You can’t be a container for others if you’re full of yourself.
Christine Catipon Clinical psychologist
I am a licensed psychologist, with a doctorate in clinical psychology. What that means is I provide talk therapy to people who want emotional support. I’m called Dr. Christine or Dr. Catipon or sometimes just Christine, because I don’t like emphasizing any power differential when I’m working with my clients. Some clients like to use “Doctor” in addressing me because of their cultural background or their respect for elders or professionals, so I’m comfortable with however they want to address me.
I’m a second-generation Filipino-American, and from a really early age, there was a lot of pressure to become a doctor. To my immigrant parents and extended family, it was all about coming here to the U.S. to give their kids a “better life.” What that looks like is financial success and being very affluent. So from kindergarten, I was told I was going to be a doctor. A medical doctor — that’s the only kind of doctor that they could acknowledge existed. But that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was like, “I think I want to be a veterinarian; I love animals, and that’s a doctor.” “No, that’s not a REAL doctor.” I get it; they worked hard, and they wanted to make sure that we were going to be successful and financially stable. My real passion, though, was singing. I really wanted to do that for my career, but in the 70s, there was no representation of Filipinos. Now, we’re all over the place. But this was way before Lea Salonga paved the way, and I was told, “That’s not going to be successful, you’re not going to be good at it,” so I just kind of resigned myself to being a physician and eventually bought into the idea.
I got accepted with honors to both UCLA and UC Irvine, but I picked UC Irvine because I wanted to move away from home. I was afraid they were going to make me commute if I went to UCLA! I really wanted to figure myself out, I really wanted to establish my own identity, and I wanted to get away as far as possible to do that. I grew up in Carson, a suburb in LA County, where Filipinos were the majority culture. Even though I didn’t want to be a doctor, I didn’t feel like there was a way that I could communicate that, because my parents were paying for my education. But I wasn’t great at that major because I wasn’t passionate about it, so around junior year, I was like, “Oh, man, my GPA for Biology sucks! I better get a double major to make myself more competitive for medical school applications.” So I decided to get a double major in Psychology and Social Behavior. I chose it because I had enjoyed my psychology GE classes, and I didn’t recognize it at the time but I was getting A’s in all of my psychology classes, probably because I really loved them. However, it was really only a way for me to improve my chances of getting into medical school.
During my fifth year at Irvine, UCI started this student organization called PUSO, which stood for Pilipino Pre-Health Undergraduate Student Organization. Puso is the Tagalog word for heart. They let all the graduating seniors go on an inaugural trip to the Philippines and participate in a medical-surgical mission. We went to the Philippines with all our things packed into half of a suitcase, because the rest of our luggage capacity was designated for medical supplies and medicine that we were bringing with us. It was an amazing experience; we were all in our early 20s, gallivanting all over the Philippines and participating in surgeries with two Fil-Am physicians and a nurse that accompanied us. I assisted in so much: a hemorrhoidectomy, breast cancer removal, cataract surgery, and helping deliver babies. Sometimes our job was waving palm fronds to keep the flies away from the surgery… those were just the conditions. I loved it. There was a thrill with assisting in surgery and seeing all this stuff up close. And then one day, my friend and I were assisting in delivering babies. One of the babies that was recently born stopped breathing soon after his delivery, turning blue and purple. My friend and I were standing there helpless as we yelled for help. It was very traumatic, and I thought, “I don’t know if I can handle this.” Doctors resuscitated the baby at the last minute, but in that moment, my entire life trajectory changed. I knew this wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I was like, “Well, I don’t need to study for MCATs!” I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, but I was grateful that UCI gave me the opportunity to validate my belief that being a physician was not for me, and to figure that out before I went down that road any further.
Since I needed to find a different job after deciding I didn’t want to become a doctor, I fell into pharmaceutical research after learning more about the industry during my undergraduate research at UCI and the Long Beach VA, which participated in clinical trials for various pharmaceutical companies. I got a job as a Clinical Research Associate at one of the top three pharma companies at the time, and that was my first job out of college. It was eye-opening to travel all over the country and experience things like racism, sexism, and ageism for the first time, being treated as someone who was a member of marginalized groups, when that had not been my experience in the past. But I was “successful” in the eyes of my family and my culture: I made a six-figure salary, drove a company car, and bought a house when I was 28. But I personally did not feel like I was succeeding in life or happiness.
