Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Is it me?: Interpreting or misinterpreting weird gender stuff at work

So as you may or may not know, I am a predoctoral intern in psychology.  This means that me--and by default, all of my colleagues--are roughly 3 months away from graduating with our doctoral degrees in clinical psychology.  This means that in three short months, me--and by default, my colleagues--will be clinical psychologists.

Now, I'm a little embedded in the field, but my general impression is that when most people think of clinical psychologists, they first think "somebody who works with crazy people," and then think of people who listen to other people's problems, right?  Generally, people seem to assume that psychologists are good listeners, caring, people you help you work out your problems, etc.  Lots of people go to see psychologists, and they seem to assume that those professionals are going to listen to them, be nonjudgmental, and be accepting of their emotions. 

Given, I can only assume all of these things because I've been in the psychology world for so long, I don't really know anymore.  My family all just seems to assume that psychologists are crazy because Dr.Silberman, the psychologist who used to live across from my grandmother, retrieved his newspaper every morning, in the nude, for 30-some-odd years.  I am unsure of his listening abilities as the family folklore never made it past the naked newspaper retrieval.  Lots of other people--particularly tipsy men in bars and men who are hitting on me--seem to confuse psychologist with psychic.  In fact, the number one thing response I get (again, particularly from males) when I tell them "what I do," is "'re a psychologist?  So, like, what am I thinking right now?  Are you reading my mind?"  Regardless of how I respond, this typically leads to some version (ranging from the clif notes to the epic saga) of their life story.  Seems that the "good listener" trope extends to psychologist-psychics as well.

That said, I'll be honest: I did spend a good amount of time in my first year of grad school learning how to listen.  We've got all sorts of fancy psychology names for it, and there are 20-bagillion theories about it, but basically what you learn is how to listen and respond to people in a way that is empathic, and meaningful, and leads to deeper work and healing, or crisis management, or understanding, or whatever it is you might be needing to do at that moment.  All programs are different, but in their core, we all learn the same things.  In particular, in that first year, we learn how to work with people and how to listen.

Historically, of course, psychology was overwhelmingly male.  Today, the field of clinical psychology (i.e. I'm not talking about the world of research right now), is primarily female.  Even just in my program, I could look back at the wall of class composites from the beginning of the program and watch the progression from all white, all male cohorts, to the primarily female cohorts (with more ethnic and racial diversity) that we have today.  In my intern cohort, which consists of individuals from programs all over the US, there is an overwhelming number of females to very few males (28:2 or something like that). 

Funny thing is, in my clinic (working with kids with severe behaviors), I work primarily with male therapists.  In fact, among the 4 primary therapists right now, I am the only woman in the bunch.  I appreciate this on several levels: (1) these guys are not as catty as girls I have worked with in the past, nor as competitive, and I needed that sort of environment; (2) when all 5'4 me is working with a kid who is severely aggressive, 5'9, and 275lbs, I want a guy who is 6 feet tall to come in and help me manage him before my OTHER wrist gets broken.  Particularly when the kid has swiped the glasses off my face, the lens popped out, and I can't see a damn thing.  Is there some gender "stuff" going on for me there?  Probably.  But there are just some situations I am put in that I can't physically manage, and I need somebody who can.  I prefer to avoid getting decapitated at work whenever possible.

But, I digress.  There was a situation that arose a few weeks ago at work that has been on my mind.  It bugged me at the time, and I feel like there is some weird gender role/steretype-y/sexism-y sort of stuff going on in it, but I'm having a difficult time putting my finger on it.  I could just be thinking about it too much, and you can tell me if you think I'm way off base.  But this is how it went:

Every couple weeks, we have a kid come into clinic for a 3-week intensive treatment.  They come every day, 5 hours a day, and are often from out-of-town.  These are kids that their local professionals have given up on, and they come see us as a last resort, more often than not.  Given that we need to see all of our regular clients while seeing these clients for 3-weeks, we work in teams of 2 primary therapists and, even then, occasionally, one of the other therapists will need to fill in.

So my colleagues, "Joe" and "Tom," had the last intensive case that came through.  The client came to us from another state, mom was here with her by herself, and mom was under a lot of stress.  I worked with her one day for 2 hours when both Joe and Tom had other obligations.  She was nice, we got a lot done, her kid bit me a couple times, and both of our lives moved on.  We smiled and said hello in the hallway when we saw one another, and talked briefly in the bathroom while washing our hands, and that was about it.  In other words, we did not have a special and magic bond above and beyond what you would expect if you worked with someone for 2 hours.

Then one day, when Joe and Tom were working with kiddo and her mom, mom was having a bad day.  She was frustrated, and stressed, and exhausted, from what I heard from across the hall.  I supposed that Joe and Tom handled it like the psychologists they almost are.  I assumed that they used those skills we all learned in school, and that they would be comfortable handling such a situation.

