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Why Getting it Wrong Can be the First Step to Getting it Right in Practicum

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By: Aneesah Muhammad, Irvine Graduate Campus

Practicum, it’s the part of our education experience where any graduate student in a marriage and family therapy program, contends with the most anxiety. We anticipate practicum with hopes that our prerequisite courses will have magically transformed us into experts who can fix our client’s lives. Although Anxiety tells us that this is not even remotely possible, we still hope that it is the case. When we reach practicum, we find that anxiety spoke the truth to us. We have not become experts, and our clients cannot be fixed. This is the bad news. The good news is that not being an expert is fertile ground for lots of wonderful things to blossom such as a curiosity about who our clients really are and a burgeoning of ideas about how we can collaborate with them for their treatment. As a first semester, practicum student, I found it refreshing that I was not the only one to bring wisdom into the therapy room. The responsibility to address problems affecting my clients did not rest solely on my shoulders. Clients bring their wisdom, and hopefully agency, to the treatment process. In light of this new insight, I was able to give myself permission to get things wrong and not be perfect.

As students, we can be so afraid of getting it wrong, especially in front of other people. The fear sometimes creeps up on us, beckons to us, and convinces us that we shouldn’t put ourselves out there. “If you reveal your ignorance, you will look like a fool,” it says. But what better time to appear not to know than when we are expected to know the least? Although we will never know everything— even after becoming licensed—practicum is a time to demonstrate what we don’t know as much as what we do know. Our supervisors need to be made clearly aware of what we are doing in the therapy rooms so that that they can offer us guidance and correction when we need it. Sometimes we are being recorded, and sometimes we simply have to tell our supervisors what makes us unsure when sitting with a client, what makes us uncomfortable, what came up for us and what real questions we have. Otherwise, we will be moving around in the dark with no one to help us to see. Ultimately what we want is to become better therapists. In Practicum, we are no longer just graduate students working towards high GPAs, but student therapists applying theories learned and testing out interventions.

My practicum training is in narrative therapy which requires me to think about problems in a vastly different way that I am accustomed to thinking of them. Having a supervisor who is informed by narrative ideas, and is very empathic and collaborative, is just the nurturing environment that I needed to take calculated risks. My goals as a therapist and my chosen practicum site were a perfect fit. The culture at my site gives me the courage to engage and be vulnerable about what I don’t know. This transparent approach enables my supervisors to assist me with aligning my intentions for interventions with postmodern ideas and approaches to treatment. As therapists, it’s not always what we are doing that matters but how we think about what we are doing. That said, I can think of an instance where one of my fellow therapists, at my practicum site, proposed an intervention to help with a couple in conflict. She asked our supervisors for their thoughts about her assigning reading material to the couple: a pop psychology relationship book. At the time, I was sure that she would be told that this is a bad idea based on my knowledge that there are not a lot of books, of that genre, written from a narrative approach. This is not what she was told. Instead of being advised one way or another, she was questioned about her intentions. She was asked how she thinks that the ideas in the chosen book would inform her work with the couple. I suspect that if my colleague were to say that the intent of the book was to discuss dominant ideas about relationships and to give the clients background for deconstructing those ideas, the proposal would have gotten a green light. The approval would have been in spite of the fact that the proposed literature was not likely to come from our chosen theoretical orientation.

The above anecdote is why many supervisors will not tell their student therapists what is right and what is wrong. This might be a source of frustration for students, just starting out, as it was for me. We want to know the correct way to treat our clients. Conversely, the reality is that there are many right answers or right ways to go about treatment; just as there are many “right” ways for our clients to live their lives. To contend with the frustration, we student therapists need to start trusting ourselves. My practicum site is fantastic in teaching theory and interventions, but the art of therapy is learned through trial and error. Based on my practicum experiences, so far, I have concluded that designing therapeutic questions or exercises, with my client’s well-being in mind, ultimately leads to a favorable result. With these collections of positive outcomes, my anxiety over doing the right thing has gone down tremendously. Subsequently, my confidence as a therapist is steadily on the incline.

