Reece wandered into his psychology 101 class, looked around at the theatre like room with the hundred or so chairs leading upwards to the ceiling and smiled as he reflected for the umpteenth time how much the room looked much more like a movie theatre than a classroom. He walked up a few flights of stairs to the middle row and excused himself as he passed a few of the other students and finally sat down next to Rachel.
“Hey, how was the weekend?” asked Rachel.
“Not bad, how was yours?”, asked Reece, trying to act as nonchalant as he could in front of the woman he had had a crush on for the past 6 months. He tried to remain calm and slow his breathing a little. He was so attracted to this woman and was so scared of letting her know how he felt in case she rejected him outright and his mind would race picturing how awful that would be, how utterly mortified he would feel if she didn’t feel the same way and how he may lose her as a friend in the process. He hoped she couldn’t see any signs of his anxiety and kept facing forward.
“Mine was good thanks. Spent some time with the family and went with Eva to see Love Actually 3. Wasn’t as good as the first two”.
“Yeah, sometimes they need to leave a good thing alone hey” smiled Reece.
Rachel laughed out loud and jabbed him in the ribs playfully.
“Ouch, crazy woman”, Reece pretended to be shocked. His mind racing with images and ideas. Did she like him more than a friend? Did the poke and physical contact mean that she may be keen for something more? How on earth would he find the courage or the right time and place to make it obvious to her that he would like to date her and not just meet up in class and spend time cramming for exams together in the library? His thoughts trailed off as their lecturer walked into the room.
Professor Fisher walked into the room with the usual hustle of a man who had too many things to do and not enough time to do them in. He was a middle aged man, in his mid to late forties with a full beard that was beginning to show some grey. He was about 5ft8 with light brown hair and wore rimless glasses. The class would always be intrigued by what he might turn up wearing that day. He appeared to have an endless supply of checkered shirts and sleeveless pullovers that he would invariably wear to his lessons. The university students loved Professor Fisher’s lectures. He had a way of bringing the history of psychology to life. When he spoke about Freud and Jung it was as if he had known them personally and his own person centered approach to dealing with people shone through in how he described the process of therapy. Many of the students would go to him for advice either right after the lecture or they would make an appointment to see him and he always made time for them, no matter how busy he appeared to be.
Reece had also gone to see Professor Fisher on a few occasions when he had been struggling with some of the course work or a particularly difficult essay. In his first few weeks in psych 101, Reece had felt quite overwhelmed and had given serious consideration to dropping out of University and becoming a beach bum. He could see himself living the life of Bodhi from Point Break played by Patrick Swayze, surfing all day and robbing banks behind the mask of a US President for cash and living expenses. Reece’s imagination would sometimes get the better of him!
“Morning class, I hope you all had a good weekend and you are ready for another wonderful week in the land of intellectualism and all things psychological”, said Professor Fisher with a wide smile as he scanned the lecture hall to see who had decided to attend the early morning class. Many of his students would often skip the first lesson on a Monday morning for various reasons he could only too easily imagine. They would often ask their fellow class mates to either record the lesson on their smart phone or to take notes for them and make copies. Reece had never had anyone ask for his notes once they had seen his hand writing. Everyone told him he should be studying to become a doctor.
“As we are nearing the end of term as well as the end of your first year in psychology, I thought it would be a good idea to let you know about some of your options for next year. As you know, you will need a pass mark of at least 70% average in your psych 101 class in order to take Psychology again next year. There are actually quite a few electives next year within psychology and those who are seriously considering making a career out of this will need to do most of these electives as well as their other major for their degree. As part of the requirement to become a psychologist and complete your undergraduate in psychology, you will all be required to complete Psych 202 – Research Design and Analysis which include Psych 202A – which is statistics…” the Professor continued but at this stage Reece’s face had gone white.
Reece, stared at his Professor in an uncomprehending way for a minute before whispering to Rachel, “What the hell? Statistics?!”
Rachel turned to look at Reece and noticed that he looked a distinct shade of pale as she confirmed, “yes, didn’t you know that it was required?” She looked at him with concern, wondering why he was looking like he had just been told he had 3 months to live.
“I’m screwed, that’s it. It’s all over for me”, said Reece, staring once more at his Professor who had gone on to tell the students that they may also want to look at taking electives such as organizational psychology if they were interested in taking the path towards working as a psychologist in business. Reece didn’t even hear that part. He was so preoccupied with the thought that his dream, his vision of becoming a psychologist had just been blown out in one fell swoop. His mind raced with thoughts about how he had just wasted a year of his life, loving a subject and thinking of a career in psychology to only be thwarted by a subject that he couldn’t for the life of him see how it related to sitting down and counselling people through emotional difficulties. Yet, here it was as a prerequisite to becoming a psychologist.