After lunch, I was sitting in my office, and heard a lot of screaming that sounded like kiddo.  I went out to the lobby and, sure enough, kiddo was having some severe behaviors, Joe was restraining her, mom was trying to clean up their lunch, and everybody clearly needed help.  So I helped restrain kiddo, helped Joe get her up safely to a treatment room, helped clean up the spilled lunch, and then went back to make sure everybody was okay and I could go back to my desk.  This is all pretty typical--when you work with kids like this, this is just how life goes.  Even if it isn't your client, if the kid is having behaviors and assistance is needed, you help.  No problems there.

So I went to Joe, just to ask him if everything was okay.  "Could you do me a favor?" he asked. 

"Sure," I said, figuring he wanted me to make a phone call to a supervisor, or get a paper from his desk.

"Can you go talk to mom?  You know, she's been working with this all-male team all week, and she's really emotional today, and I really think she needs a woman to talk to."  Tom popped his head around the corner.

"Yeah, mom's really crying and just having a really bad day, and I really think it would be best if a woman talked to her.  She's been working with us guys, I really think it would be best if you could talk to her, woman-to-woman."

"About what?" I asked, unsure if, you know, maybe mom's ovaries had exploded since I saw her last, and the guys felt this delicate issue would be best handled by someone whose body also contains ovaries.

"Just tell her that kiddo is calming down, and reassure her that the treatment really is working, and just listen to her.  I think she really needs somebody to listen to her.  She's really emotional, and just really stressed," Tom said.

"Yeah," Joe said.  "Plus, you're really good with parents.  She needs you right now."

And, the truth is, working with parents--particularly parents in crisis--IS my thing.  Parent training, noncompliant parents, parents who hate their kids, parents who can't accept their kids disability, parents who hate my guts...I can do messy family dynamics and am comfortable with crying/pissed off/in distress parents. 

So I went, and I talked with mom.  Mom was definitely confused about why I was talking with her rather than those on her treatment team, but I dropped mom off to Tom and Joe a much calmer person who was ready to re-engage with her kid.

Afterwards, Tom and Joe thanked me profusely: "Mom just really needed a woman to talk to.  She really needed somebody who could listen to her and get what she was saying, and she was she just really needed a woman to be with her."

At first, I felt rather flattered.  Wow, I thought, for the first time, somebody is seeking me out for my particular expertise.  This feels good! 

As I continued to think about it, though, it felt less and less like I was being sought out for my expertise or skill, and more and more like I was being sought out because I was a female who could handle another female crying.  I don't call that "expertise."  Being able to sit with a mother who is crying because her kid just bit/kicked/hit/headbutted her for 30 minutes in the lobby is called being able to do your job.  Mom didn't need a woman to listen to her.  She needed a person to listen to her--a person who knew her child and saw her behaviors and witnessed the tantrum.  She needed to cry about it and say that she was exhausted and felt hopeless.  She needed a psychologist to use his or her listening skills and therapeutic skills and help her through the wave of despair until she landed on the other side.  I mean, I've had fathers I worked with who were pissed off and ready to go beat somebody up, but I didn't go get a male colleague because I thought he would better be able to understand male anger, or better able to relate to dad.  I talked through it, and I listened, and I used the skills I learned to get to the other side.

Are there times when a female therapist, or a male therapist, is warranted?  Absolutely, and I don't want to diminish that.  But, if Joe and Tom wanted my expertise working with parents, would they have been able to come to me and say, "hey, this mom is in crisis and you're good with parents in crisis.  Would you mind talking with mom?"  If so, cool.  If not--is that what they were saying, but couldn't?  Why did it became a gender thing?  Was this an issue where Joe and Tom thought: "we can't admit we're not good at crises like this, but AutoD is, so we'll ask her to come help and tell her it's because both her and mom have vaginas"?  If so, that's not so cool, and I wish I had called them out on it. 

Or, was this an issue of Tom and Joe being uncomfortable with mom being emotional, so they wanted to pass the work of "dealing" with a crying woman on to another woman, rather than working through it themselves?  If so, and they truly felt incompetent in helping mom, I will still help, because I won't make anyone do anything they feel incompetent in doing when a patient is at stake.  However, if that IS the case...I suggest they get comfortable with it quick, because in this line of work, emotions are an everybody thing, and not just for women to deal with anymore.  And, as the psychic that I am, I foresee a whole lot more emotional/crying individuals on their client load in the future.

What do you think?  Am I misinterpreting?  Over-thinking?  How would you have handled it?

1 comment:

  1. Sounds to me like they're saying you're a better therapist because you're a woman, when the truth is you're just a better therapist. They need to save face.