What’s your story? (Overcoming adversity and leaving your hobbit hole)

“Challenges are what make life interesting and overcoming them is what makes like meaningful. “

Joshua J. Marine

Psychology has a rather long history of focusing on the negative, focusing on what’s broken and in need of fixing.  Last week I had the opportunity to attend a fabulous lecture by Tayyab Rashid, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist from the University of Toronto, who presented on the topic of Positive Psychology Interventions.  Positive psychology is focused on strengths, virtues and talents. Rather than focusing on what is broken, positive psychology emphasizes what is working well.  What strengths a person brings to the table and helping them make better use of those qualities.

Dr. Rashid began with an icebreaker.  He asked us to think of a time when you handled adversity adaptively and write it in the form of a story. It was moving experience to say the least.

So I thought I might finish up the story I started that day and share it here. If you’re reading this and feel the desire to share your own story of overcoming adversity, I would absolutely love to hear it.

Here we go…

Several years ago a professor informed me that she strongly thought I should go on to get my PhD. My jaw hit the floor.  Who me? That had never been in my plans. Still, my gut sense told me that this was what I needed to do.

But applying to clinical psychology programs is no joke. These programs on average accept only 3-6% of their applicants. Who was I to think I could be one of them?  I was quiet, low in self-confidence, I didn’t have a psychology degree and my undergraduate grades were just average. Plus, I was not the “doctoral type”.  What does that really mean? I don’t know. But whatever I thought it was, it sure wasn’t the girl I saw in the mirror.

Evenso, a day after this encounter, that still small voice whispered “this is your path, you just need the courage to follow where it takes you”.

Where did it lead? Through 3 more years of doubt, wandering, questioning, delaying, procrastinating, waiting for the perfect time. And then two years trying to overcome standardized test anxiety so that I could get a reasonably competitive score on the GRE. Eventually I did. Next came 20 drafts of my personal statement, and a mentor who graciously read them all. I still remember her final review that said “Now THAT is a personal statement”.

Then came applying (a costly venture), and then the waiting. When I got my first invitation to interview it was the first moment I allowed myself to think “oh, maybe this is happening.”  When my top choice called to invite me to interview, I ran around the office with elation.

Traveling to interviews adds another level of challenge. You meet all of your potential competition and spend a whole day trying to impress upon the faculty why you would be a good fit for their program. After interviews all you can do is wait. There is no more follow-up, nothing you can work on, just silence. It was brutal, and to be honest, I didn’t handle it well (in the words of my father, “you are like a pressure cooker, and if you don’t let some steam out, the top is going off”  Wise man).  Late one night, I got a rejection letter from my first choice, and by that time, it was the only school left. Dreams dashed, hopes crushed.  All that time invested, and nothing.

Now what?  I just invested 5 years of my life building this thing and now what?  But I wanted it so badly that there was no other option. Not really. I was going to go through the whole thing.  Again.

One year later, when I was planning to submit applications again, I received some really scary health news about one of my dearest loved ones. Suddenly I couldn’t care less about applications or my future. None of it mattered. There was no way I could proceed with the next 8 applications that night, not when I didn’t care.  But then, another mentor chimed in with support “some day you will care. Go ahead and do it anyway.” Wise woman.

And I did. Once again I was invited to interview at my new top choice. But that didn’t work out either.

And then, my current school called. “We’d like to offer you a spot in our program,’ they said. My heart was in my throat, pounding so hard I could barely hear the caller’s voice on the phone. The day was here. The next part of the path had opened up.

In the end, my program couldn’t be more perfect. I’m studying what I want to study with flexibility to change as I need, my clinical opportunities are so diverse I’m forced to creatively plan how to fit them all in (not a bad problem to have). And the people I’m surrounded by will no doubt be friends for life.

And I even got to go to Denmark

Nyhavn 1 church dessert Nyhavn Nyhavn2 Palace Danish baked goods

and Poland

2013-08-17 11.20.41 HDR 2013-08-17 12.04.06 HDR-1 2013-08-17 12.12.57 HDR 2013-08-17 13.12.37 HDR 2013-08-18 08.55.13 HDR 2013-08-18 08.58.18 HDR 2013-08-18 09.05.22 HDR-1 2013-08-18 10.11.25 HDR-1

The path to get here has been one long, torturous adventure. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say I felt like quitting at least once at every step along the way.

