“Social workers are a depressed bunch.”
So said a colleague of mine, a social worker himself. We were on break during a training and a few feet away, sipping coffee and popping Dunkin’ Munchkins, was a group of our fellow social workers.
“Funny thing is,” he continued “you talk to half of these people and they’re in so much pain themselves. Why would you want to sit all day with other people who are in pain, if you’re in pain?” It seemed like a fair enough question, but something about it bothered me and I reflexively said “Well, everyone’s got pain.” Dissatisfied with my defensiveness, I leaned in to ask him why he became a social worker. At that moment the speaker called us to attention, and I never got my chance.
Hours later on the subway home, his comment and question haunted me, raising a host of other questions. Was he right, even partly? Was I somehow hiding from my own emotional pain by keeping company with people who were in many ways much worse off than I? Why had I chosen social work? Was it for the “right” reasons? What were the right reasons? Could I actually help people if I wasn’t “fixed?” My head started to spin.
I decided to put the question to myself.
ME: Why did you become a Social Worker?
MYSELF: To help people.
ME: Very noble. But why a Social Worker? You could have become a doctor. A lawyer. A repairman. They help people, too. A call center representative. “Your call is very important to us. Please hold.”
ME: No, really. Why did you become a social worker? These clients, consumers, whatever you want to call them, you sit with them every day and they’re in pain. Pain pours out of these people. They’re hurting. Lonely. Ill. Desperate. Addicted. You chose this. Why?
MYSELF: (blank stare)
Yes, I did. I chose this. But other than “To help people”, I didn’t really have a clue. For all the times I’d had an especially challenging day and asked myself aloud “Why am I doing this?” I never tried to honestly answer that question. Clearly, something else was driving my choice, something beyond “To help people”, but I couldn’t say what it was. I didn’t know.
What I did know straight away is that like so many of my fellow social workers, there is something in me that recognizes pain, not only on the most obvious levels—anybody can do that—but also on the more subtle levels. It’s noticing a wince in the eye of an elderly person with Paget’s disease when they try to stand. It’s our curiosity about the misplaced smile after someone tells you they relapsed for a minute but they’ll get off the junk—“promise.” It’s understanding that when a mother barks at a child who asks for a Dora book bag that she’s not really angry, but just scared to death that she’ll soon have to choose between school supplies and food.
“Okay. So?” I said. “Recognizing it is one thing. That doesn’t mean you have to sit with it every day.” But that’s just it. We’re not social workers to hold hands with pain. We’re social workers to help alleviate pain. We recognize it because, like every other human we’ve had, and have, our fair share. Death, illness, loss, financial difficulties, struggles—we know all about it, but it doesn’t stop there. It is the recognition of our own pain and our ability to see it in others that not only moves our hearts—it compels us to action. That’s what sets us apart, because the thing that our hearts know that our heads haven’t caught up with is that we’re stronger than our pain. Strong enough to sit with it and have enough adult left in us to help our clients face theirs.
But how does this work, exactly? Maybe the guy was right, maybe half, even more, of all of us have experienced an inordinate amount of emotional pain in our lives. A divorce. A death, or illness. Chronic pain from an accident. Anxiety manifesting in a tendency toward perfectionism. Now someone sits down in front of us, and we smile and hold the space, sitting with our pain, and trying to help them alleviate theirs.
How do we help people in pain, when we are hurting?
I’m not going to lecture you on self-care. You’ve heard it all before and already know what you need to do. But I will say this. When your own pain is right there with you, jumping up and down in your body while you’re sitting with your client, you’ve got options:
1) Notice your body and adjust. Come back to the present by wiggling your toes, pressing your feet up against your desk, the wall, something, to create sensation that will help ground you by bringing you present. If your hands are clenched or your shoulders raised, release them.
2) Breathe. Even if you think you are already breathing, take a long, slow, deep breath. As your lungs fill push your stomach out, expanding your diaphragm and letting even more air in. Exhale slowly.
