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On the value of not being a psychologist

Educational psychologists have recognised the potential impact of the pandemic on children’s social development, particularly at school. However, a walking companion recently observed that after 18 months of restricted interactions, he thought that adults too were in need of resocialisation.

This helped me make sense of recent experiences where people, for whom a working life had continued through the pandemic, were behaving in other settings as if still in professional mode. They had forgotten the difference, perhaps due to lack of practice but also because, working from home and dressed in casuals, the line between the two had become blurred. For example, the manager assuming control; the interviewer firing “gotcha” questions; or the carer absorbing too much responsibility/authority. It was not necessarily that they were applying overt professional knowledge, but that they were extending their professional way of interacting into other contexts.

This blurring of personal/professional persona is not a new phenomenon to any of us: but it has become emphasised at this point in history.

A particularly valuable theme in an educational psychologist’s training and ethical framework is maintaining professional boundaries. Outside work, safeguarding aside, we learn to avoid the “so what would you say if a teenager was doing X, Y or Z?” questions from someone who might actually be talking about their grandchild/niece/adult son. We resist the casual “I know that, as a psychologist, you’d tell me if I wasn’t being a good dad” because, even if you thought they were the best parent in the world, it is not your place to say so. We do not assume that someone knows (or does not know or even cares) that they might be dyslexic or have attention problems, so we do not volunteer observations about either and we certainly do not make professional judgements about third parties.

However, our professional skills extend beyond imparting knowledge and advice: they rely equally on the therapeutic potential of relationships.  We measure, monitor and review what we say (and do not say) and to whom, considering impact, context, relevance and the legitimate scope of our role.  We learn to self-censor, chose our vocabulary to be accessible and we are mindful of consent. A psychologist monitors their way of being with others, adjusting to the context and to the client in order to facilitate a positive outcome. It is this less tangible aspect of our work, our studied way of being, that we also learn to reset for everyday life.

Outside our working hours we do not cease to be psychologists and we are still governed by ethical requirements. However there are differences in what determines professionally appropriate behaviour between the contexts. We have a “psychologist off duty” mode. I know very few other professions that make explicit, as an integral part of the training, the need to de-role from an “at work” persona in terms of relationships as well as activities. It is the absence of such self-awareness that appears to be highlighted elsewhere at the moment.

It is too easy to take for granted the subtlety, skill and rigour of our profession. So, I wanted to take a moment here to headline this aspect of it, especially for non-psychologist readers and those more recently qualified.  

As psychologists we have powerful tools, and we are trained to use them ethically.

Not A Psychologist is also a professional way of being.

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