It's fast coming up to the time of year where bright-eyed postgraduates with big dreams of changing the world start their Doctorate in Clinical Psychology training courses. Inspired by that fact, I thought I'd do a post of some of the best advice I've been given over my years as a clinical psychologist.
Now, I started my training as a clinical psychologist a decade ago, which is a fact that terrifies me every day. Training was a little bit different then, but not so different that I feel out of step with the current trainees who come on placements in the NHS with me. They always seem so enthusiastic and eager to learn, and I remember what that was like (as well as the utter dread that I was eventually going to be "found out" and kicked off the course - and, spoiler alert, that doesn't even go away after you graduate!). I also remember my supervisors throughout clinical training, and the things they said to me that were really helpful at the time.
Paddle your own canoe
This was one of the first pieces of advice that my very first supervisor gave me. I was working in a diabetes and cardiac health service, and was slightly envious of all my training colleagues who had placements in mental health. I felt out of my depth for a long time, and often negatively compared myself to other trainees who I felt had picked up the work much faster than I had. My supervisor must have realised what I was telling myself (whilst outwardly trying to pretend that I was fine) because she said:
Don't keep comparing yourself to everyone else. You're all going to go down different routes after this, so just paddle your own canoe and enjoy the journey.
The effect on me was pretty much instantaneous, although it took me a while to completely stop comparing myself to my peers (and I still struggle a little bit now with the idea that I'm not as "accomplished" as others). I realised that she was right, and that the person on my course who I felt was better than me at everything was most likely someone who I wouldn't really come across in my professional life after the course. I went into physical health, others went into working with children or people with learning disabilities, and ultimately I learned that those things weren't for me and that was okay. I enjoyed the course, by and large, and focused on doing the best for the people in front of me that I could do - and not on being better than the other trainees.
Look after yourself
There's no denying it - training is intense. You're doing six placements of six months within the NHS, working with people who are really distressed - and just when you feel like you're getting the hang of it, you have to leave again. You have to leave people who you might not have finished working with, and hope that they form a good relationship with the next therapist. You rarely, if ever, get to find out how they do after you leave. On top of that, you're constantly writing case studies, doing audits or service evaluations, maybe doing exams or marked presentations, and then you have to do your thesis - a piece of original research which will be marked by qualified clinical psychologists who work in the area you're researching. It's a lot!
One of my supervisors was fantastic at self-care. She had been working in the NHS for a LONG time with children, and she knew exactly when to push herself and when to pull back. Supervision often felt very soothing, sitting in a comfy armchair bathed in sunlight in her dusty office in a seaside town. She forced me to take lunch breaks, interrogated me endlessly about how I was coping with the workload, and let me watch her say "no" to different people in a variety of different ways until I felt confident in doing it myself. The message was clear - look after yourself, or you won't be able to look after other people. That advice has served me well, and it's a message I try to pass on to my own trainees now.
You can't help everyone
Working in physical health can be hard. People die, through both life-limiting illnesses and choices made about whether or not to take medication. When the latter happens, it's easy to feel guilty - if a different therapist had been looking after them, would they have been able to get them to take their meds? Would they have been able to help that person better than I could? It can eat away at you if you let it.
After a particularly bruising experience of this, I remember a supervisor of mine smiling gently, shrugging his shoulders and saying "you can't help everyone." I know it to be true, and nowadays I'm clear with the people that I see that if they don't feel like they're getting on with me, or that we can get the work done, they can and should ask to see someone else. But at the time, it was a kind reminder that bad things happen, and it's not always my - or anyone's - fault.
I'm grateful to the supervisors and colleagues who have shaped me, and given me fantastic advice. I'm also grateful to those who have given me unhelpful advice, as it's also shaped me into the person I am today. We'll have a look at that next week - if you've got any more good advice for trainees, let me know in the comments.
Dr Sarah Blackshaw: Clinical Psychologist, blogger, tea drinker, interested in dinosaurs and shiny objects