“What are you talking about Reece, you will be fine. Everyone has to do it. I have heard that it’s hard going but you’ll be fine”, reassured Rachel. She rubbed his arm a little.
“You don’t understand, I almost failed maths in school. I hated it so much. When I wrote my last math’s exam, I was so overjoyed. I still have nightmares about having to write my final maths exam where I haven’t studied all year and completely forgot that I was going to have to write a final exam. I’m just no good at it. I’m right brained for God’s sake Rachel, aren’t most people who study the Arts? If we were left-brained people we would be studying accounting not psychology!” said Reece, becoming clearly more agitated by the minute.
“Calm down, maybe you should just go and talk to Professor Fisher about it. I’m sure he will give you a better idea of what’s involved”.
“Yeah, I think I will have to pay him a visit. I will chat to him after class to see when he is free”.
For the rest of the lecture, which was about Freud’s views on dreams and dream interpretation, Reece was there in body only. He tried to bring his concentration back at times and make some notes but eventually gave up and just hit record on his mobile phone. His mind was once again preoccupied with all the possible paths that now lay before him, including changing subjects, looking for another career path, leaving university and getting a job somewhere or taking a year off and heading to South America to reevaluate his life. He felt like a huge weight had been put on his chest and feelings of hopelessness and despondency fluttered through him as they had often done at many other times in his life.
Professor Fisher finished the lecture with a homework assignment for the class to keep a dream journal for one week, explaining how the students could best prepare their minds and their subconscious minds to remember their dreams each morning by keeping a pen and paper next to their beds and keeping very still just as they became aware of becoming awake. They would then need to mentally rehearse as many details of their dream as they could before moving and then go directly their pen and paper and just write whatever details of the dream they could remember without over thinking it. He then wanted to them to try and interpret what their dreams were indicating to them about what was going on in their lives and write a short five page essay on their dream interpretation.
As the last of the students left the lecture hall, Reece waited behind two other students who had some questions for the Professor. When they moved on, the Professor smiled when he saw Reece and then, noticing the look of consternation on Reece’s face, immediately asked him what was wrong.
“Can I come speak to you in your office either today or tomorrow please, Professor. I am really concerned about this statistics course we have to pass next year. I’m really worried this could be the end of me becoming a psychologist” said Reece with a look of dismay clearly showing.
“I know this probably doesn’t help to say right now but you will be fine Reece. But, yes come and see me first thing tomorrow morning. I have some time at 8:30 before my tutorial class”.
“Great, thanks Professor, appreciate it” said Reece as he hitched his backpack over his shoulder again and headed out the lecture hall.
That night, Reece struggled to fall asleep. He lay in bed going over in his mind all the possibilities for his future, none of which seems to be appealing outside of him pursuing his dream of becoming a psychologist. He just couldn’t imagine what else he would do with his life at this point. It taken him long enough to figure out that psychology was the road that he wanted to go down and then committing himself to at least 5 years of ongoing study. His mind also wandered to Rachel, thinking about how much he liked her and also rerunning how he had reacted to hearing about the statistics course. He was quite sure that she must think he is a total idiot now and there was no way she would go out with someone who was so terrified of completing a course in statistics. Rachel was very bright and he knew that she would ace the course with no problem. His thoughts rumbled around trying to convince him he was no good for her but he fought back, trying to use some of what he had learned through his own self-study about negative thoughts. He reminded himself that being highly intelligent from an IQ point of view wasn’t everything and that emotional intelligence counted just as much, if not more. After a long time of tossing and turning he finally fell asleep entangled in the bed sheets.
The next morning, Reece was waiting on a chair outside Professor Fisher’s office looking at his phone, flipping through Facebook status updates. He heard steps coming up the foot well at the end of the corridor and looked up to see Professor Fisher step into the corridor with his leather briefcase in his left hand and a coffee that he usually got from the canteen in his right. He saw Reece and smiled. When he got to his office door he put his briefcase down and asked Reece if he wouldn’t mind holding his coffee while found his keys. Professor Fisher opened the office door and Reece followed him in. Professor Fisher asked him to take a seat on the couch as he put his briefcase down and then came to sit across from Reece on his high back chair that he often used for counselling students.
Reece put his backpack down and sank into the couch, looking fatigued and quite despondent.
Professor Fisher studied Reece’s demeanor and then said, “Ok young man, out with it then, what’s troubling you about the statistics course?”
