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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2004
If Only I Knew Then What I Know Now: Perspectives of a Woman of Color
Melba J. T. Vasquez, PhD, ABPP,
Carla J. Reyes, PhD

Learning from a psychologist who is willing to share personal experiences with others can be extremely beneficial. They have lived and learned and are willing to pass on the knowledge so that you can learn from their struggles and make it different for yourself. Dr. Vasquez shared her thoughts and wisdom, which come from her culmination of life experiences from the past 25-30 years with the audience at RMPA. She discussed the challenges to success, happiness, and well-being as an undergraduate student, emphasizing that this can be one of the most stressful periods of one's life. Diverse students face additional stresses, "The slights and oppressive behaviors toward us serve as powerful barriers-externally, and which we have to struggle against internalizing-to be able to develop and keep our ability to be confident and maintain high levels of self-esteem." Dr. Vasquez spoke from the heart as she shared the following.

I grew up as the first born of two first-borns, and was essentially treated like a princess by parents, grandparents, 16 aunts, and uncles! It wasn't perfect, because we were poor, but I did not know that until I was 6 or 7. However, when I entered elementary school, I experienced discrimination and bad treatment for the first time in my life. I grew up in a socially segregated period of time and did not really have a white friend until after I graduated from college. For example, I had a white boyfriend in the second grade; it may have only lasted a few days, I don't remember for certain, but one day this boyfriend came up to me and told me that his mother (the school nurse) said that he could not be my boyfriend anymore because I was "Mexican." I remember going home and asking my mother what was wrong with being Mexican. She got very angry, and I learned to not share those kind of painful experiences with her much more.

I did learn how to interact in the white world. Being a good student was my ticket for approval. I was an officer in high school, and was in national honor society, student council, homecoming royalty, a cheerleader (one of the first Latinas in my small central Texas town of San Marcos). But I did not trust my white peers or most of my teachers, based on good reason. I was often left out of events. I would find out that my fellow high school cheerleaders had slumber parties, but did not include me.

One day, for example, my high school teacher pulled me out of class and told me how sorry and ridiculous she thought it was that the guys in the homecoming royalty, including her son, did not want to have to be my escort (I was the only person of color among the five men and five women selected). She told her son that if no one else was willing to do so, he should. She meant well, and did not realize that I had had no notion of what was going on. One cannot go through those mixed experiences, painful, sad, lonely, without being affected!

These oppressive experiences can be very demoralizing, rejecting, painful, and lead to silencing of ourselves and questioning of our voices. Of course, we can't stay in our sadness; we have to then allow our anger and frustration to be experienced so that it can help transform us into constructive action.

One of the myths, of course, is that status, credentials, and salaries will pave the way to a life free of problems. How many have discovered that that is a myth? Don't get me wrong. Status, credentials, and money are indeed forms of power and make us more visible. However, the glass ceiling is alive and especially working for most of us; we are each reminded on a regular basis that those credentials and status don't protect us from hurts and offenses.

In case you think that my experiences are "old" and that doesn't happen anymore, I see evidence of it daily in my psychotherapy office. Last week, I had a young Latina in her 20s, very successfully employed in the corporate world, with graduate degrees, who wept in recollection of her immigrant parents being called "dirty Mexicans" when her father accidentally bumped into someone at a store. She is still working through the feelings of inferiority, despite her clear achievements.

So when we experience the pain of failure and oppression, it is often shameful-we can erroneously feel that we have erred in ways that extend and affect our families and communities, which is an incredible burden. Each of us has countless stories of a range of failure and oppressive experiences. They include almost imperceptible slights and subtle dismissal by bosses, waiters, clients, classmates, colleagues, or strangers we might meet or interact with across a conference table, at a restaurant, at a party. They assume that we have nothing to say, or do not want to speak. We might be mistaken for one of the wives or girlfriends or even workers or servants; we are seen as a marginalized member or guest who may not even be able to speak English. At best, we spice up the crowd with exotic ethnicity.

Examples: a professor who refuses to understand simple questions once he detects a slight accent. A teller who makes us wait while she takes a short break, assuming that a woman of color won't complain as others might. A boss or coworker's over-willingness to criticize our work when that criticism would not be given as freely to other workers. Employees who refuse to take directives that they would not question if we were White men. The African American or Latina or Asian American member of the 20-person corporate team whose new board member assumes she is a secretary and nonchalantly asks her to make a copy of something. These are all painful dilemmas about which, we have a choice to act or let go of. In either case, we can't let those define us . . . yet, they take a toll.

