.
And that is how much of my time steeped in clinical psychology would go.
I landed my first job, what was my dream job, a few months before graduation. I was to be the Director of Counseling Services at a small private fashion college in downtown San Francisco. It couldn’t be more perfect. I would be in my new role as a psychotherapist and get to do it for and with my wildly creative people.
And it was great. And there wasn’t a minute that I was not fully accepted as both the wildly creative artist and the data driven scientist at that job. True alchemy. I got to dress in the most gorgeous expensive designer fashion and spend time helping the most forward thinking creative college students get to know themselves. It was hard work, but it was really, really good work.
I was still earning my licensing hours at the time and while working as the Counseling Director at the fashion college, I was also earning hours at an adolescent psychiatric unit. I have written and spoken about this work experience a lot. It was the best and the worst in all the ways. Since I was part time at both, there were days where I was running from one place to the other. I was lucky enough to organize my schedule in a way that the days I was seeing patients at the fashion college, I was not seeing patients at the hospital. This was intentional, as my dress for the fashion college was not appropriate at all for being on the hospital floor. High heels and fitted dresses do not work so well on a unit where safety is of critical importance. But I assumed my appearance was just fine to attend case conference and supervision with colleagues on an entirely separate non-patient floor of the hospital. And I suppose this was partly true. Turns out there was a lot I didn’t know at the time.
While I didn't have an issue being taken seriously by my supervisors and directors, it was brought to my attention that I was not being taken seriously by some of my male colleagues at the hospital. Due to the fact that I guess I was not presenting as a typical therapist.
I should add here that the pedagogy of psychoanalysis in particular leans heavily into the idea of the therapist being the blank slate. The reason being that if the therapist appears to have little to no distinct personality or sexuality of their own, the patient is more free to project upon the therapist their own thoughts and desires. And there is definitely merit to this idea. This is the reason why a therapist doesn't typically talk about themselves to a patient during a session. There are boundaries around what a seasoned therapist will share with patients in order to leave potential for these projections and transference. It is an important part of the work.
From this pedagogy the myth of what a therapist should look like has arisen. Counter to this though is the idea that presenting yourself as a typical therapist when you are not one is a falsehood and this falsehood then unconsciously dampens the treatment. There is an air of inauthenticity that patients can often sense and this inauthenticity in and of itself can prevent opportunity for transference and projection.
Both can be true. I tend to fall on the side of the fence that if the typical blank slate is not you, do not present that way. Authenticity matters.
A few of my colleagues at the fashion college referred to me as Therapy Barbie and to be honest, I kind of always loved that. They took my expertise seriously and I had always thought Barbie was kick ass. She can do all the things, even with that ridiculous body. I’m not sure how one can be an astronaut or a firefighter with measurements that would render you unable to stand upright in real life, but hey, Barbie did it. Good for her. And good for me. I could embrace the wildly creative side of myself through fashion and be a really great therapist to these kids. Who, by the way would never take me seriously if I had shown up for them as a typical therapist. They never would have even considered trusting me if I showed up in a completely formless, loose fitting Eileen Fisher ensemble with sensible shoes. No disrespect to Eileen. She has been successfully dressing therapists for nearly 40 years.
This question of my scholarly abilities by colleagues at the hospital based on my dress seemed stupid. I was entirely appropriately dressed. But because my clothes had an expensive price tag and were stylish it somehow meant that I didn’t know my shit.
Wow that's some fun patriarchy right there.
My response to all this at the time was so fucking what? I am who I am and if there were a few men who didn’t take me seriously because I couldn’t step fully into one side of myself, then I guess they will never take me seriously. I haven’t shown up anywhere in my life FOR the approval of men. Most of the time they have remained exclusively uninvited to my party. Where I show up and how I show up has been for me and I’m not going to start inviting men to weigh in on that now - was pretty much what my response was to this information coming to light at the time. And I stand by that to this day.
What it did though was make me feel more like I was struggling to be a part of both worlds. The artist as a therapist and the therapist as an artist. Again, It felt like I was trying to bridge an insurmountable pass. And it was wearing me out. I ended up constantly surprised when more experienced colleagues would gravitate toward my work. I had the most incredible supervisors and mentors, people who were and are deeply respected in the psychoanalytic community. Underneath it all I kind of felt like they signed on to mentor me because someone in the profession needed to keep a close eye on what I was up to. I couldn't possibly know my shit. I was an artist pretending to be a therapist after all.
It wasn't until years later through lots of therapy and introspective work, also many metaphorical slaps across the face by my friend and colleague Aaron that I came to see that these seasoned scholars were drawn to my work because my approach was not only effective, but it was unique. Me being an artist made me a better therapist. To them I was a bridge. An alchemist of science and art. I just didn’t see it yet.
And this is the part of my story that I hope resonates.
Be weird and in your wilderness.
Really. Be fully and truly weird and in your most wild of wildernesses. The right people will find you. And not only the right people but the smartest and most seasoned right people. The people that will light you up and help light your way. Because they are looking for something new. Something different and yeah, something a little weird. And yes, you will alienate others, but most of the time, these others are inconsequential.
The impact of my skills not being taken seriously by a handful of my male colleagues has been zero. It never got in the way of anything that mattered. Anyone who was in a position to impact my career was interested that I did things differently. That I showed up differently. That I was deep in the alchemy of the data driven scientist and the wildly creative fine artist. They didn’t see the bridge as something I had to cross. They knew I embodied the crossing.
Now I know that too.
Therapy Barbie and all.