• Nichole Sullivan

Life as a Psychologist

It has been my job for 15 years and my academic focus for 4 years before that. My career trajectory looked like this... (in chronological order) motel cleaner, McDonald's fry and hash brown girl, Body Shop gift wrapper, mexican restaurant waitress (a job I lost because I didn't smile enough after my brother died), selling bread at the markets and selling Doc Martens and Birkenstock shoes I only ever dreamed of being able to afford (I now buy them for my daughter, today I wore a pair of flats from H&M).


My professional career then started as a research assistant, then Psychologist, and now the Company Director and Principal Psychologist at the Conscious Health Clinic.


I avoid talking about my profession if I'm trying to make friends or meeting people

Unless I'm directly asked, I avoid telling people Im a Psychologist if Im trying to make friends, and even then, I try the line, "I own a small business, a private practice". Usually the truth comes out very quickly. I love my work, and talking about my work, however I find that it's not a great way to make new friends or encourage people to share with you... unless... they are oversharers... Then, I find my social event gets hijacked by someone's recent divorce or work stress. It really is an honour to help people in times of need, but it's very easy to be pulled into conversations that shouldn't be had in a toilet at a nightclub or at your sisters birthday party.


Other people tend to pull away, they joke about me "knowing too much already" or "analysing them". Im not! and certainly not more than anyone else is. I find it difficult to make new friends. Thankfully, I have a large group of people who have known me forever and with them the walls are down and I can be myself, and they can too.


I'm an extreme introvert that loves people

I love talking to people one to one and facilitating to large groups in my area of expertise, but in other areas, I am painfully shy.

My job has a high interpersonal demand by nature. This consumes my energy to the point that I need to listen to music, read, enjoy the sun, peruse art and nature in order to recharge. This leaves little time for my own social time, I don't need a lot, but it is so important for psychologists to have those people they can talk to about their own worries and hopes and dreams. Thank you to my friends who get this. You have been instrumental in my life and career.


When you're a Psychologist, but also over different periods of time a daughter, a mum, a wife, an ex wife and dating... My relationships are not perfect.


I argued with my dad today because I forgot to follow up a phone call. I cried in the car to my partner after dinner last night because I couldn't convey how I felt enough for him to deeply understand. I'm not a perfect communicator in my own life.


In contrast, the depth of my conversations at work is untapped. It is what I love about my job. I know my clients greatest fears, their hopes and aspirations, their quirks, their kinks and their skeletons. I am frustrated to no end with small talk! It's tricky for my partner. He loves to talk about the weather and what he did over the last 12 hours. Sorry! And my daughter does NOT want to talk about stuff with me. Not at all. If she smells a hint of me using a feeling word she says "Mum, no Psychologising me".


My knowledge of communication skills makes it a really unfair playing field. For example, I can immediately identify when my partner, friends or family employ or don't employ active listening, when they suspend judgement, or validate, or do not. I can tell when people are being guarded, and see some of their tells.

I felt this very strongly in couples therapy with my ex partner. I felt for him, we weren't starting from the same place. He is a great man, and was a great partner and an even better dad. Our marriage concluded, it didn't fail. He certainly didn't fail, and me being a psychologist made it trickier at times. I endeavour to be better at communicating myself. I think some of my clients noticed when I stopped wearing my wedding ring. None mentioned it. When I was brave enough to try a relationship again, I saw some of my clients on dating apps. None mentioned seeing me. I assume they did. That was hard! I deleted my profile one million times.


My clients are all beautiful kind people. Every single one. I can't tell you how grateful I am for the respect you show me.


My friends know that if they are asking my advice...

As a Psychologist, if I have a friend who asks for my professional opinion, I expect them to take it. I get a lot of questions like "Should I take my son/daughter to see a psychologist because they are doing X, Y or Z", or "I'm thinking about stopping my antidepressants, because I feel a lot better". I use the example of my friend who is a mechanic. If I ask him a question about my engine, I don't then question that advice, read a magazine article or watch a YouTube, or speak to my hairdresser about how to fix my engine and then dump his advice. Psychologists have specialised training, and their recommendations should be held with that respect. We dont give you a personal opinion or half baked advice. I have strong boundaries, I will always refer them to speak with their GP or Psychologist, or help them connect with a health professional.


I'm a real person

Every day when I walk along the Blue Mile, or down Crown St Mall, I see my clients out there, living their best lives. Some come up and say hello. Some avoid by crossing the street. I love seeing you, it makes me intensely happy to see you living and NOT in therapy. You can say hello, or not, and both are totally ok, just know either way, it has bought me a little joy to see you. My kids will often ask "Who was that?" if you do come up and say hello. My standard response is someone I know from work. My kids and family know not to ask me about clients. During COVID we have had many conversations about confidentiality. My daughter and I both have noise cancelling headphones which helps us both work and do online learning from home. During COVID my clients met my cat, I met their dogs and they heard all my parcel deliveries arrive ha ha. It was an interesting time to practice psychology with novel challenges, like the time my client cracked a beer during a telehealth session after he had finished work on a Friday. Or when my teenage client positioned the camera towards the roof so I couldn't see his messy bedroom floor. It was net positive for the therapeutic relationship in my opinion. I've now seen the insides of about 90% of my clients homes and we have discovered more things about how we both live.