Challenges to Success: External

  • Studies show that discrimination is more likely to occur when competition for jobs or promotions occur with those who hold similar qualifications (highly qualified blacks with highly qualified Whites; highly qualified women with highly qualified men) (Jones, 1996).
  • Studies also show that that racism among Whites is subtle, often unintentional and unconscious, but that its effects are systematically damaging to race relations by fostering miscommunication and distrust (Dovidio Gaertner, Kawakami, & Hodson, 2002), and we are affected and discouraged by that discrimination when we experience it in our APA volunteer activities.
  • Lack of mentoring and other support can make for a very lonely ordeal. I have learned to take brief mentoring moments when I can with people. I don't have the expectation that someone will be in long-term contact with me; I may not even know them well, but I expect that they may be available for input or advice at times. (I seek those mentoring experiences from psychologists of color, White women, White men, peers, etc.)
  • Also, the backlash that exists in society to the few gains that women and minor-ities have made is pervasive, including in our profession of psychology. I have some anxieties about the impact of those conservative members in APA whose philosophies do not allow them to support or perhaps even understand the basis for promotion of diversity. Some letters to the editor in the APA Monitor are often chilling in the anger expressed about APA's activities in support of diversity. So the more I see people of color involved in all levels of the pipeline-from undergraduates to serving as leaders in academia and in the professional organizations-the more at ease I feel. My hope is that our continued involvement will inoculate the profession from most of the backlash phenomenon occurring in society.
  • Another challenge involves the perception that women and ethnic minorities' contributions aren't as valued. Evidence exists that devaluation of women's work occurs on a regular basis (Lott, 1985); documented evidence demonstrates the undermining of an ethnic minorities' performance by an employer when they unconsciously communicate a negative expectation about the person based solely on that person's race or gender (Jones, 1996).

Challenges to Success: Internal

  • The way women and ethnic minorities are socialized often leaves us with a lack of confidence and with a fear of risk taking in new uncharted territories.
  • Internalized oppression may even cause us to question the viability of our or others' ability to perform well in a variety of activities related to success. Doubts about our own abilities may be the result of those internal barriers. But various strategies can help counteract that socialization that most of us have experienced.

So, one of our tasks is to understand the negative experiences and messages that we have received from society. We also have to be aware of the messages and axioms that are transmitted through our histories and our cultural and familial expectations, and to determine which and when to accept and live those because they are positive and constructive messages in our lives, and when to transform them, because living by those can be destructive at times. It is up to us as individuals, as groups, and in our organizations, to take steps to become more empowered and visible. Let me share some strategies for success, confidence, and well-being.

Strategies for Success, Confidence, and Well-being
Nobody can make you feel inferior without your permission.
Eleanor Roosevelt

