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Anchors Aweigh! My Reciprocal Mentorship with CAPT Betsy Holmes

W. Brad Johnson, Ph.D.,  RML Faculty Member

 

 

LCDR Holmes and LT Johnson

 

I was commissioned a Navy Lieutenant in 1990. Fresh from graduate school, I reported to Bethesda Naval Hospital for my psychology internship. One of the more salient memories in a year best characterized by high-stress, demanding rotations, and late night emergency watch, was my exposure to an accomplished senior psychologist sent to Bethesda to teach and supervise interns during the first gulf war. A Navy Commander, Betsy Holmes was exceedingly competent and confident. I was in awe of her expertise and, like any duckling in a new field, I took to waddling behind, using her as a professional exemplar, a template for the sort of psychologist I imagined becoming one day. In this fledgling phase of our relationship, hierarchy and structure loomed large. Betsy was a role model, a teacher, and an encourager. She provided guidance and oversight. I was deeply heartened that she seemed to believe I might actually survive that trying first year.

 

I was in awe of her expertise and, like any duckling in a new field, I took to waddling behind, using her as a professional exemplar, a template for the sort of psychologist I imagined becoming one day.

 

Not only did I survive internship, but just imagine my delight when learning that I would be assigned to the medical center at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii where one of my post-doctoral supervisors would be, you guessed it, Betsy. I think of those two years of preparation for licensure as the second phase of our mentoring relationship. As a newly minted psychologist, I felt like an imposter some days. My internal dialogue went something like this: Astoundingly, nobody around here seems to realize I’m not very competent and I’ll bet it’s just a matter of time before they figure it out and make me walk the plank. I now realize that many new professionals struggle with the imposter syndrome but at the time, I lacked that perspective. Remarkably, Betsy appeared to view my work as quite good. Sure, she offered constructive feedback, made suggestions about different paths I might pursue with challenging patients, and listened generously when I expressed any insecurities about my work. But she always made it clear she saw me as a competent young psychologist. She was patient, affirming, and interested in my perspective.

During our Pearl Harbor years together, I detected a palpable transition in the nature and quality of our relationship. At first, we picked up where we’d left off at Bethesda. Betsy was the senior officer and the singular expert. I was the apprentice tuned to receiving mode for the wisdom she’d accrued. Yet, as the months rolled by, I found our conversations becoming more collegial. Rather than merely offer advice and direction, Betsy more often asked Socratic questions which instigated wonderful clinical and theoretical discussions. At some point, I realized that she was deliberately interacting with me as a colleague, not merely a supervisee. She shared clinical quandaries from her own work and seemed to genuinely appreciate my perspective. She asked me questions about my areas of relative expertise and even invited me to co-teach a workshop with her. When I successfully passed the licensing exam, Betsy celebrated my achievement. At times, I marveled at how our relationship had clearly transitioned from something formal and hierarchical to something far more mutual.

 

At times, I marveled at how our relationship had clearly transitioned from something formal and hierarchical to something far more mutual.

 

Among the many gifts I have received from Betsy, perhaps the most important was delivered during my novice years at Pearl Harbor. It was during those years of full time clinical work that I began toying with the idea of an academic career. Seeing patients for eight hours every day just didn’t call to me. I realized I was happiest when I had time to read, write a journal article, and even teach an adjunct class or two at a local college. Because she’d earned my trust and because she listened without judgment, I shared my academic inclinations with Betsy. Instead of telling me I should try harder to enjoy clinical work or poke holes in my scholarly aspirations, Betsy listened, nodded, and immediately began thinking out loud with me about how to make the transition to an academic job. In social psychology, the Michelangelo phenomenon describes the tendency for partners in strong reciprocal relationships to draw out one another’s ideal selves and career/life dreams. In a real way, Betsy became my sculptor, freeing me from the burdens and inhibitions that kept me from pursuing my ideal career path. She took me seriously, expressed belief in my ability to succeed, cheered me on, and wrote a letter of recommendation that helped me secure my first teaching job at a civilian university.

Here is something else great mentors do: They look for opportunities to open doors and sponsor mentees. Four years after I was discharged from the Navy and become ensconced in my first university job, Betsy reached out once again and encouraged me to apply for a rare opening in psychology at the Naval Academy. On Betsy’s urging, I applied, got the job, and two decades later, I still can’t believe my good fortune. It was during this third phase of our mentorship, teaching together as colleagues at Annapolis, that Betsy and I refined a truly reciprocal mentorship. We shared teaching ideas, collaborated on several writing projects, and had regular confidential conversations about hidden politics, our career paths, families, and a few of our quirkier colleagues. It was during these Annapolis years that the scaffolding of our more formal work together fell away, leaving only an abiding collegiality and a caring friendship.

 

In social psychology, the Michelangelo phenomenon describes the tendency for partners in strong reciprocal relationships to draw out one another’s ideal selves and career/life dreams.In a real way, Betsy became my sculptor, freeing me from the burdens and inhibitions that kept me from pursuing my ideal career path.

 

Finally, it is worth noting that all the research and writing I have done around gender and mentorship—most notably the publication of Athena Rising with another close colleague, David Smith—can be traced to many formative conversations with Betsy nearly two decades ago. The finest mentors and colleagues make contributions to not only our self-confidence and career success, but also to our creative inspirations and big ideas. Thank you Betsy!

 

 

 

Brad Johnson is one of our faculty members and a main contributor to the RML curriculum. He is the author of several book chapters, 130 journal articles, and 12 books in the areas of mentoring, professional ethics, and counseling. His most recent book, which he co-wrote with David Smith, is Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women (2016). This groundbreaking work is the “springboard” of content for the RML and helped cumulate the creation of our program.

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