The most useful course I took in college had nothing to do with my major. Sure, those business and accounting classes are helpful yearly at tax time (can’t wait for those W-2s to arrive!), and I can understand when someone is talking to me about financing a house or the smart way to manage money which gives me street cred (very thug- I know). But I left my job with a Big Six (now Big Four) accounting firm faster than the Earth could finish a lap, and most of what I learned at the UMass Eisenberg School of Management is now lost to me from disuse.
The most helpful course I took in college was not my favorite. Stephen Oates’s “History of the Civil War” class earns that distinction. I can watch the Ken Burns documentary, or Glory or the Killer Angels on repeat indefinitely now, but admittedly this interest has proven much less useful than even my business classes. No, on a day to day basis, the class that has proven useful, time and time again, is Psychology.
To be fair, I did end up making a minor of this field, so I have Psych 101 as well as Human Development, Neuropsych, Psychology of Gender, and Psychology of Good and Evil under my belt. This background, of course, helps me in my current career as I seek to connect with kids, manage classroom behaviors, and teach in ways that will be appropriate and effective to my audience in their particular stage of development. But more importantly, over time, I have been able to look at myself through this lense and better understand where parts of my personality have come from, why I have made certain choices, and what will be good choices for me as I move forward in this skin (that is hopefully only slightly starting to show signs of its age. *Sigh).
I’ve learned I am an empath. I am instantly aware of and absorb or reflect the feelings of those around me. Within seconds of coming into contact with people I can sense their vibe, and can reassure an upset student, or avoid bringing up a stressful topic, or keep my distance as the situation dictates. Back in college, my roommate was active physically, cooked/ate well, and was extremely neat. That year, I walked on the bike path daily, ate healthier, and worked diligently to keep our living space organized. Now, my level of motivation ebbs and flows to match that of my partner. Additionally, when I hear, read, or otherwise learn of another person’s pain, growth, achievement, or difficult circumstances, I am instantly that person- feeling what I imagine them to have felt in that moment- and I melt into a puddle of tears faster than Frosty melted in that greenhouse- yup, I cry at cartoon drama too.
I’ve discovered I’m an introvert and have some anxiety about it. I am quite capable of singing for a room full of people, acting on stage, speaking to classes of students, conferencing with parents, or giving speeches about a student award recipient at a banquet- but I don’t prefer it. Social interactions like these exhaust me and I often find myself with a let-down headache after they are done. I have a difficult time making new friends around town, and stick to the tried and true friendships from work or from growing up. I worry that other parents at concerts or sporting events think I’m a snob, when, in truth, I’m not sure what to say to them or have too little energy to think of something interesting after spending all day being present for students. Other times, I stay quiet because I had, or could have in the future, their children in class and I worry I will say the wrong thing and get the Facebook parent groups buzzing. See what I mean about anxiety?
I have experienced periods of depression, when I isolated myself and when things like doing a sinkful of dishes or going to the grocery store proved impossible. I’ve seen those dark clouds lift as sunny days (and energy) returned and take that knowledge- that my down days are temporary- into possible future bouts.
At times, like with my marriage, I’ve practiced self-sabotage because it was easier than speaking up or saying enough is enough. I can recognize when another’s accusations were projections of their own behaviors and poor choices onto me, so now I can’t be beat up mentally or be made to feel guilty for things I didn’t even do.
I’ve experienced the guilt and all the stages of grieving over a brother I couldn’t save from himself.
My pet peeve is when people don’t do what they say they are going to do. This goes back to one of my earliest memories, when I was told by an aunt that she’d pick me up and take me shopping. I distinctly remember watching out the window for her car to pull up. Spoiler: she never did. Looking back, I know this was the start of my being compelled to actually do what I say I’m going to do, and my frustration with others when they don’t.
I learned that I associate love with food, as that is how my mother cares for her family to this very day. When I am sick or down, that is what I tend to turn to, like my mother’s love, to heal myself. On the other hand, when I am in the right frame of mind- when the headaches are under control, or when I have more sunshine and thus hope- I can control this literal gnawing aspect of my life and am able to look and feel better.
In addition to self-study, I’ve bore witness to all the stages of development while watching my children grow. My psychology knowledge has allowed me to be careful to meet their needs, taking care of them physically but also giving them the safety of structure, and the feeling of love and belonging to help them in their climb up Maslow’s hierarchy towards being able to actualize their best selves. I’ve employed positive behavior reinforcement and warnings and wait time, but also allowed my kids space to make mistakes and learn from them in the lab of their lives.
If you ever have the chance to take classes- online or in person, auditing or for credit- consider psychology. This area of study is useful at any age, and you will walk away knowing far more about yourself and those you interact with. You’ll be able to empathize or identify the root sources of people’s actions and choices, casting your world in an interesting new light. And especially on these short winter days, who doesn’t need more light? -A