This process made me face many fears, including fear of rejection, and then actual rejection. It made me really look intimately close at who I was and what I really wanted in life. And then, it made me fight for it. It cost a lot of money, even more tears, and even potential risks to my own sanity. But it was worth it.

So thank you, adversity. In the end, you made me stronger and maybe a little wiser too.

What about you?

What’s your story? What has adversity taught you?

In closing, I’m reminded of yet another Hobbit scene that seems so relevant to this post. It reflects the Bilbo’s reluctance to go on the very adventure the Hobbit book is based on (and also the invention of the game of golf 🙂

Here’s hoping that if adversity meets you on your path today, that it only enhances the story you were meant to tell.

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A little more like Lucy Pevensie


This year I continued my adventures in reading fabulous fiction that I should have read decades ago. Last year it was Tolkien, this year it was Harry Potter and now I’m working my way through “The Chronicles of Narnia”. Tonight as I finished “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”, I was thinking about how incredibly delightful Lucy Pevensie is. Yes, she’s young and a cutie pie (in the book and the movie), but that’s not what got me.

In chapter five, Professor Lewis writes “The next few days were delightful,  Lucy thought she was the most fortunate girl in the world as she woke each morning to see the reflections of the sunlit water dancing on the ceiling of her cabin”. This is just two pages after she was rescued from being sold into slavery. But this is true to her character. While not immune to fear, she embraces adventure wholeheartedly, she trusts openly, and she radiates love, even to those who deserve it least. And she appreciates even the little things (thought as a water lover, waking up to sunlit water dancing would thrill me too).

Two years ago I embarked on an adventure of my own. I was offered and accepted a place in my current graduate program and away we went. But I was not like Lucy. In fact I was more like her cousin Eustace (complaining, dragging my feet, begrudging anything that shook up my little comfortable world). And I CHOSE this. I wasn’t thrust into a magical world against my will, no, I purposely applied, invested lots of my own money, traveled around the country to interview and then accepted my position.  Nobody forced me to do anything. But fear suddenly blasted itself into ever area of my life.  I’m not an ounce proud of my behavior or thoughts from April to August that year. Thankfully, God was so kind and gracious, and brought me through the whole thing much better than when it began.

I wish I would have embraced the adventure then, savoring each new moment. I wish I hadn’t let fear darken my door every day. I wasted a lot of precious time.  But thankfully, I’ve seen much of that time redeemed.  Now I’m embracing lots and lot of adventures and my goodness if it hasn’t been the best year of my whole life!

Here’s to being a little more like Lucy and a little less like Eustace. Though, if the Dawn Treader has shown anything, it is that even the biggest brats can be redeemed.  That, however, is a story for another day.

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Take a Picture: Moments in Time

“This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.

His tongue seemed to stick in his mouth; he wanted to shout out: “Give me more time! Give me time!“ But all that came out with a sudden squeal was:


Bilbo was saved by pure luck. For that of course was the answer.”

J.R.R. Tolkien “The Hobbit”


Ahhh, cute, cuddly lovable Gollum. He is my favorite of all the Tolkien characters and I feel strongly that Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman play this “Riddles in the Dark” scene to perfection. Can we just give Andy, a man now in his late 40’s, credit for how incredibly agile he is. Flopping around on the ground like that is impressive. The man must do a lot of yoga. (for a glimpse at how they made this scene, click here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACCOQnw27E4)

Now onto the point of this post.  I find that my work as a soon to be clinical psychologist (defined as 2 more years of grad school, 1 year internship and 1 year post-doc, but who’s counting) brings countless inspiration and also a constant kick in the pants to make changes in my own life.

Last week we had a group discussion about time.  Originally, the discussion was meant for those who were in a bit of denial about their health, and how their health behaviors, including workaholicism, can affect their life expectancy.  But as we continued on the conversation transitioned into how we can cope with the perception that time was rapidly slipping away.

