In the summer of 1980 when I was accepted into the Wright State University School of Professional Psychology (SOPP), I was initially stunned, thrilled and ecstatic, and then incredulous, anxious and terrified. It was a dream come true but as they say, “Be careful what you wish for.”
Almost immediately, I began to wonder if I had made a mistake in thinking I could do this and, like Groucho Marx, I began to have doubts about any program that would accept me as a student. I was a member of the Charter Class which meant we were the first group of students to enter the doctoral program with a bachelor’s degree. This summer, if my math is right, SOPP saw its 29th class accept their diplomas and enter the world as professional psychologists. In 1980, however, we were guinea pigs in a kind of experimental study and I worried incessantly the first two quarters that they were going to realize I did not belong.
Eventually, I relaxed enough to realize most of my colleagues were just as neurotic and obsessive as I was. I found this strangely comforting. We were locked in together for 12 continuous quarters, including summers, and the pressure was constant and unrelenting. We followed that up with a year of additional training as pre-doctoral interns at various clinics around the nation and some of us, like me, did a post-doctoral fellowship. Mine was at Shasta County Mental Health and I have been here ever since.
When I add it all up, I spent 21 of my first 27 years in a classroom and when I became licensed in 1986, I was 30 years old. I was finally ready to begin my career after nearly 25 years of continuous education and training that started in a kindergarten in Wiesbaden, Germany and ended in a clinic in Redding, California.
Many in our SOPP class dropped out along the way. We started with close to 30 students and finished with less than 20. We were survivors and by the end we felt like we had been through a kind of war. And what made the war winnable for each of us was our willingness to lose.
It has been nearly 30 years since I graduated from SOPP but I have never stopped learning. One of my mentors now is Steven Hayes, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, who I have trained with frequently over the years. Dr. Hayes, in my estimation, is a genius, remarkably humble and human, and more than anyone else, has transformed how I approach psychotherapy. Hayes is one of the originators of Relational Frame Theory or RFT (don’t ask me to explain) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT, which is the application of RFT to the real world of mortal humans. One of the lessons I learned from Hayes is this:
“If you are unwilling to fail, you will always fail. If you are willing to fail, you will never fail.”
If you have anxiety, panic or phobias, you know what this means. For example, if you are unemployed and afraid of rejection, you are in trouble. You have to be willing to be rejected in order to put yourself in a position to be accepted. Or if you are alone and lonely but afraid of rejection, same deal. Each day we put it on the line and roll the dice. And meanwhile, our brains lie to us. They whisper we must be safe and that safety means to avoid risk. This is wrong. Dangerously wrong.
In fact, experiential avoidance lies at the heart of most disorders. When we build our life around not having an experience we are already having, we set ourselves up for depression, anger, anxiety, resentment and other negative emotional states.
The cliché we’ve all heard is to feel the fear and do it anyway. We can’t live without fear. This is impossible. Every human feels fear. The key is to not let the fear control us. “We let it on the bus but we don’t let it drive.” Fear is back there yapping at us but we remain in control, focused on our goal.
When I work with clients in my private practice, we often end up here, focused on this fear of failure and our desperate need to control. We all want to succeed but our fear that we will fail is often self-fulfilling. As Hayes would say, “If you are not willing to have it, you will have it.” If you are willing to have it, however, whatever “it” is, the war ends and you win.
Willingness means radically accepting your life as it is at this moment and boldly moving forward, ready to be human, ready to fail and grateful for your capacity to find humor and learn along the way.
Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 25 years. He believes in magic and is a Sacramento Kings fan.