3) Slow down. Nothing that is done well is done in a rush. If you need more time, for whatever it is, take it. “This is important and I want to make sure I get it right.”
4) Err to the side of caution. Generally speaking, when you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything. Especially if supervisory or expert advice is not immediately available. Mistakes are more common when our own pain is activated, and it is usually better to make a passive mistake (do nothing), than an active mistake (give bad advice or wrong information).
The conversation with myself went a little better the second time around.
ME: Why did you become a Social Worker?
MYSELF: To help people.
ME: More specifically.
MYSELF: To help people who are anxious. And sad.
ME: More specifically. To help them what?
MYSELF: To help people who are anxious and sad… not be anxious and sad!
ME: Now you’re being funny.
MYSELF: To help people who are anxious and sad, to be right here, right now. Here, in the present, not in the past thinking about why they’re sad, not in the future worrying about what might happen. Fighting for themselves, fighting for the life they want to live, right here, right now.
ME: What’s in it for you?
MYSELF: What’s in it for me?
ME: You’re not in it for the money or the glamour. There’s got to be another reason.
MYSELF: I became a Social Worker because I want the world to be a better place, by virtue of my own direct efforts to alleviate suffering, than it would have been if I had never been born.
ME: I think you’ve got something there.
MYSELF: And I became a Social Worker because by helping others heal, I heal myself.
When you have an especially challenging day and ask yourself “Why am I doing this?” What’s your answer?
Questions for Further Consideration
1) What do you do when you’re sitting with a client and your head is swirling with your own problems? What would you add to numbers 1) through 4) above?
2) Is there a profession other than social work that would also satisfy your need to alleviate suffering?
oh my gosh! You eloquently laid out why I became a social worker. Like your first conversation with yourself, that’s been my pat answer “to help others”. The second conversation hit the nail on the head fleshing out what “to help others” means. I will definitely use the least harm technique of doing nothing (except in the case of a client wanting to hurt his/herself or another). I am definitely subscribing to this blog and reading through it. I like to have many resources at my disposal when I finally get a job! My goal is to either be a school social worker, or a school-based therapist. We’ll see what God has in mind for me and what doors open up to follow my passion of working with those to help them alleviate their anxiety, fears, and pain. It’s a matter of helping the client realizing they have within them what they need to be well and teaching them tools they can access to manifest that wellness. I believe that in order to be a good practitioner one has had to experience pain for themselves and also experience the search for the tools. I’ve had two very good LICSW therapists as well as a couple of wonderful school social work mentors to guide me.
I’m going to share your blog link on Facebook for my newly graduated cohort. Maybe they will appreciate it as well.
Thank you so much for this post!!
Good morning Shelly,
Thanks so much for your kind words, and for following and sharing.
You are correct in noting that when it comes to a threat to harm self or others, all bets are off. Once it has been established that the threat is real, immediate action is required. Thanks for sharing that important caveat.
You hit on something really important here. “It’s a matter of helping the client realize they have within them what they need to be well and teaching them tools they can access to manifest that wellness.” Indeed it is, and this is where we, as social workers, do this little dance with ourselves. It is sometimes easier to do, than teach. This may sound a bit radical, but I believe we must do as little as possible for our clients in working with them to achieve their goals. Why as little as possible? Precisely because they “have within them what they need to be well”! and our best role is to help them manifest these abilities. After all, when they leave our office they are off to directly confront (hopefully) the realities that are troubling them. So the dance is, when is what we are doing too much? And when is a little more support in just the right place required?
Hey, you’ve given me another topic to blog about! Thanks Shelly!
I wish you the very best in your endeavors. Your spirit shines through and I’m sure your clients will be very well served indeed! Please let me know how you’re doing, as time allows.
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Thank you for this post. As a freshman entering college this fall, choosing Social Work as my major seems like a heart decision. I have a fearful respect of the work ahead of me and don’t take it lightly. But, I do know that I want to empower hurting, underprivileged people. I don’t know what setting I want to be in, and I know that I won’t make great money. 🙂
Craig, would you answer your own question for me? Is there a profession other than social work that would also satisfy your need to alleviate suffering?