Christmas Psychology Blogs and Articles

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The Spirit of the 1914 Christmas Truce – “A World War I interlude among British and German troops shows how even bitter foes can work out rituals of cooperation.” (The Wall Street Journal)

Bad Santa: The Psychology Behind Ghastly Gifts – “So what, indeed, is the thought process that goes into choosing a bad gift? What goes on in the psyches of the gifting-challenged? The answer, according to psychologists, may be less mystifying, and perhaps even more thoughtful, than you might think.” (The Globe and Mail)

Therapy and “The Gift of the Magi” – “The word “therapy” is derived from the Greek word for healing. And although therapy begins with a focus on our individual healing, the fruit and the proof of any good therapy is the ability to move beyond ourselves and love others more and better.” (Jay R. Feld, LMFT)

December 2014 Psychology Blog and Article Rundown

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Some interesting articles and blog posts from this month!

China: Inside an Internet Gaming Disorder Rehab Center – “At the center — which, as Moleres’ photos depict, some patients have attempted to escape — teens suffering from Internet gaming disorder are monitored for gaming’s effects on their neurological activity, and through labor and military drills are thought to improve brain activity and break the habit.” (Al Jazeera)

10 Ways That Brain Myths are Harming Us – “For every genuine break through, there is parallel excretion of hype or utter neurobunk.” (Wired)

Lost Memories Might be Able to be Restored – “The nervous system appears to be able to regenerate lost synaptic connections. If you can restore the synaptic connections, the memory will come back. It won’t be easy, but I believe it’s possible.” (UCLA)

Torture Victims will Bear Psychological Scars Long After CIA Report Scandal Fades – “Men and women who have experienced torture are most often irrevocably changed, say medical professionals who have treated survivors. Depression, anxiety, personality shifts, hallucinations and suicidal thoughts can manifest and persist years afterward.” (The Guardian)

The CIA Didn’t Just Torture, It Experimented on Human Beings – “Human experimentation was a core feature of the CIA’s torture program…At the helm of this human experimentation project were two psychologists hired by the CIA, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.” (The Nation)

America’s Torture Doctors – “The APA has in the past refused to censure a notorious Guantanamo U.S. Army psychologist John Leso, who led a Behavioral Science Consulting Team (sic) that drafted a policy memo incorporating “illegal” techniques once used by North Korean and Chinese interrogators to break American prisoners.” (The American Conservative)

Nathaniel Branden, R.I.P. (1930-2014) – “After the break with Rand in 1968, Branden had his own highly successful career as a hugely popular writer on psychology, and he is a pioneer of the vital importance of “self-esteem” in modern culture.” (Reason)

Office Space Available in Laguna Beach

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Office space for rent in Laguna Beach beginning January 1 2015. Days available:

Mondays: All Day

Fridays: 1-7 p.m.

Saturdays: All Day

Please email Laura San Nicolas at laura (at) soul-focused-anxiety-treatment.com

Fall 2014 Psychology Blog and Article Rundown

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Some interesting articles and blog posts from the past couple of months! ~ Andrew Walker, M.A.

How “Foodies” Were Duped Into Thinking McDonald’s Was High-End Food – “Research has found that when you tell people that what they are eating or drinking is a high-end product, they won’t just say that it tastes better than a cheaper product — their brains will actually experience it as better.” (NPR)

Super-Intelligent Humans are Coming – “The genetic study of cognitive ability suggests that there exist today variations in human DNA which, if combined in an ideal fashion, could lead to individuals with intelligence that is qualitatively higher than has ever existed on Earth.” (Nautilus)

Is Gluten Causing Your Depression? – “In celiac patients, depression and anxiety symptoms have been linked to gluten consumption. But what about in non-celiac patients? Could gluten be causing anxiety and depression in folks without celiac disease?” (Evolutionary Psychiatry)

Can Video Games Fend Off Mental Decline? – “Gazzaley, however, is something of an outlier. His work commands respect from even the harshest critics. He spent five years designing and testing the sort of game play I had just experienced, and he found that it does indeed appear to prompt older brains to perform like ones decades younger.” (New York Times Magazine)

Here Are the Psychological Reasons Why an American Might Join ISIS – “McCain grew up in Minnesota, was a basketball player, and wanted to be a rapper. Friends describe him as a high school “goofball” and “a really nice guy.” So what could have made him want to join the ranks of other Americans drawn towards militant Islam?” (Mother Jones)

Career Connections 2014: Irvine Graduate Campus March 26, 4 – 6 p.m.

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If you missed the Career Connections event at the West LA campus, you’re still in luck — GSEP Career Services and M.A. Psychology and Psy.D. Clinical Training are bringing this volunteer, practicum, and employment fair to the Irvine campus on March 26.