“Professor, I all but failed maths in high school, I hated it with a passion. I still have nightmares about it. I’m just not intelligent enough and I don’t want to put myself through having to study something that I am just ultimately going to fail. I’ve been seriously thinking of needing to change courses or something” said Reece.
Professor Fisher studied the young man for a minute and then said, “Reece, you will just have to cross that bridge when you get to it”.
“But I really think I am just going to fail Professor so what is the point?”
“Reece, have you ever thought about what that saying really means in life and how you can apply it? Did you know that it directly relates to a psychological distortion of thinking in CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) called Fortune Telling?”
Reece thought about this for a moment, remembering reading a book by Dr. David Burns that had discussed this distortion of thinking that causes anxiety and sometimes depression. He remembered thinking that the book was very good but he had never really tried to apply the practices in it.
“Yes, I think I remember it. It’s when we try to predict something in the future and we often worry about things that haven’t happened and aren’t likely to happen. Is that what you mean?” he said.
“Yes, that’s right. The saying ‘we will cross that bridge when we get to it’ is age old advice that has been handed down through the ages and has survived as a saying for a reason. As have many other sayings that we have heard so many times before but never really stopped to contemplate why they are still around and how to apply them effectively in our lives. Tell me something Reece, can you remember something in your past that you were worried about happening that eventually got resolved? Something where you were worried that things wouldn’t turn out but they somehow did?” asked Professor Fisher with a little bit of a smile showing in his eyes and lips.
Reece had to smile a little in response and thought back to a few events and occasions in his life where he had worried unnecessarily about things that had eventually worked themselves out. He remembered being worried about how he was going to pay for repairs to his car and imagining what would happen if he couldn’t manage to pay for it. His parents didn’t have much money and he had been working as a waiter to have some money to cover costs of his car and doing Tae Kwon Do, which he had only started the year before. But the repairs had ended up not costing as much as he had feared they would and he managed to arrange paying off the bill over 3 months with the mechanic. He remembered being awake for a few nights worrying about it and losing sleep over it.
“Yes, that has happened a few times Professor but this is different. This is huge. If I fail this course, I cannot become a psychologist which is one of my biggest dreams in life. That would be awful”.
“Well now Reece, what you’ve just said there is actually one of the other distortions of thinking! It’s called catastrophizing. You know, blowing things out of proportion. It may not be the way you saw things happening in your life, but I firmly believe that where there is a will there is a way. You may not take the traditional route but you will get there if you have enough desire and passion to keep going for what you want. And that’s assuming that you can’t pass the course. Reece, you’re an intelligent young man, if you need to go for extra lessons or support I’m sure we can arrange that. That’s IF you actually need the support. Statistics is quite different to mathematics. It is very much applied and if you concentrate in lectures and study hard I cannot see why you won’t get the 75% average that you need. And by the way, the minimum requirements is to complete Statistics 201 in the first half of next year but there is also a highly recommended Statistics 202, in the second half of the year”.
Reece looked a shade paler. “You can’t be serious Professor, this is a nightmare”.
“Reece, do you know what worry is?”
“Yes, it’s something I’m very skilled at!” exclaimed Reece, trying hard to maintain his look of dismay but cracking a smile anyway. He felt his state change a little as he was able to laugh at himself a bit.
Professor Fisher chuckled and said, “Well, that may be true Reece and certainly something you should be working on, but I have always loved the description of worry as paying the interest on a debt that you probably don’t owe”.
Reece reflected on this for a bit, realizing how true that had been in his life. How much energy and time he had spent worrying about things that never eventuated, or certainly didn’t turn out as bad as he feared. In fact, he could remember quite a few times when things worked out in ways he could never have imagined. How certain people or events had arrived in his life at just the right time to help him along his path.
“I like that description”, said Reece.