  • Take risks. Allow curiosity and energy to give direction to areas in which you wish to explore your power and salience. Eng, in her book, Warrior Lessons, states that ". . . sometimes we've got to force ourselves into battle-for beliefs, for our boundaries, and to defend big pictures. Becoming a wise fighter, after all, is less about shouting and more about strategy." (p. 197.). She also suggests that learning to fight the good fight means understanding that our successes do not imply the failure of others. We must believe that there is plenty to go around. Risk takers often find that true fearlessness is not the elimination of fear, but the transcendence of fear, the movement through it and not against it. Fearlessness means the willingness to "lean into the anxiety and fear."
    I work with a lot of graduate students and young professionals who avoid and procrastinate for all the various reasons one does so: perfectionism, fear of failing to do a difficult job well, fear of the hard work and drudgery involved, etc. My basic mantra is to go directly to the task, lean into the anxiety, move into it. Before you know it, it is done, and the worst part was the avoid-ance. It is only through risk taking that you can lay foundation after foundation of confidence. It is also how you learn where you "fit" in regard to your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Allow for imperfections and mistakes. Mistakes are part of life. Acknowledge them to yourself (to others, if necessary), learn from them, fix them as much as possible, move on. Do not let them define you. They are a part of every human's experience.
    Men tend to attribute success to themselves, failures to others. Women tend to attribute success to luck and the support of others, and failure to (guess who?) themselves. We have to let go of shame and learn the philosophy of "bummer, oh well!" We must transcend the fear of failure, cast it aside, and listen to our kinder selves. There isn't a person alive, nor in leadership, who hasn't made mistakes. Do not crawl away with the conclusion that you are incapable after one mistake (unless it is in an area that you know you dislike); that would be allowing one negative experience to define you or the whole experience.
  • Understand that emotional pain is a part of life. Related to the notion that mistakes are a part of life is the notion that emotional pain is also a part of life. Many people avoid taking risks or other activities because they fear emotional pain. The pain of failure, loneliness, embarrassment, criticism, loss, etc., are certainly annoying at best, uncomfortable, and at times devastating. However, all pain passes, and we can learn to cope in healthy ways by getting support and by utilizing other healthy options.
  • Focus in areas about which you have passion. If you are working in areas that are near and dear to you, your energy and motivation to contribute will be high. Furthermore, the energy that comes from engaging with others in exciting and meaningful tasks is very rewarding. We tend to "fit best" and our natural talents tend to come to the forefront when we work in areas that we love or about which we have interest or energy.
  • Persistence is a very important quality. Persisting to try for an elected position or to get your agenda on the table will pay off. Persistence is one of the major qualities that employers, admissions committees, and others assess in selection processes.
  • Networking is a skill that comes easily for some and is more challenging for others, but connections with people can help. A recent study indicated that more successful employees are those who were liked by their supervisors and colleagues-they reached out to everyone they came in contact with and had a diverse network of people across the board, in a variety of departments, from top to bottom of the hierarchy (Kleiman, 2001).
  • Develop skills and confidence. Confidence building is a life-long process, in my opinion, which is partly helped by ongoing skill development. Technical skills as well as publications, presentations, or other demonstrations of your work are helpful. Assertive expressions of your perspective, whether you feel confidant or not, is important. I am a big believer in acting confidently-the feelings will follow. We must constantly practice how to hold ourselves out with confidence, how to articulate our ideas, how to face creative conflict in order to reach resolutions. These are simply skills that can be developed through practice. Acquire skills, take classes, gain credentials if necessary as part of the process of developing confidence.
  • Find activities and projects that will enhance your sense of self. Take care of your responsibilities and find ways to contribute to that about which you feel passionate. Volunteerism is one of the best antidepressants there is. Find ways to helping others. Don't be afraid to take action or try a project because you don't think you have the right position.
  • Stand up for yourself. Develop assertiveness skills and learn to work through and live through conflict. If you are "'too kind," timid, or fearful to the point of being a doormat, change that. It is impossible to avoid conflict in life and in relationships, and when we don't engage in assertiveness, we often violate our dignity and integrity. Don't be afraid of acting out of your strengths; we can become the best of what women and men have to offer. Gloria Steinem said, "Some of us are becoming the men we wanted to marry."
  • Articulate the value of diversity and inclusion in decision making and power, etc. We need individuals who are able and willing to articulate commitment to diversity issues. Eng (1999) talks about modern-day warrior women of color. She believes that "Power-from-within" (confidence) is based on the inherent value in each of us, separate from that which represents us to others. Power-from-within recognizes that groups and alliances are strong and balanced only when each of the members is strong and balanced. If we have "power-from-within" we are relatively freed from the weight of outside expectations, downward pressure, and confining stereotypes. We can be released to act genuinely and freely.