As of March 13, the following attendees are confirmed with more to come!

Boys and Girls Clubs of Garden Grove

Bridge Teen

California Youth Services

Casa de La Familia

The Center Long Beach

Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services

Hope House

Irvine Unified School District

Laura’s House

Outreach Concern

Pepperdine Community Counseling Center

Providence Community Services

Pryde Program

The Salvation Army

Turning Point Center for Families

The Weichman Clinic

Western Youth Services

Faculty Spotlight: Shannon Wilson, Psy.D.

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“A teacher enlarges people in all sorts of ways besides just his subject matter.” – Wallace Stegner

As students, many of us possess a great deal of curiosity about the unknown lives of our professors – the journeys that led them to their present careers and what it is that they do outside of the classroom to fuel the wisdom and insight they bring to the podium. Recently, we touched base with Shannon Wilson, PsyD – who teaches PSY 659 (Behavioral Principles and Theories of Learning) and PSY 603 (Assessment of Individuals, Couples, and Families) at GSEP’s Irvine campus – to get a glimpse of her interests and work outside of Pepperdine. Here’s what she had to say…

What are your primary clinical interests?

Depression and anxiety in adolescents and adults; core beliefs; assessment.

Do you have a particular theoretical orientation?

If I had to put myself in one category, I’d say CBT is what I practice most.

Are you currently working on any research? If so, what is the focus of your research?

Yes!  I am supervising research with current Pepperdine students, focusing on the effects of laptops/cell phones (different types of technology) that may alter classroom dynamics and attention/focus levels.  I also have a very exciting opportunity coming up for our students where we will look at archival data focusing on therapy session attendance/no show rates in diverse populations; we will be looking at numerous possible correlational variables such as length of assessment period, connection/rapport with caregivers, SES levels with special focus on transportation issues, diagnoses, extent of distress, etc.

Who/what inspired you to get into your current profession?

I started off pre-med but realized my talent was in psychology.  I was soon inspired by the experiences of really helping people to live happier lives without so much suffering.  The connection I feel with my clients and students inspires me and provides much satisfaction in my profession.

One piece of advice you have for students working toward their MA in psychology?

If I could grab hold of every single student and teach them one thing only, it would be to always follow your heart and gut instincts and BE YOURSELF.  I see so many students trying to please the “profession,” trying to be what they think they should be instead of just being themselves and knowing that who they are is perfect, just the way they are.  Many of our students applying to doctoral programs attempt to mold themselves into what they think the schools are looking for instead of walking in there knowing the schools are lucky to have them.  Obviously they need to have the proper schooling, grades, experience, etc., but they forget they are okay just the way they are.

What’s the best piece of advice you received during your clinical training?

HA!  When I was faced with a decision to do what I wanted to do and what I felt was right for me versus what I was expected and told to do, some very wise person I will forever be grateful to said “Shannon, just be you…you are the best you that you can be.”  And so I did.  And I was.

One fun/interesting fact about you?

My favorite TV show is Judge Judy…I never miss an episode! My kids also have me looming (making those rubber band bracelets) constantly on the weekends; they bring me orders from all of their friends.  I am a very popular mom right now. 

Something that inspires you?

My clients that really have extremely difficult lives in numerous ways and they keep trying, keep going.

Something that turns you off?

People that have no compassion or empathy for others; lack of common sense.

If you could have dinner with anyone in history, past or present, who would it be?

I would love to have dinner with my maternal grandfather who died when I was three months old.  I want to see what he was like, his mannerisms, his humor.

What book is currently on your nightstand?  

Princess Bedtime Stories and Dragon Slayer’s Academy.  You asked!

If your life were a literary work, what would it be called?

The Mommy Who Wanted To Freeze Time So She Could Take a Nap.

What do you need to start your day?

Enough sleep! I wish I was a coffee drinker!

How do you unwind at the end of your day?

Watch Judge Judy!  Haha!  Actually, my husband and I can’t wait to get the kids into bed so we can just relax; it’s our golden time and there’s never enough of it, but that’s my favorite time of day.  The kids are safe, clean and cozy in their beds, and we get to finally relax.  Also, my blind, snorting pug snuggles with me and that relaxes me instantly!

What food can you not live without?

Mexican food!!

When I’m not teaching or seeing clients, you can find me…

Spending time with my family.

Favorite quote/words to live by?

“That’s not okay,” “that doesn’t work for me,” and “100% worthy, just the way you are.”