Compare and Contrast - Part 1
The “good” internship
I can teach the comparative anatomy of the beetles in a way which will make little Hitlers out of you all, or I can teach comparative anatomy of beetles in a way which will make you all into, what shall we say, dancers or artists … even, perhaps, Democratic citizens.
In times of war, who do you think would be more difficult to replace? A psychologist treating returning soldiers from the front suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD)? Or a bookkeeper for an Air Force base? Answer below.
During World War II, soldiers were returning from battle suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—then known as “shell shock”. Psychiatrists were too busy treating war injuries to work with these emotionally troubled soldiers. This serendipitous event would launch my father’s career. New Air Force recruits were given IQ tests, and my father scored high enough that the Air Force sent him to Stanford University to take graduate courses in psychology. He got A grades in all his psych courses and Ds and Fs in the others. Good enough for the Air Force. He was placed at the Spokane Air Force Base where he was thrown into treating the troubled soldiers. Corporal Shrink.
While stationed there, my mother took over as the bookkeeper for the base. When the Air Force was to transfer my father to a base in South Carolina, she reminded them that she would be leaving with him. He remained at the Spokane base until discharged.
The war over, my father attended a PhD program at the University of Chicago to train as a clinical psychologist. After he finished his course work, the now family of four (my brother was four and I was two) moved to Los Angeles, where my father set up one of the first clinical psychology practices in California.
With her experience in bookkeeping, my mother became his business manager. This suited them both. My mother liked to control finances, my father liked to practice his art as a psychotherapist. While trained as a psychoanalyst, as nearly all psychotherapists were in the day, my father left that ritual behind. He practiced, as the saying goes, by the seat of his pants. As he had gained weight over the years, that was a solid foundation.
As do most offspring, I idealized aspects of my dominant parent, that is, dominant in what I wanted for myself. My father made a good living doing exactly what he wanted. Starting in his early thirties, he worked his own hours and had no boss. I wanted that.
Supervision as modeling
My adventure to land a BA diploma was an odyssey of my own making, without any of the dramatic entertaining moments that would lead me to give details of why it took me six years. I was somewhere between being a poor student and hardly a student. Still, San Francisco State admitted me to their masters in clinical psych—likely because I had three jobs in the mental health system, already, one working with autistic children, a second with teens referred from the juvenile justice system because of chronic drug use, and a third in an acute (short stay) hospital unit for adults experiencing a psychotic episode.
My first year in the program suited this classroom-allergic student perfectly. The eight professors had devised an experiment. They divided the twenty-four, first-year graduate students, into a group of thirteen who would attend traditional classes and be placed in various internship settings, and our group of eleven, who would have no classes, have an internship placement in the same setting, and have group and individual supervision from our two clinically-experienced professors.
We eleven were placed in a community counseling center south of San Francisco to work with children and families. The experience was beyond stressful. We were all in our twenties, childless, and most were spouseless. Do you see the problem?
At the counseling center, the group of clients and the group of interns had one thing in common. We lacked confidence in our main purpose. They lacked confidence in their parenting and we lacked confidence in our ability to help them. And yet, the center was glad to have us. It was a poor community, which translated to meager financial support for the center. Our program provided free counselors and free supervision.
Unfortunately, while our two professor supervisors were experts in child psychology, and experienced in traditional work with individuals, neither was trained in family therapy. There was no family therapy in the era of their training. So what was their plan to help us inexperienced interns? Apparently, place us in a community of need and hope we’d get bitten by a sympathetic radioactive spider trained in family therapy.
The help we did get came in a manner I did not appreciate until years later. What the professors did have was faith in us, faith in our ability to hang in there and figure it out. We were given a we have confidence in you, message throughout. But the message was implicit, never stated. What was that about?
The hint came from a single statement from my individual supervisor. He said all his work with clients meant to convey one message: you don’t need me. Those four words packed a lot. The following is my interpretation:
He was saying to his client, you’re a grownup, who’s come this far in life with sufficient competence to deal with setbacks and find solutions. His message was, losing confidence is not the same as losing competence.
We all know life eventually hands us discouraging signals we need to get past, but the you can’t do it, you’re a loser messages begin early in childhood, a vicious circle of failure ensues and demoralization sets in. The families we served were culturally low-status, and were targets of more critical messages than most, from well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning educators, welfare agents, workplace bosses, and so on.
How do you get past demoralization? A little bit of success goes a long way to reverse a vicious circle. As the cliché goes, failure breeds failure and success breeds success.
By showing faith in their students to work with clients, our professor supervisors were shoring up our courage to take the first steps as counselors, to not be discouraged by perceived setbacks. But they were doing more than that. They were modeling how we should regard our clients, as competent people who just need that same message to take the first steps to make their lives better—that losing confidence is not the same as losing competence. Our professors regarded us as they anticipated we’d regard our clients. Attitudes, good and bad, are infectious. During my career, I developed less subtle methods, but those methods were always in the service of that original approach: I regard you as capable and will help you take steps to regard yourself as capable.