It’s happened before that I’ve told a person that my psychology license is a glorified food-handler’s permit, and they let out an audible gasp and trip over themselves to offer blanket reassurances. They seem to respond with the assumption that I’m being self-deprecating in making this statement. But I’m doing quite the opposite, actually.
For many professions, there are government agencies designed to standardize, regulate, and monitor the credentialing and activities of those professions. To work in the food service industry in New Mexico, for example, prospective employees are required to meet standards established by the Environmental Health Bureau. They must complete a certified food handler class, which covers basic food safety, personal hygiene, cross-contamination and allergens, time and temperature, and cleaning and sanitation. They then take a proficiency test and must achieve a score of 75% or above, after which they can be issued a food-handler’s permit. This system is designed to protect public health and safety.
Sure, I’d like to think that in my 40s I have the common sense to know how to properly handle food, but just because I do, doesn’t mean my neighbor does. I mean, there’s a reason why I never ate Janet’s casseroles at the work potlucks.
To break the process down to its simplest form: In the interest of public health and safety, a government agency establishes minimum standards for what has to be learned, how this acquired knowledge has to be assessed, and what documentation is required to prove that these standards have been met. This is true for driving a semi, cutting hair, nursing, operating a forklift, shoring up construction trenches, and a wide range of other professions.
This is also true for the field of psychology.
I was required to complete an American Psychological Association (APA)-accredited doctoral program in clinical psychology, as well as an APA-accredited internship program. I was then required to get a billion* hours of post-doctoral supervised clinical experience, after which I had to complete a thousand-page* application, pass a jurisprudence exam, and pay hundreds of dollars to be approved to “sit” for the licensure exam (i.e., Examination for the Professional Practice of Psychology). After my life flashed before my eyes when I hit submit on that exam, I got a passing score, and eventually my “permit” to practice psychology arrived in the mail.
So, the same principle applied here: In the interest of public health and safety, a government agency establishes minimum standards for what has to be learned, how this acquired knowledge has to be assessed, and what documentation is required to prove that these standards have been met.
The only real differences between a food-handler’s permit and a psychology license are: (1) the specified area of expertise, (2) the amount of time required to get the blessing of the government agency, and (3) the amount of debt one racks up in the process.
There are numerous reasons why this clarification has value, but for the purposes of this post, the importance of the clarification relates to self-worth. The permit under which I operate does not define my worth or who I am as a person. It doesn’t tell you what my values are, how I exercise integrity, or how I relate to people. It doesn’t tell you what fears I may have, what bad habits I struggle with, or what my flaws are. My profession doesn’t tell my story, tell you what I bring to the table, or tell you what my family would miss about me if I died tomorrow. (And if my obituary turns into a post-mortem resume, I’ll roll over in my urn.) My profession doesn’t even tell you how smart I am (or am not) or what areas of intelligence I have strengths in. All it tells you is that I have a specific expertise in the field of psychology, for which I am sanctioned to deliver services. It tells you that I jumped through the prerequisites (aka: fiery hoops) necessary to get the license.
Similarly, having a permit to handle food, drive a semi, cut hair, nurse, operate a forklift, or shore up a construction trench doesn’t define the worth or value (or intelligence or capabilities or character) of the people with those permits.
Back in grad school, I was heading to an academic conference in Toronto. I was on a small commuter plane headed to my layover in Detroit. When I found my assigned seat, I plopped down next to a well-groomed woman in a full suit. Being an introvert, I hoped she wouldn’t speak to me, as 30,000-foot small talk is about as pleasant to me as facing a morning with no coffee. We made it about two-thirds of the way through the flight before she started talking to me. Why now? We were almost there! It started with the typical niceties: Where are you from? Where are you going? What do you do? When I answered that last question (i.e., I’m a doctoral student in clinical psychology.), her posture and interest visibly changed. Suddenly, she wanted to talk in depth and offered to “get lunch” with me on our layover. We determined that we wouldn’t have enough time during our layover, so instead she handed me her card and told me to call her when I got back home. Without looking at it, I stuffed the card in my pocket and exited the plane. It wasn’t until that night in my hotel room that I looked at the card. Turns out, she was a three-letter executive at the world’s wealthiest corporation.
I threw the card in the trash.
Why? She didn’t want to do lunch or stay in contact until she knew what I did for a living. Her affect and attention markedly changed when I told her what I did for a living. It seemingly wasn’t me she was interested in; it was my title.
In fairness, she may have been a perfectly nice, well-meaning woman, but I threw the card away because of what it represented. When I was a child growing up in poverty, people generally believed I wouldn’t amount to much. When I worked for a decade in the telecommunications industry, doctors, attorneys, and executives didn’t give me the time of day (unless I was paying them for their services). The class and status divide in our society has always been evident to me, so having this interaction that suggested that I was now “worthy” of someone’s time by virtue of my title was off-putting. I hadn’t changed. My value as a person hadn’t changed. I was just nearing the end of the process required to get my glorified food-handler’s permit.
If I were to entertain the idea that my license/title/degree makes me more worthwhile, I would also have to logically entertain the idea that pre-license/title/degree, I was less worthwhile. Similarly, I would have to entertain the idea that if I were to leave my profession, that I would return to being less worthwhile.
When I think of the ten most important adults in my personal life (I literally made a list), the highest educational degree obtained by 60% of them is a high school diploma. The other 40% have an associate’s degree or technical certificate. Yet I guarantee that not one of them thinks I believe I am more worthwhile than them by virtue of my license.
See, here’s the thing: If any one of those ten people were in a catastrophic car accident tomorrow and was rendered paraplegic (i.e., unable to work/provide, completely reliant on others for care), I would be overwhelmed with gratitude that they survived. Why? They can’t work or produce. But, so what, right? That’s not why I love and value them. That’s not what they’re bringing to the table. They’re bringing to the table who they are…their strengths and weaknesses, their character, their mind, their love, their way of relating, etc.
I think when most of us consider our loved ones, it’s a no-brainer that we’d be grateful for their survival in such a situation. But here’s the real test: What if YOU were the one in the catastrophic car accident tomorrow, were rendered unable to work/provide, and were completely reliant on others for care? Who would you be? What would be your value? Would you be grateful you survived? Your answers to these questions can tell you a great deal about your sense of self-worth and from where you derive your sense of worth.
Once upon a time, I would’ve answered those questions like this: <Throws papers up in the air> No one. Nothing. No.
But that was back before I understood what I was bringing to the table as a person. I had long bought into a warped illusion that my worth was based on what I achieved, accomplished, and provided to others. (There are many variations of worth illusions: codependency, self-depreciation, pathological self-sacrifice, materialism, etc.) Trying to fill a void of worth with achievement, accomplishment, and generosity was unsustainable, however. It was exhausting. It was lonely. It was nonreciprocal. And it was never enough. The void always needed to be fed more.
In the early stages of me figuring out the unhealthy way in which I perceived my worth, my husband forced me to sit idly beside him while he folded laundry. I made a New Year’s resolution to do zero volunteer work for a year. I distanced myself from the many takers in my life. I was like an alcoholic going through detox.
A handful of years later, I still have to monitor myself and can easily find myself backsliding into old habits. So, I intentionally allow others to pay for coffee or do me favors. I sit with the discomfort of feeling like the scales have somehow been catastrophically imbalanced. I remind myself that my loved ones would want me to survive a car accident – but not because I’m a psychologist – only because I’m me.
So, here’s your come-to-Jesus question: Is it time for you to reevaluate and detox?
Joye L. Henrie, PhD
*Surely y’all know I’m exaggerating (slightly).