“Yes, it’s quite good isn’t it? Like I said Reece, if you were walking along a pathway and someone told you that there was a bridge up ahead on your path that was difficult to cross and a little bit dangerous due to how old it was, you could do one of a number of things. You could stop in your tracks, imagine that bridge and what it would be like to fall to your death in the ravine far below and you wouldn’t take another step forward. You would give up on your goal of getting over that bridge and getting to where you were travelling to in the first place. You might try and immediately think of all other possible routes to get to your destination without having to cross the bridge, which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing as that is just problem solving, but the issue is that you haven’t even seen the bridge yet! It’s purely in your imagination as is the image of you falling to your untimely demise. None of it is real. That is why we call it Fortune Telling. You know, it is very much a human thing to do. We are geared to looking for danger and that comes from our very primitive beginnings and needing to be wary of our environment. It served a real purpose in keeping us alive in the days where we may have ended up some wild animal’s dinner if we didn’t keep our wits about us. But in today’s world, most of what we fear are our own mental creations and imaginings of some horrible misfortune happening to us. Sometimes these imaginings are based on real events that have happened to us, such as your previous experience with maths making you feel as if you will not be able to handle statistics. The same as someone who has lost their job in the past becoming quite fearful and worried about losing their job again if their organization announces a restructure or the economy takes a turn for the worst. But in most cases it is the fear of what may happen and not what has actually happened that causes so much angst for people. And we really all need to learn that trying to cross the bridge before we actually get to it serves no other purpose other than to make us afraid and prevent us from continuing down our path with the faith and belief that we will handle it when we get there. We have handled many other things in the past so why wouldn’t we be able to handle this too?”
Professor Fisher sat back in his chair, taking a sip of his now luke warm coffee, thinking he should warm it up in his little microwave he had bought for just such occasions. He monitored the look on Reece’s face, searching to see how his words had impacted the young man, hoping that they had actually made an impact. Reece certainly appeared more relax and more contemplative than when he had first seem him waiting outside the office.
“I hear what you are saying Professor. Makes sense I guess not to worry about things that haven’t happened yet. I guess I should try live one day at a time and not try and tackle my whole life at once”, Reece remarked.
“Now you’re getting it lad. And keep this in mind too, I am not saying that you shouldn’t think ahead and try to plan your life, set goals or reflect on the consequences of your actions. I am just trying to get you to see that there is a difference between thinking ahead in order to plan and worrying needlessly about things that may or may not happen”.
Reece felt a lot calmer and much more confident about continuing with his goal to become a psychologist. While he still had some concern about how he would cope with the statistics course, he realised that he had been overreacting and catastrophizing, thinking the worst and that this was not helpful. One more question flashes into his mind. He wasn’t sure whether it was appropriate to raise with the Professor but he felt comfortable enough and he had never had a father figure to talk to about such things.
“Professor, can I ask you something unrelated to my studies?”
“Of course you can, although I only have a few more minutes”
“There is this girl in the Psych 101 class…”
“You mean Rachel of course”, said Professor Fisher with a mischievous and knowing glint in his eye.
Reece looked very surprised and smiled, “Yes, how do you know?”
“I observe people for a living my boy, just because there is a class of 100 people doesn’t mean I don’t notice what’s going on in it. You like her but you don’t know if she feels the same way you do”.
“Yes! I’m really worried she just sees me as a friend and I worry that she will reject me or that I will lose her friendship. I also think that she’s maybe out of my league and thinks I am a bit of a dork”, said Reece.
“Well Reece, here is yet another example of thinking that can you wrong. What you are doing is something called Mind Reading as well as Fortune Telling. You are trying to imagine what she thinks of you rather than testing reality by asking her and then you are imagining what she may do if you told her how you feel, which is of course Fortune Telling. You know, you always have a choice about which way you imagine or predict things may go. You may be right on either count. She may respond negatively or she may respond positively. You may as well picture a positive outcome. Why scare yourself with all the negative possibilities? Just ask her out on a date.”
“But what if she says no?” asked Reece.
“I’ll give you one last gem I learnt many years ago. Playing the little game of ‘what if’ with yourself in life rarely leads to a good time and it certainly doesn’t achieve much. Sometimes, a better question to ask yourself is so what if? So what if she says no? Will your world come crashing down? Will you never find another woman you are attracted to? Will you never get married and have kids? You get my drift?” said the Professor as he stood up smiling broadly at Reece. He remembered well his own fears and insecurities about dating in his early twenties.
“I like that one too Professor”, said Reece as he stood up and slung his backpack over his shoulder. “Thanks Professor, you really helped me. Don’t know what I would do without you”.
“Well, you would either be fine or you wouldn’t, which one do you choose to think?” said the Professor.
Reece laughed and left the office with a noticeable spring in his step as he walked down the psychology unit hall and headed for the canteen where he knew Rachel would be having her first coffee of the day.
One year later, not only had Reece passed the statistics course with 75% for the first course and 76% for the second, he was asked by the psychology department to tutor first year students for one afternoon a week. Reece would often smile when he remembered his conversation with Professor Fisher and committed to doing everything he could to not cross any bridge until he got to it.
David Fox is a psychologist and the author of Change your Life! Hope and Healing for Anxiety and Depression.