Taking little risks

Last night was the AGM for the SA Branch of the Australian Psychological Society, a committee on which I sit.

In recent years, the AGM has included what is known as the ‘Rolimborn Oration’. It gets its name from a combination of the surnames of the members that created it.

I was invited to give the Rolimborn Oration this year.

I spent many weeks contemplating what it is I would present on the night. A characteristics of the Rolimborn is that the orator is free to choose what it is they present.

I contemplated talking about my work, but given that I write for a living, most people can access this elsewhere.

Instead I chose to take a risk and present some of my recent attempts at creative writing.

Creative writing is a safe place for psychologists to explore the intersection of their work and their personal journey. This is more important than you might think. Why?

Psychology as a discipline encourages a healthy separation of our professional and personal journeys. Therapists aren’t encouraged to bring too much of themselves into the therapy room, so not to hijack the session from the client. Researchers are discouraged from using personal anecdotes as a form of evidence.

On the whole I support these requirements. We have an ethical imperative to base the research and practice of psychology on robust data and our clients’ needs. We need to be ever-vigilant to the possibility of contaminating our practice with our own issues.

However, as anyone who has worked in the profession of psychology knows, this is really really hard. We study human behaviour for a living, and we are human. We are inextricably linked to our work.

With that in mind, I think psychologists need a safe space in which they can explore the intersection of their work and their own personal journey. Creative writing is one such place.

When we write creatively, we are not making a claim that the content is ‘evidence-based’ or scientific. We are simply playing imaginatively with our experiences. The end result doesn’t need to meet a set of pre-defined guidelines.

So last night I read out loud a piece of my creative writing. I’ve attached the script I used.

It was nerve-wracking. It has been a long time since I wrote creatively. I have never revealed that writing to an audience. I had my trusty ‘memento mori’ glass with me to remind me to put the risk in perspective.

I want to extend a warm thank-you to everyone in attendance. Many people came up to me afterwards and congratulated me on the presentation. I don’t think it was the writing itself that they were congratulating me on, it was the willingness to take the risk to present it.

So what was I worried about? Social rejection basically. If I had presented my writing and been ignored, ridiculed or dismissed then I would have interpreted that as a rejection of a core part of how I understand myself. If you are curious as to why social rejection feels so bad, remember that in our evolutionary history, social rejection from our tribe may have meant sickness and death. Social isolation remains a powerful predictor of ill health.

In reality, the likelihood of being socially rejected in a room full of psychologists is fairly low 🙂 so I class what I did last night as a little risk.

Taking little risks is important. As someone who tries to keep everything as controlled and predictable as possible, I’ve really only started understanding this in recent years.

What might constitute a ‘little risk’?

  • revealing an aspect of your self or your work to people from who you’ve hidden those aspects previously
  • trying something new that you don’t think you’ll be very good at
  • taking the time to try and understand the viewpoint of someone with whom you strongly disagree
  • getting a therapy session to try it out
  • make a decision that goes against the advice of people around you
  • break (within reason) a social norm
  • Insert your own little risk here _____________________

Will it always work out? Nope. It is called a ‘risk’ for a reason. But where there is risk, there is also potential reward. And I think you owe it to yourself to try and find where those rewards might be found. Last night I found some of those rewards.

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