    "Our lives begin to end the day we are silent about things that matter."
    Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Observe role models and mentors. Mentors are scarce. Use them situationally and at a distance. I have received much mentoring and guidance from my peers, and sometimes have learned lots from watching younger students and professionals. I have also been fortunate to learn from various senior people, of color, White, some male, others women. . . . Observe skills and strengths of others and decide whether you wish to cultivate those as well.
  • Engage in self care. You are the only one who can ensure that you exercise; eat healthily; have a good balance of work, rest, play, relationships; set appropriate boundaries; and so on.We have to be able to treat ourselvesas preciously as we do anyone else. Women in particular must learn how to apply the same standard of care that they provide to others.
  • Use your frustration and anger to empower your lives. Our upbringing and social codes can make it difficult to allow us to experience anger, or we may express it destructively. Many of us haven't learned how to translate that to create change in the situations around us. We may assume that it we are good and respectful to others, those behaviors will be reciprocated. This expectation can interfere with our right to anger that can be transformed into healthy, assertive expressions that say, "We count." "I am to be respected." "You may not mistreat me." "'I am deserving." Anger is a healthy signal that tells us and those around us where our boundaries are, what we instinctively feel is tolerable or intolerable, and can signal when those limits have been trespassed. Conflict is necessary because difference is inherent in every endeavor.
  • Understand why you have chosen to rein yourself in, if you have. Often, we experience many of what Clarissa Pinkola-Estes, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves, identified as "small deaths and big deaths," "las muertes chiquitas, & lasmuertes grandotas," which include experiences of loss, all the times when roads were not taken or paths were cut off. The "little deaths" can be subtle, wounding slights, belittling comments, painful rejections. Years of those can take a toll. "Big deaths" include more major betrayals, harassment, sexual assaults, etc. Pinkola-Estes suggests a ritual "descansos" where you draw a life line, identify those and allow yourself to acknowledge the pain, anger, forgiveness and move on. Stop reining yourself in!
    By the way, this happens to everyone, including White men, in varying degrees. My clinical work has informed me of this. How we interpret, internalize those varies according to our position in society, histories, coping strategies, etc.
  • Identify to what extent the values of modesty, reserve, and humility serve as barriers or strengths for you. Do you experience a cultural tradition against loudness, aggression, domination of others? And does it feel that we're engaging in those activities when we say yes to jobs with intimidating titles and important-sounding duties? Do our values keep us from disagreeing because it might seem rude, from expressing dissatisfaction because it might offend someone?
  • Engage in activism. We can depend on ourselves as individuals and groups to make a difference. We must also develop alliances with power structures and set up policies and structures to make a difference. Affirmative action types of strategies are absolutely necessary for continued change in my very strong opinion.
  • Support each other and connect with each other. Empowering others can be the same as empowering ourselves. The precious and powerful standing up for each other is the one of the most exquisite gifts to give and to receive. Make sure you surround yourself with supportive people in your life. Family, friends, and acquaintances with whom you come away feeling good and zestful about life and yourself are the kind to spend time with.
    Jean Baker Miller of the Stone Center says that a healthy interaction is one in which we come away feeling energized, zestful, happy, with the motivation to connect again, not only with that individual or group, but in general! The hurt, pain and betrayal from the words of an enemy are nothing compared to the silence of a friend (rephrased, Martin Luther King).
  • Cultivate qualities of care, compassion, and kindness. Be a supportive person. How often do we think good things about people, but fail to articulate them? Kindness and generosity evoke kindness and generosity. Apply those same standards to yourself.
    If you are a critical person, you're probably also harsh with yourself. Caring, compassion and kindness can help shape behavior. I know that we all learn in different ways, but I believe that we can set high expectations, boundaries, rules, and even consequences and communicate those with care, compassion, and kindness. The resilience literature shows us that individuals exposed to harsh conditions can evolve into embittered, angry, hostile, sarcastic, and cynical individuals. And that others exposed to the same conditions cope by becoming caring, compassionate, and kind people.
    The attachment literature informs us of the importance of bonding, and the resiliency literature tells us of the importance of caring, confiding relationships as important in the enhancement of health and vitality among children and adolescents, even into late adolescence (Spencer, Jordan, Sazama, 2002). I am an "n" of one,but kindness and caring from key people throughout my life during adverse periods has had tremendous impact on my capacity to thrive as well as to motivate me to respond in kind, caring ways to others.
    The modeling of coping strategies, including the way people think about and respond to harsh conditions and experiences, is powerful, in my opinion. This process-of providing a connecting, caring relationship and shaping people's cognitions, skills, and behaviors in response to their difficulties and pain, is what we try to do in psychotherapy as well as in supervision! If people have a context of support, caring, compassion during difficult periods, that may be one factor that facilitates enhancement of psychological health, including the capacity to be caring, compassionate, and kind to others.
    Not everyone responds to care, compassion, and kindness in the same way; some people cannot perceive it or accept it; others may take advantage. We may all need a variety of experiences to learn what we need to learn. However, these qualities and virtues should be in the repertoire of every ethical professional. If we don't see it modeled, or if we don't often experience the effects of caring, compassion and kindness, then those are less likely to be in our options of responding.
    I love the following quote:

    "It's a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one's life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than 'Try to be a little kinder'."
    Aldous Huxley, English novelist and critic

In summary, I would like to encourage you all to engage in these strategies to acquire success, confidence, happiness, and a strong sense of well-being. Life is an exciting process, and the field of psychology, whether you are directly in it,or it serves as a foundation for your work and life, is fascinating. I hope my words have been inspiring, helpful, and supportive to you. I'd like to end with two quotes which I think are relevant. The first is one I like to remember when I feel discouraged or disempowered.
In the words of Adrienne Rich:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save, so much has been lost . . . so much has been destroyed. I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power . . . reconstitute the world."

The next quote is one I want you to remember when you do gain power. When you do, use it well.