When we’re young, especially school age, time seems to drag on forever. We can’t wait to be teenagers, to be able to drive, to go to college, to live on our own, etc.  But as each decade passes, as our lives get more and more complicated it seems like we can’t get a hold on how fast life speeds by.  Suddenly we’re at midlife or in our golden years and wonder where did it all go?

That, on its own, it pretty depressing.  I don’t want my life to slip by.  But then we talked about how you can actually slow life down.  How? By magic? Not quite.

We can slow the departure of time by making and cherishing moments.  Big moments like vacations, exciting events and accomplishments, but also small moments, your child’s first step, the first little accomplishment you make on your way to a big goal, a fantastic 4 hour laughfest,  or cathartic cry your heart out conversation with a friend, or even just moments when you really, deeply connect with someone else.  In these moments if we stop, and just savor our experience, we can allow the moment to go deeper into our memories, taking a picture (literal or mental) that can last forever.  In stopping the pace of our frenetic, got to get one more thing done life, we can slow the appearance of time down.

It was such an eye opener to me.  I don’t want my life to pass me by, but I can definitely see it happening.  So I’m pledging to myself (and to my lovely reading community) to taking as many pictures, mental or otherwise and savoring each day, each moment as it comes.  Not allowing life to become life as usual.

Yes, we need our routines, our common ways of doing things, but perhaps it’s wise to every once in awhile change up that routine, let life become not so usual. Obviously life has a way of messing up your routine on its own.  Perhaps sometimes we need to ruffle up that routine intentionally, if no other reason then to create a few moments that we will remember. Take that TIME!

Perhaps the passage of time is not so terrible. Without it we wouldn’t have the motivation to Carpe Diem (Seize the day!) But that, is a topic for another blog.

In the meantime, here’s wishing you a weekend full of many, many moments that will last a lifetime.

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Letting go

Continue reading

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Wander on: The beginning

“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.” 

-J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings


Ahhhh.  How I cherish those moments after a long hard week when you get just an ounce of free time to do just, whatever. Now that I’m near the end of the second year in my PhD program, I have finally learned to just stop and savor it. Don’t try to “do something productive”, just be productively blissful. So tonight I’m chillin’ in my bed with the lights off, starting up this blog that I’ve been contemplating for a year while my second favorite episode of “Sherlock” plays in the background (The Reichenbach Fall, in case you were wondering). Heavenly.

So my idea for this blog is to share the various bits of joy, elements of inspiration and intriguing life revelations that happen throughout this adventure known as clinical psychology PhDdome.

There were two inspirations for starting up this site. The first was one of my favorite therapy professors who mentioned on the first day of class that the keys to becoming a good psychotherapist will not be found in any text book. Sure, you can and should learn the basics, the skills, the terminology, but to become a good therapist is to have a well-rounded view of the human condition. And to do that, my friends, we should read a lot of good books and watch a lot of movies. DONE!  Last year I read 25 books (not including the 3 times I read the Hunger Games trilogy) and I took him up on the movies too.  (And a few TV marathons too, can you say all 6 seasons of lost in 12 days?) Yet somehow I actually made great progress in school too.

In the past year as I have immersed myself back into literature and film, I feel as though I’ve gotten 10 years of my life back. Curling up with a good book, enjoying a cup of coffee and just letting myself get swept away. It’s beautiful. I feel like a teenager again. Without the angst (well maybe just a little angst).

The second inspiration to write was my clinical work. I noticed as soon as I started clinical rotations (current rotations are in physical medicine & rehab and outpatient psychotherapy) the fears of incompetency start to rear their ugly, soul crushing heads. Do I really know enough about the world, about human beings about the heart and spirit to be able to do anyone any good? In truth, the answer is probably yes, but when you’re called to actually put your skills to task, well, let the insecurities roll.

So I realized it might be helpful to periodically put some of those little nuggets of wisdom or revelation down on paper. Or perhaps electronic paper anyway. If nothing else its a reminder that every once in awhile I may actually have learned something.

So here we are. I hope you enjoy wandering on this little adventure.  Like Bilbo Baggins I have no idea where it will lead, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

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