My Psychology License is a Glorified Food-Handler’s Permit – And Other Notes on Self-Worth

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

 January 2018

 

 

*Surely y’all know I’m exaggerating (slightly).

Labels Can Be Our Prison or Our Key to Freedom

I was raised in a predominantly black neighborhood in Little Rock, Arkansas. Ours was the only white family on the block. And I attended a grade school that was 94-97% black on any given year in the 1980s. My experiences in my neighborhood and school were positive ones. I had good friends. We laughed. We jumped Double Dutch. We doubled up for bike rides. In many ways, it was an all-American childhood…well, the peer group part of it was anyway. I was a white child being raised by a racist step-father in a black neighborhood. I was forbidden from having my black friends stay the night, and I was lectured about interracial relationships. It was a confusing dynamic at best. Complicating it further was the dysfunction of being raised in an abusive family. Out in my neighborhood and in my school, I was safe. Those were warm and inviting places for me – safe havens, but in my home, there was never safety.

Back in those days, I was too young to understand the racial divisions in our country. I only knew that I loved running around the playground with the twins, Stacy and Tracy, and that DeShunda instilled in me a love for poetry when she and I would read and write poetry together – sometimes to woo her boyfriend, Johnny. I remember wishing I was more “tan” like my friends and wishing I could have cool hairstyles like them. I couldn’t have known then the societal punishments that came with those features (features I coveted).

In the 9th grade, I went to live with a foster family in a different area – a predominantly white area, but we were bused to a school that was still predominantly black. It was the first real race divide I witnessed. During lunch, the teenagers congregated outside to visit with their friends before their first afternoon class. The poor white kids grouped on one area. The wealthier white kids grouped in another area. And the black kids spread out everywhere else. The first time I witnessed this spectacle, I was confused and didn’t really know what to do or where to go. My foster sister pressured me to go hang out with her and her friends (the other poor white kids), but a white boy who took interest in me pressured me to go hang out with him and the wealthier white kids. Eventually, I crossed paths with DeShunda – whom I hadn’t seen since 5th grade. It was a happy and huggy reunion. She invited (aka: didn’t pressure) me to come hang out with her and her friends at lunch. Honestly, this is where I wanted to go. But I was torn. I felt obligated to hang out with my foster sister, because I lived with her. (If someone shares their home and food with you, you’re bound to feel indebted to them.) And so I did.

DeShunda and I talked less frequently – until we eventually didn’t talk at all. Only in retrospect can I see that perhaps she viewed me as a traitor…and I don’t blame her. I abandoned my true friends whom I had known for years, because I succumbed to peer pressure, which happened to be divided along race lines. This is a regret and guilt I lived with in the nearly 30 years since then, and only recently have I made my peace with it. (But I’ll get to that later.)

In 10th grade, I was sent back home by the state to live with my mother – who had by that time divorced my stepfather. We moved to a new area – a commuter city to Little Rock that was predominantly white. Moving there made me feel like I had stepped backwards in time. The black population in this area lived on “The Hill,” and I remember being warned to never go on The Hill alone. Funny thing is, our family was poor enough that we lived in a white area that butted up against the train tracks that separated The Hill from the white neighborhoods. I met this black kid, Antoine, at school, and we built a friendship. Since we both lived in the same direction, we often walked home from school together, and when I wasn’t around for these walks, Antoine looked out for my little brothers as they walked home.

My mom grew concerned about the relationship Antoine and I were building, and so one day, I asked her outright how she would feel about me dating a black guy. She responded, “I would just hope you’d stay in your own race.” I was frustrated by her mentality, but unsurprised. I retorted, “Would you rather I date a nice black guy who treats me well? Or a white guy who cheats on me and beats me?” She again responded, “I would just hope you’d stay in your own race.” Her stance was unequivocal. And so I told Antoine we couldn’t date. Today, I wonder if this was one of the first times Antoine’s race had been thrown in his face like this…if I was the first girl who told him she couldn’t date him because of the color of his skin…if I was the first girl who informed him that white parents would disapprove of his melanin level. Yet another burden that weighed heavy on me for years.

Fast forward to age 17 – when I had dropped out of school, completed military school, and was ready to figure out my next step – an old friend invited me to be her roommate in Salt Lake City, Utah while she attended college. I had nothing to go home to, and I was up for an adventure. So I moved. Fifteen hundred miles away. It may as well have been a foreign country.