About eight years into that career I found myself in a stinky hotel in Delaware for a meeting and wondering, “How the hell did I get here? I’m so miserable!” It was one of those existential moments, and I found myself reflecting on my life: all of the pressure to be a doctor, the pressure to be thin, the pressure to be perfect, the pressure to be get married and have children (when I had not been allowed to date while I was going to school), and going through college and still feeling unsure about who I was or what I was supposed to do with my life. I got to this place of thinking out loud, “If I could help just one young Filipina girl not have to go through what I’m going through, then all of this will have been worth it.” As soon as I said that statement, I heard in my heart, “That’s exactly what I want you to do.” Then the whole room got hi-def, everything got sharp, super laser-focused, colors were brighter, and I was like, “What is going on?” But those words… I truly believe in things like callings and epiphanies. My heart was pounding, so I went to the bathroom and washed my face, and when I looked up, everything was still very clear. And I kept hearing the echoes of it: “That’s exactly what I want you to do, that’s exactly what I want you to do…” and I was like, “What does that mean?” Over the next two years, I kept getting promoted, I kept getting more money and going to bigger pharmas, but I still wasn’t happy. It eventually dawned on me that if I was jumping around all these major companies and still not finding fulfillment, maybe this was not the career for me.
I started playing around with the thought of becoming a therapist; maybe I could talk to people and help them. But I had no idea what that was supposed to look like. I’m a first-generation college student, and I didn’t know anyone that went to graduate school, let alone in the field of psychology, because that just doesn’t exist in my culture. My Filipino culture has such a stigma around mental health, thinking people are “crazy” or “possessed” (there’s the Catholic influence). I had been 10 years out of college and didn’t know anything about graduate school, and there wasn’t anyone to really mentor me or guide me in any of this, so I decided to become an MFT (Marriage and Family Therapist). I thought, “I’ll do therapy, but just part-time, since I still want to keep my house and my nice affluent lifestyle.” The psychologist who was interviewing me for grad school said, “Christine, you just don’t seem like the kind of person that’s going to be satisfied with a Master’s degree; you seem like someone who would want to go for the doctorate.” Oh my God, was she right. I had always been achievement-oriented throughout my life, not because I wanted to be great, but because I truly believed that was the only way I could be loved and accepted by my family. It never felt as if I could be loved for just being me, unfortunately. So I went the doctor route.
During grad school, I bounced around different training environments, such as child guidance centers, hospitals, and community clinics, but none of them felt like a good fit. And then I got an internship at a college and I was like, “Oh, thank God,” because I loved it. I could still remember how lost I felt during my years at UCI, and it was wonderful to be able to provide people with the support I wished I had had at the time. I loved working with the college population because they were young enough to be open to new ideas, but old enough where I didn’t have to deal with their parents often. Then I got my fellowship at another college campus and loved it again, so I was like, “Ok, this is what I want to do.”
After I received my license, I worked at a UC school that was far from home for three years. I missed my friends and family in LA and kept applying to positions that would allow me to come back. Then a position opened up where I did my fellowship in Los Angeles, and I was happy to return home. This school had a nursing program, so I was able to work with a lot of Filipinos that had similar concerns as I had when I was in college: I didn’t want to be a doctor, they didn’t want to be nurses, but there’s still this cultural expectation that if parents are paying for your education, you’re going to do what they want. People who are in college… it seems like their whole lives have to revolve around what they do in college, and it’s devastating to their identity if what they chose doesn’t work out for whatever reason. It’s interesting that out of the nine of us that went to the Philippines with UCI PUSO, only one of us became an actual physician, and the rest of us are all happy with the non-physician careers we’ve chosen after completing the Biology degrees that were asked of us by our parents.
It’s nice to be able to provide what we call in the biz a “corrective emotional experience.” Here I am, an older Filipino, telling you, a younger Filipino, “Actually, your life doesn’t have to be defined by what you do in college, and your success doesn’t have to be defined by this major”, and be a true example of that. I worked at that university for five years until a position opened up earlier this year to work at the UC Irvine Counseling Center. I thought, “How amazing it would be to come back to the place where this journey began, as a doctor but not the kind I had initially set out to become.” I’m happy to report that as of this interview, they offered me a position a few days ago, and I have happily accepted and will be joining the staff in the fall. It really feels like I’ve come full circle and I’ll be able to work at my beloved alma mater and support my Anteater family!
I also love working with my Filipino-American community. I’m honored to have been able to work with my Filipino-American community, from working with Filipino-American college students in all four of my university settings, to serving in leadership roles as the current co-chair for the Division on Filipino Americans for the Asian American Psychological Association, to providing workshops and presentations on the national and local level about Filipino American mental health. At a recent conference, the Filipino American Mental Health Summit in Los Angeles, I was on the steering/planning committee, I gave a workshop, I was a keynote panelist, and I led a small group discussion. I kid you not, I didn’t pee once that day because after every single event, I got bombarded with older Filipinos who really resonated with what I was saying, younger Filipinos who didn’t know this career was an option, and graduate students that were excited about representation in this field. One of my favorite moments from that day was when a young woman approached me after my keynote panel and said, “Dr. Catipon, I came here because I heard you were going to be here. I don’t know if you remember me but I was at one of the career panels that you did at UC Irvine and you inspired me so much, I wanted to become a psychologist.” And then she said, “Can I please take a selfie with you? Because you’re so inspiring to me.” Whoa. It felt like the epiphany I had in Delaware had truly come to fruition in that moment, and it was all I could do to not cry right then and there. But I couldn’t, because we had to take an awesomely meaningful selfie! I feel so fortunate and so blessed to be able to work with my community in this way and to be able to work with Filipinos, because so many of them underutilize mental health services. In my culture, we shove our feelings down until they explode. I hope that I’m helping to shift the culture’s negative perspective of mental health for the better in my own little way.
