“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?