I remember standing in Taco Bell one day on 400 South (back in the day when more people went inside than in the drive thru) – waiting to place my order. I looked around at the people in the restaurant. Every single one of them was white. I suddenly felt panicky…out of place. Time stood still, and I felt like I was standing under a spotlight. But then I realized that I looked like all of them. No one would ever guess by looking at me that I felt out of place. And so began my young adult journey of trying to “blend in.”

Problem is – blending in is easier than it sounds. When my late-teen and young-adult peers talked about music and movies and television shows, I was out of the loop. I had been raised in a different culture, listening to different music and watching different movies and television shows. When my new peers got excited about U2 or Depeche Mode or Metallica, I just forced a fake smile, because I had no idea what they were talking about. I couldn’t sing along. I had no desire to go to these concerts. But as is common at that developmental stage in life, I wanted desperately to fit in. I stopped listening to Rob Base, Kris Kross, Outkast, and Bone Thugs. Yet, I couldn’t tolerate what seemed like the screech of rock music. I started wearing less baggy pants and never again wore my Black Sox jersey.

I persisted for years like this. And as for that music dilemma? I started listening to “smooth jazz,” because it seemed “in the middle”…offensive to no one. I sometimes crossed paths with the few black people living in Utah, and I had an internal urge to squeeze them tight. But I knew that would just be weird. (I mean, really. If someone did that to me, I’d assume I was about to be robbed or assaulted.) It wasn’t uncommon for me to be reprimanded by my white counterparts because I couldn’t “take a joke” when it came to race issues or for “overreacting” when someone said something overtly racist. I persisted feeling like I didn’t really fit in anywhere – feeling like an alien that confused people.

It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I stopped trying to please people or fit in somewhere. I came to realize that no matter what I said or what I did or how I lived my life, there was someone, somewhere that thought I was wrong and should be different. The more I tried to please Sally, the more Frank was displeased with me. So I stopped trying. I rebelled and decided to just live the way I saw fit. I learned that I couldn’t fit in with anyone, if I didn’t fit in with me.

By the time I was in my late thirties, I was a white woman driving a Subaru with a dented fender and cracked windshield…listening to Tupac cranked up as loud as it would go. I also – by this point – was an officer in the United States Air Force, whose culture sometimes pressures officers to show their status through cars and other material goods. This beat-up Subaru certainly didn’t convey that image. I recycled, adopted a rescue dog from the shelter, owned guns, and played Cards Against Humanity. To many, I am a walking contradiction…a person whose contradictions confuse and befuddle others. But these contradictions are my liberty.

See, like nearly everyone else, I had a lifelong litany of people telling me that I should be more this or more that. People expressed (in various ways) their disapproval of who I was, what I did, or how I communicated. One person would say I should be more feminine; the next would say that it was desirable to be a little more rough and tumble. Some people thought I wasn’t religious enough. Others pressured me about my political opinions. People were quick to offer up opinions about the foods I like (or don’t like) and about my weight. Others suggested I parent different or decorate my home different or dress different. Some people even felt the need to tell me I could recycle better, while others scoffed that I would “waste” my time this way.

People’s opinions – if we give them any credence – can have us reactionarily bouncing around like we’re in a pinball machine. And at the core of others’ opinions is them telling you how THEY would live if they were you. They aren’t you, and you aren’t them. They are making assessments and assumptions based on incomplete data, because they have not lived your life and do not know the complete content of your thoughts and feelings. When we heed others’ unlimited slew of opinions, we are prisoner to the whims of others – and to things that might be beneficial in their lives, but not ours. We get locked into an unresolvable state of anxiety.

The fact of the matter is that if I want to paint my walls with ketchup, it’s none of Linda’s business; she doesn’t live with me. Similarly, if Linda wants to paper her walls with organic, locally-sourced cow dung, it’s none of my business; I don’t live with her. There is an unparalleled freedom that comes from being ourselves and blocking out the peanut gallery’s assessment of how we should be better, faster, bigger, more.

Today, my inner circle is comprised of people who never ask me to be anything other than myself. They accept (and even embrace) the fact that I’m a little weird – that my skin is pink, that my butt is oversized, that I hate shopping, that I’m a good shot, that I like to sew, and that I cuss a little (or a lot). Since I’m a big fan of reciprocity, I’d similarly never ask the people in my inner circle to be anything other than themselves. Loving others for who they are is an act of unconditional love – no strings, no debt. And expecting that others love us for who we are is the most powerful act of self-love in which we can engage.

Joye Henrie, PhD

October 2017