I work very eclectically: I use cognitive-behavioral interventions for symptom alleviation, psychodynamic ones for relationships with self and others, solution-focused for short-term goals, all with a multicultural lens because I’m a woman of color. I use a variety of approaches, because every person in front of me is unique, and there’s no cookie-cutter way to do this work. I think something special I bring to the table in my work with college students is that my husband is a nerd. He greatly influences my knowledge of current pop culture, which makes me very relatable to the college students. I remember one time this client came in and was really sad, and it wasn’t typical for her. I asked, “What’s wrong?” and she said “Hodor.” It was the day after this character on Game of Thrones, spoiler, was killed, and I myself had felt very saddened by the episode. I responded empathetically, “Oh yes. I feel your pain.” And she proceeded to vent for a few minutes about the episode, and then she was fine. But in that moment, it was important to create space for her to be authentically herself. It’s not enough for me to just show up; I want to practice what I preach and give people permission to be authentic by modeling authenticity. So if we spend five minutes chatting about a show where I can empathize with what the client is feeling and create that connection, sure. I want my clients to feel like they can say whatever they want and feel whatever they want, and they’re not going to be judged. And if referencing GOT or Harry Potter or Steven Universe or the MCU will help create that authentic connection, so be it. My intention is to provide people with the support and tools and resources they need so that they can learn to heal themselves.
I don’t look at clients as broken or in need of fixing or anything like that. I generally go into my relationships with my clients believing they have all the answers within themselves, they have all the resources, and together we can find out what those unique answers are for them. At the end of the day I can only do so much, because I have to allow my clients the dignity of their own process. I can’t make them do anything they don’t want to do. I can just give them unconditional support and tools and recommendations, but it’s their choice of how they want to utilize the information given to them.
My advice to someone considering this profession is to get experience before you go to graduate school of what it’s like to work with others in a healing profession, because a lot of this stuff is not in your control and are you going to be ok with that? This job is rewarding, but it’s challenging. If you haven’t done your own inner work, then you’re not going to be able to hold space for other people. You can’t be a container for others if you’re full of yourself. So do your inner work because this is not completely about you. Definitely do your research and make sure that you go to an accredited program. Do the research about getting a PhD versus a PsyD versus an MFT versus an LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker), and know what kind of population you might want to work with. And just be aware of the financial and time commitment; you will not be able to work another job without losing your sanity. These are my degrees: I have my BA in Psych and Social Behavior and my BS in Biological Sciences, my PsyD in Clinical Psychology, and my MA in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica. I attended USM primarily for the experiential and healing components that had contributed to tremendous personal growth in one of my close friends that had gone through the program. I really think the MA in Spiritual Psychology helped me work on me being my authentic self and seeing the loving essence in others, through the use of heart-centered listening. So that mindset is infused into all of the clinical work I do. I basically relearned all of the clinical skills that were taught in graduate school from a heart-centered perspective, and I think that is a big part of what makes me stand out from other clinicians. I did a lot of work on myself during that program. Our master’s thesis was about pursuing a dream that you thought you could never pursue because of all of the limiting beliefs, such “I can’t do it,” “I’m not good enough,” etc. Remember my childhood dream of being a singer? Up to that point, I sang a lot in various choirs but had never pursued singing professionally. I had these limiting beliefs: I’m not good enough, I’m too brown, I’m too fat, etc. So becoming a singer is what I did for my master’s thesis project, which ended up being a sold out jazz concert where I sang sultry standards and shared humorous anecdotes, and it was dedicated to my father and my husband. But the hardest work was really working through my own negative self-talk. I learned how to set goals, I learned how to inspire, and I can help others do that now because I had to learn how to do that for myself.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to impart my wisdom, my support, and my authenticity to many people in this life and feeling like I’ve made a difference. I want to leave the world a better place than when I entered it, and I hope I’ve done that. I just want to help people see the light that I see in them, but I can only do that by sharing authentically the light that is within me, which was hard-won through the trials and blessings and pain and love and support experienced throughout this life journey. The joy and fulfillment I have received in serving others as Dr. Christine Catipon is beyond measure, and I hope to be able to continue doing this work for a very long time.