Confidentiality is paramount and most people push the envelope

I have the odd occasion where a relative or friend will say "My friend John comes to see a psychologist at your clinic, he's having a really hard time, and he told me that he had an appointment the other day.... " I smile, interject and respond I will never speak to you about a client I'm seeing, or not seeing. My trusty friends who have been with me my whole career start these sentences with now "I KNOW YOU WONT SAY ANYTHING. But... I know John is seeing someone at your clinic, and that's great". I smile, interject and respond "I will never speak to you about a client I'm seeing, or not seeing". It gets repetitive. Thanks to my poor friends who hear this line repeatedly.


Workload

A lot of my time is spent researching, planning, scoring tests, writing case notes and reports, speaking to doctors and other allied health practitioners, schools, universities, insurers, families, carers, partners and hospitals. For each hour of therapy there's on average another hour of work 99% of this attracts no billable work. Last week I saw 21 clients, probably did another 21 non client hours AND, as the company director, I met with the accountant, practice manager, receptionist, and did my best supporting my team of clinicians and investing in my continuing professional development. I do this and care for my children and I went to Trivia at the pub (where I saw a client, who kicked my trivial ass).


I'd like to see less clients, and have more time at home, however we have a waiting list of people ALWAYS and last week when I read 2 clients waiting list tags "waitlisted client number 1. Seeking treatment for perinatal anxiety, 30 weeks pregnant and 2. discharged from the ADF, transitioning back home post Afghanistan, multiple blast injuries and PTSD" I find it difficult to make the decision to take a macrame class, when these 2 people could be seen instead. It is a constant battle. Most days I do this well, somedays I over estimate my commitments. I always try my best.



I see a Psychologist

Most psychologists do actually, it's a part of our ongoing professional development. Sometimes it's client directed, seeking consult from a senior psychologist or a colleague with expertise in a particular area, sometimes its processing transference (where a person in therapy may direct emotions toward me) or countertransference (where I might redirect my emotions towards a client) and sometimes its just processing my own stuff.

I've seen many psychologists in my 15 years of practice and some before I started my degree. The best ones, simply believed in me, told me I was strong enough, worthy enough and capable enough to get through my current challenge. Some were clinical psychologists, some newly registered, some social workers and some mental health workers, their profession and title never made an iota of a difference. it was the quality of the connection.


My Do and Do Not list

Each clinician in my clinic has a Do and Do Not list, a list of our areas of competency, preferences and interests.


Things I do

Psychological Injuries (PTSD and the spectrum of Anxiety and Mood Disorders around this)

Physical Injuries (Pain, acceptance, adjustment, workers comp and life insurance stuff etc)

OCD (my favourite space to work in, my superpower)

Most types of mental illnesses including Schizophrenia Spectrum and Other Psychotic Disorders

Coaching

Career counselling

ADHD

Psychological Testing (Most things, Not Autism Spectrum because it has extra cool fancy training that my colleagues Christina and Sara have both done)

Corporate work (workshops, facilitation, consultation, pre employment

I see people across the lifespan, currently my youngest client is 9 and my eldest is 76.

Sex and Sexual Dysfunction, is an emerging interest area for me, since working with the ADF veteran community. Did you know it is the #1 common health complaint post active duty!!

Our clinic is also forming a reputation as a safe space for the LGBTQI+ community. We are allies and I freaking love this work.



Things I do not

Grief work. It's a hard no to straight up grief work, because I find it too hard to manage countertransference. I cry too much, Im not very helpful. It's awful for everyone involved. I can do the occasional session here and there, but I cant do it day in and day out. NB. I lost my mum, my brother and my best friend in the space of 3 years. I have a very tenuous hold on my own grief at the best of times.

Sexual Offenders. My good friend and colleague, and champion sexual assault counsellor and social worker once told me, Nic, it's important to make a decision about what community you will serve and protect. I choose survivors.

Couples. Hats off to the clinicians that do this amazing work. In my clinic Gabrielle Micallef has this superpower. She is a constant inspiration to me professionally and personally.

Also, props to Campbell Macbean who took me on as a client few years ago, he was exceptional. But couples work is hard, dirty, you're outnumbered in the room and I find it hard to suspend judgement for both parties at the same time, and it is time consuming. Its on my bucket list to study Gottman Therapy one day, maybe when I'm in semi retirement and need a new challenge.


So if the receptionist in a practice recommends you see a particular person, ask for the areas they work in most, so you can tell if they are matching you on skills, or on availability - hot tip from me.


My life as a Psychologist is all I've known for 20 years. It is the best job in the world, Each day I get to connect with people deeply and I am entrusted with peoples stories. I am forever grateful for the depth of experience you share with me and I'm honoured to walk alongside you.


Love Nic xx




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