Congratulations for taking a brave path, in following your heart. And thank you for taking the time to read this post and comment.
I would be glad to answer that question. Law. Specifically, civil law serving the poor and underserved. A piece of the mission statement of The Legal Aid Society (www.legal-aid.org), an organization I greatly respect and admire, says it all, for me. “It (The Legal Aid Society) is dedicated to one simple but powerful belief: that no New Yorker should be denied access to justice because of poverty.”
I find it particularly infuriating when businesses and organizations bully, abuse, and otherwise institutionally disenfranchise poor and underserved populations. Having worked alongside a number of such lawyers both criminally and civilly, I have found that attorneys are often better able to confront these injustices because their advocacy is based in direct knowledge and application of the law. Having said that, this is where I am, and I can continue to serve and advocate powerfully in the role I have chosen. Why don’t I switch to law? I’ve got enough student loans already, thanks!
I hope you will continue to follow my blog, and let me know how you’re doing.
All the best!
I find that I chose Social Work to serve and advocate for others. Ironically, with what I do I never become overwhelmed, frustrated, or ‘depressed’ with the clients… even the most difficult ones (I work with the severe and persistent mentally ill). It’s always the system that causes these frustrations. Thus, I hope to advocate change on the mezzo and macro levels some day. I say some day because I believe that in order to make appropriate change and be able to sit among those that have that ability you first must know and practice the clinical side.
After a somewhat brief effort I could not find your name on your blog, so I’ll say:
You make an excellent point by distinguishing between clients and various systems as the sources of frustration. I share your feeling exactly. At times, I have gone back and forth between wanting to facilitate macro level change, and change “one person at a time.” On a policy level (macro) or program level (mezzo) we get to influence change in larger groups of people in one fell swoop. Very satisfying. Having said that, the larger the playing field, the less direct influence we have over these large, entrenched, inertial systems. Hence the frustration we feel.
Which way to go? An excellent subject for a blog, don’t you think?
Where I have found that things can sometimes get thorny with clients is when our personal efforts at advocacy fall somewhat short, or when the systems themselves get in the way of the very change they exist to support! And yes, clinical skills can be especially helpful—on every level.
Thank you so much for following my blog and taking the time to join the conversation.
I haven’t put too much identifying info on my blog as of yet (my name, my fiance’s name, friends, etc). Because I do write about every aspect in my life I didn’t want to much identifying factors. That may change… we shall see. So, that is why you were unable to find my name 😉
I do think advocacy between the macro, mezzo, and micro would make a great blog subject! And you are absolutely right about the systems that ‘support’ change can hinder it… I do not know what it is like in NY ( I believe that is where you at), but I can tell you in FL it is like chasing your tail at times.
Really Well written and honest. I am a social worker at a dialysis center. I get frustrated because I am the only social worker and no co-workers really take the time to understand what I do. I lost my way as a social worker and it has become about me. I appreciate the premise of this blog because I haven’t truly asked myself why I am a social worker lately. I am a social worker because I want my patients to see themselves as people that have the potential for growth and not just a person with deficits. Thanks for writing this and I hope you keep writing!
Thank you so much for reading “Why Social Work?” and for your thoughtful comment. You’re definitely sounding like a loner out there, and it makes me curious about the quality of your supervision and if you’re satisfied with it. I’m also curious as to whether this is the best possible setting for you and what other settings would help you feel seen and appreciated.
It seems like such a simple thing, but I am really glad to have finally answered that question for myself, “Why Social Work?”, and am glad you did, too!
Take care, and thanks for following!
Well the problem is that there is no supervision because my boss is from the medical field due to it being a for profit dialysis center. I know why I am a social worker…and I am about 10% done with my supervision hours for that. My goal is to do private practice with some pro bono work for less privileged people and families.