Clinical Impact Statement: This article provides tips for early career psychologists about finding closure and charting a path forward during times of transition. Specific guidance is provided on how to foster change and growth through purposeful reflection. The article draws from the literature on grief and loss, termination, and life transitions.
The start of a new year is often a time when we reflect on our experiences from the past year and consider our hopes for the new year. But 2020 has been a year like no other. As we start 2021, how do we make sense of the past year and how do we cope with the ongoing challenges and uncertainties in the upcoming year?
These questions are especially relevant to early career psychologists who may be experiencing multiple transitions at once - not just the transition into a new year, but the transition out of graduate school and into a career. These transitions can be challenging to navigate in the best of times but can feel especially difficult in light of the ongoing global pandemic, racial violence, and political turmoil. Taking the time and space to reflect is important both for finding closure and for charting a path forward. We can draw from the literature on termination, grief and loss, and life transitions to guide us in this reflection process.
Although ending therapy is different from other types of endings, the termination process in therapy can still provide a useful framework for any time of transition. Often the termination process involves looking back, looking forward, and saying goodbye, so we have structured our tips for early career psychologists in the same way.
Grieve what was lost. For most of us, this past year had a lot of loss – lost experiences, lost relationships, lost health, lost loved-ones. For early career psychologists, this loss may include the loss of a normal, in-person internship or postdoctoral experience. It's important to take the time and space to pay tribute to these losses and allow yourself to grieve. In reality, anytime we go through a life transition, we experience a loss – the loss of our previous self. So, don't forget to grieve the person you were before, including the mistakes you made and the chances you didn't take, because it's in these reflections that we learn and grow – which brings us to our next tip.
Reflect on how you have changed. Part of what can be useful about the termination process in therapy is when clients examine how they have changed and grown over the course of the therapy (Gelso & Woodhouse, 2002). Not only does this help reinforce the progress in therapy, but it can also serve as a catalyst for future growth. In a similar way, reflecting on our own growth throughout 2020 can help us make sense of our experiences and motivate us to continue growing in the new year. Early career psychologists may especially benefit from this type of reflection since they are likely encountering new and challenging situations in their careers. Recognizing growth and change can help reduce the feelings of imposter syndrome common to early career psychologists. Moreover, reflecting on how you have coped with challenging situations over the past year can help instill confidence that you can overcome future challenges (Schwarzer & Warner, 2013). This can also be a collaborative process where you can gain feedback from others in your life about how they have seen you grow and change. Others may provide a different perspective and notice changes that you haven't noticed in yourself.
Give thanks. Don't forget about gratitude. It can be easy in times of hardship to focus only on the negative aspects of the experience. However, research shows that cultivating gratitude results in better mental and physical health, including greater optimism, happiness, improved relationships (Algoe et al., 2008; Cunha et al., 2019). Another bonus: gratitude helps us cope with adversity (Wood et al., 2007). Cultivating gratitude involves appreciating what you have and acknowledging the goodness in your life. It also helps us connect with something larger than ourselves because often the source of the goodness is someone or something outside of ourselves. Fostering gratitude can be as simple as thinking about the things you're grateful for, or as tangible as writing a thank you letter to someone. Either way, acknowledging the aspects of the past year that we're grateful for can help us find a sense of peace and closure with 2020.
Record what you have you learned. Over the past year, most of us faced situations we've never faced before 2020. We experienced sudden drastic changes, crippling uncertainty, isolation, physical restrictions, adversity, and violence, just to name a few. Regardless of how you handled these situations, chances are you learned something about yourself. Maybe you were stronger and more resourceful than you realized. Or maybe underlying problems that you hadn't addressed before reared their ugly head. Both types of learning are important to keep track of as future reminders to ourselves. Make sure you don't lose these lessons by writing them down and going back to them from time-to-time. These lessons should be things you want to carry forward in your life. For early career psychologists, the lessons may center around what type of career is a good fit or (equally important) not a good fit for you. Experiencing hardship also has a way of putting things into perspective and clarifying our priorities. Knowing what's truly important to us can help us live a more meaningful life, which brings us to our next tip.
Set meaningful goals. It may seem trite to set New Year's resolutions. However, setting goals, especially when they're meaningful goals, helps us chart a path forward. Setting meaningful goals is one of the key components of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (Hayes et al., 2012). Meaningful goals are those that align with our values. The more we take actions that align with our values, the more we're able to live a meaningful, satisfying life with fewer regrets. It's especially important for early career psychologists to determine what they value for themselves, their career, and their life outside of the expectations of professors, advisors, supervisors, or mentors. It's only by being true to yourself and your values that you can live a life that is truly meaningful for you. Once you know your values, you can then translate them into action by setting specific goals that fit with these values.
As we start 2021, let's remember and honor the past year. Let's recognize the hardship we went through personally and collectively. Let's not sugarcoat the pain and suffering, but instead embrace it as part of the human experience. Let's also learn from it. Let's decide how we want to do things differently moving forward. Let's embrace the growth and change we see in ourselves. Because one thing is certain: none of us are leaving 2020 the same person we were when we entered the year.
Cite This Article
Ziemer, K. (2021). Making the most of endings and new beginnings: Tips for early career psychologists. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 56(1), 11-13.
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Cunha, L.F., Pellanda, L.C., & Reppold, C.T. (2019). Positive psychology and gratitude interventions: A randomized clinical trial. Frontiers in Psychology, 1-8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00584
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Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2012). Acceptance and commitment therapy: The process and practice of mindful change (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.
Schwarzer, R., & Warner, L.M. (2013). Perceived self-efficacy and its relationship to resilience. In S. Prince-Embury & D. Saklofske (Eds.), Resilience in children, adolescents, and adults (pp. 139-150). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-4939-3_10
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