~~ From time to time I’ve been asked by folks what led to my becoming a psychologist. That question spurred me to look back and make the connections that brought me to where I am now. While I don’t usually talk about myself as a therapist, I thought it might be useful here. I imagine you want some sense of who I am as a person, particularly because it may feel a little strange reaching out to someone you haven’t met face-to-face. So here goes ~~
When I was in third grade, I distinctly remember being told, “You’re going to be a psychologist!” Not by a teacher or my parents, but by a boy in my class, who said it out-of-the-blue while we were standing in line. Needless to say, I was surprised—how would he know that? But now I think about what would have happened if I had listened to Steven then. Getting to my destination would have been faster!
What was he picking up on? I know that one of my parents was a really good listener and the other one was not. This led to an instinctive understanding of the difference between being understood and not being understood — it’s an awareness I’ve never let go of. As I look back now, I can connect many of the dots that led to my becoming a licensed psychologist—even though I ignored that explicit instruction when it was first given.
One of the early “dots” was when I wrote a short story for ninth grade English class about being an octopus, never quite fitting in with all the other animals, but being okay with that, because I was who I was. I’m sure this had something to do with not being included in the in-group of popular girls and struggling to find my place. This metaphor helped me be okay with myself. In hindsight, it also marked when I began to understand what it means to be yourself in relationship with others, which is a challenge that many clients deal with in therapy.
I remember first discovering “what I wanted to be when I grew up” in high school. I became amazed when I looked through a 3-dimensional microscope and saw that Volvox, these multi-celled protozoa which looked like nothing much in the textbook, were actually magnificently beautiful spheres floating magically in their own universe. That awe spurred me to pursue biology in college.
This major didn’t last very long. I couldn’t find the same sense of awe in the required organic chemistry class and its confusing formulas as I could in Volvox. I do remember enrolling in Child Development, just as an extra interest. In hindsight, it was the most valuable course I ever took in college. Understanding children and how they grow is such an important part of working with adults, particularly because there’s a little kid hiding inside each of us.
When I switched tracks to education and started student teaching, the junior high schoolers in the class really disrespected their biology teacher, leading to chaos. Wanting to create a different atmosphere, I started my lesson on the first day by using some simple behavioral classroom management techniques I had learned. After just a few minutes of using them, even the most disruptive girl there sat up and started participating. I was amazed again — this time by people.
At another school, the kids mostly listened and did what they were told. But there was one child who seemed detached from the rules and ran around the classroom endlessly; only one very special teacher could reach him. That teacher wasn’t me, but I was moved as I saw how the two of them related to each other. I knew that she “got” him, knew how to reach him, and that he responded to being understood. How did this teacher do it? Could I do the same?
I ended up, a few years after finishing college, asking myself what I really wanted to do with my life. It was in the 1970’s, when boys had far more opportunities than girls, so I was completely clueless until I asked myself, “What would I do if I had all the opportunities available to me that my brothers have?” The answer hit me pretty suddenly: I want to be a psychologist and work with people at a meaningful level. Only twenty years after being told what to do, I got the message!
This insight led me to return to college, this time to major in psychology. I was subsequently admitted to The University of Texas at Austin for my Ph.D. After completing my coursework there, I moved to California for an internship at the Long Beach VA Medical Center and began working as a licensed psychologist in 1985. My professional career started by working with veterans. I’ve since spent many years in university counseling centers, helping people grow from adolescence into adulthood. And finally, I’m now in private practice—offering Heartminded Psychotherapy—in Los Angeles.
I continue to learn and grow. I bring the same amazement to my work that I first had when I looked through that 3-D microscope at those Volvox. But people are ever more complex. Now I study trauma therapy, a field that didn’t really begin until some five years after I left graduate school. It captures me because it’s at the root of so many problems we face as individuals, and it’s the source of so many conflicts with others. Perhaps when the world is truly healed from trauma, I’ll return to the beauty of biology. While that may be several lifetimes from now, that’s okay. In the meantime, I’ll do my small part to get us one tiny step closer to living in harmony. We’re each worth it.
Looking back, I believe I have the empathy and attunement that Steven in third grade picked up on when he declared I would become a psychologist—hopefully it’s significantly more developed and a whole bunch deeper than it was back then. But in any case, I’m smiling as I say, “Thanks, Steven.” Next time, I’ll listen.
I invite you to come work with me.
Janet Niederman, Ph.D. is a Los Angeles psychologist in private practice. She’s worked with clients with a variety of issues for thirty-five years and has provided clinical supervision to doctoral-level psychology interns as well. She specializes in treatment for Depression, Anxiety, and Adult ADHD.