In the Words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Now, we've got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. It is precisely the collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times." (Last Southern Christian Leadership Council presidential address, 1967).

* * * * *

As I sat listening to Dr. Vasquez' invited talk at RMPA, so many thoughts raced through my mind. For every example she gave of either a personal experience or one of her clients, I had a similar example that would continue to illustrate or accentuate her point that came from my life experience. For each piece of knowledge she passed on to inspire or rejuvenate, I nodded my head in agreement. By her sharing of herself and her process of making her way in this profession, she helped solidify my belief that mentorship plays a vital role in one's success. As a student, support from family and friends can be essential to alleviating stress in one's life. A mentor can be in this support system. However, a mentor should also be able to provide you with a different aspect of support, knowledge, and guidance that helps you find those successes allowing you to meet your goals and dreams.

Mentoring should not stop when one stops being a student. As a young professional, I soaked up everything Dr. Vasquez had to offer. I felt that every minute was sacred and that she may not know she was mentoring me or the audience, but she was. Each piece of wisdom shared was a moment of evaluation on my part to see how I was doing in this rat race of making a career in psychology.

Can I and have I put into play in my life these important life lessons learned and shared from this wise elder? Yes and yes. Now the question for me to answer was "Am I passing along these valuable lessons to the students I mentor?" My student and mentees know the answer to this. So, I take with me the knowledge that mentoring moments can happen in many forms, durations, and contexts. No matter what stage of the game you are engaged in, if we could always see ourselves as a mentor or a potential mentor, students may get further down the path of being successful, having happiness, and a positive well-being. Wouldn't this make us all "a little kinder"?

Delgado, J. L. (1997). Salud! A Latino's guide to total health-Body, mind, and spirit. New York: HarperCollins.

Dovidio J. F., Gaertner, S. L, Kawakami, K. & Hodson, G. (2002). Why can't we just get along? Interpersonal biases and interracial distrust. Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minorily Psychology. 8, 88-102.

Duenwald, M. (2002, September 17). Students find another staple of campus life: Stress. New York Times. Retrieved from

Eng. P. (1999). Warrior Lessons: An Asian American woman's journey into power. New York: Pocket Books.

Jones, J. M. (1996). Prejudice and racism (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Kieiman, C, (2001, August 12). Schmoozing may improve your ratings. Austin American Statesman, p. E1.

Lott, B. (1985). The devaluation of women's competence. Journal of Social Issues. 41, 43-60.

Vasquez, M. J. T. (1994). Latinas. In L. Comas-Diaz and B. Greene (eds.). Women of Color: Integrating Ethnic and Gender Identities in Psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Press. 114-138.

Melba J. T. Vasquez is in full time independent practice in Austin, Texas. A past president of APA Divisions 35 (Society for the Psychology of Women) and 17 (Society of Counseling Psychology), she is currently president-elect designate of the Texas Psychological Association, and has served in various other leadership positions. She is a Fellow of APA and a Diplomate of the ABPP. She publishes in the areas of professional ethics, psychology of women, ethnic minority psychology, and training and supervision. She is coauthor, with Ken Pope, of Ethics in Counseling and Psychotherapy: A Practical Guide (1998, 2nd ed.). She is the recipient of several awards, including Psychologist of the Year, Texas Psychological Association, 2003; Senior Career Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest, APA, 2002; Janet E. Helms Award for Mentoring and Scholarship, Columbia University, 2002; John Black Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Practice of Counseling Psychology, Division 17, APA, 2000; and the Distinguished Leader for Women in Psychology Award, Committee of Women Psychology, APA, 2000.

Carla J. Reyes is an assistant professor at the University of Utah in the Counseling Psychology Doctoral Program. She received her PhD in 1996 at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in counseling/clinical/school psychology with an emphasis on child clinical. She is currently serving her second term as the Vice President of Psi Chi in the Rocky Mountain Region, was named Regional Faculty Advisor Award Winner for Psi Chi in the Rocky Mountain Region in 1999, and is serving as chair of the Psi Chi diversity task force. Her major areas of interests include resiliency, child sexual abuse/childhood trauma, multicultural counseling issues, working with ethnic minority children and families, prevention and intervention for at-risk children, play therapy, and treatment outcomes. She teaches courses in human diversity and multicultural counseling, as well as introductory counseling skills. On top of her academic duties, she is a mother with two small children. She loves to spend time traveling with her family and playing outdoors.

Presented at the 2003 Rocky Mountain Psychological Association Conference - Denver, Colorado

Copyright 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 3) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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