The Vulnerability of Engagement

Are you experiencing dissatisfaction with your families’ stagnation or relapse?  It is so easy to get frustrated and overwhelmed when you are doing everything You know to do to help someone achieve their goals but are seeing little success.  You have been working with Ms. Jones for six months.  She is pleasant and cooperative with you at every visit.  However, she is not progressing at all in the goals mutually set by the service planning team.  You are beginning to wonder what is going on.  She agrees with you about her need for these services, but has excuses each time she misses an appointment or doesn’t follow through with an action step.  As the pattern continues, you  start to feel ambivalence towards Ms. Jones.  You might have even verbalized to your supervisor your doubts that she even wants the change.  

I know because I have been there many times.  I had to start looking inward.  Was I missing something? What responsibility was I taking in the break down of the relationship?  So I would pose the question to you.  Have you stopped to wonder if Ms. Jones feels truly engaged with you?

 Engagement is a word used a lot by social work experts.  Everyone agrees that it is a critical tool, if you will, in the social worker’s tool box.  Engagement is the master key that unlocks the door to building rapport, establishing trust and creating the collaborative relationship that must exist for families to progress towards lasting change.  But what is Engagement?  Can it be taught?  Why does it seem to be missing in so many of our worker/client interactions?

Some people confuse engagement with empathy.  Empathy is your internal pathway to connection: trying to see through their eyes:  mentally walking a mile in their shoes to gain a better understanding of their situation.   Engagement is the external manifestation of that empathy demonstrated through your words, tone and actions.  Empathy drives engagement and helps to forge external connections.
So the question, “can engagement be taught” should really be “Can empathy be taught?”  I have heard varying opinions.  Some present that you are either empathetic or you are not.  However, many social work experts report that empathy is a choice.  Therefore workers can be taught to make the choice of empathy over pity, blame, judgement or even sympathy.  Social service agencies do a good job teaching staff about the importance of engagement and forging connections, but often leave out the most basic ingredient for learning engagement, which is teaching social workers how to make the choice of empathy and how to utilize empathy to create engagement.

I have never met a social worker who was not committed to their families and willing to do what ever it takes to help them become successful.  Choosing to utilize empathy is a powerful skill, but I must warn you.  There comes a price with choosing empathy: Vulnerability.  The very choice of empathizing with someone means reaching into your own soul to find those moments in your  life where you felt overwhelmed, grief, pain or anger over a situation or event.  Remembering those moments and those feelings helps you to better understand what your client is feeling and to begin to make that engagement connection.  This vulnerability can be uncomfortable for social workers. Also many of us have been taught that being vulnerable means being weak.   Therefore, they choose (consciously or unconsciously) to skip the engagement and go straight for the helping (“fixing” )the surface issues.  

When I think of vulnerability, I dont think of weakness.  Sometimes it takes a very strong person to allow themselves to be vulnerable.  I think of vulnerability as being open and exposed to the real truth instead of closed off for self protection.

  Think about a healthy relationship that you have: that friend who is most dear to your heart.  I have a friend I will call Jill.  We have been friends for a very long time and she knows me well.  She has no problem calling me out when she knows I am acting out of character.  It is because of the connection and trust we have that I can hear her and accept her feedback.  That connection began to deepen only as we became more open and vulnerable and allowing each other into those parts of our thoughts, feelings, beliefs that we hide from the outside world.  And it took time.  Engagement is not an instantaneous outcome but one that is ongoing and progressive with consistency of words and actions.

 Vulnerability goes both ways, you see.  While you are attempting to engage and empathize with your client, they are also feeling vulnerable and exposed by their very interaction with you.  If they do not feel safe, if they do not feel trust, you will not be able to truly know The truth of their life.  You will only see The truth they allow you to see.  This brings us back to Ms. Jones.   I challenge you to examine if the reason there is no progress with her is because she does not feel engaged.  The choice is theirs to open up or remained closed.  That choice is often based on your skills in engagement.

Engagement is an ongoing outcome of empathy, honesty, sincerity and genuiness.  I encourage you to take each new client at face value and meet them where they are.  Exercise empathy.  Allow yourself the vulnerability of tapping into those feelings.  The connection that you start to build could be the spark that lights the fuse for understanding, motivation and change.

Visionary

Be a VISIONARY!

When I was a little girl, I was the middle child: the only girl between two boys.  Thus my life of competition began.  Early  career visions for myself included cowboy and super hero, not princess or damsel in distress.  Much to the chagrin of my older brother, Greg, I was pretty tough “for a girl.”.  Once, when we were in elementary school, a bully picked on him at the bus stop.  I watched as my brother tried to ignore the other boy and thought Greg must be scared.  So I stepped in and laid into the bully knocking him down.  I turned to face my big brother expecting heaps of praise, but instead got his anger!  I couldn’t believe he didn’t appreciate me for saving him.  What I didn’t know then was that he didn’t want his little sister coming to his rescue.  By inserting my vision of being a super hero into his situation, I ultimately made it worse for him.

When you made the career choice to become a Social worker you wanted to help others and You do every day.  You see your clients struggling with circumstances and issues that are out of balance. And the issues are pretty obvious most of the time.  Drug abuse, domestic violence, mental health issues, neglect and sexual abuse are some that you face on a regular basis.   It would be so easy for you to enter the helping  relationship by handing each family your own prescription for “healing the problem.”  After all, haven’t you seen these stories played out multiple times in your career?  If the family would just listen to you, things would get better.  Right?  Here’s a not so secret fact:  10% of the families you work with will be able to rise out of their circumstance no matter what you do.  10% will not rise out of their circumstance no matter what you do.  That leaves 80% of your families that need a collaborative partnership with you to take the steps necessary for ameliorating their current circumstance.  If you take a moment and let that sink in,  it is staggering to think of the number of people’s lives that can be influenced by forming and maintaining a partnership based on the family’s vision.

Not your vision, but theirs.  

The surface issues that brought this family to your attention might be the tip of the iceberg with the “real issues”  floating just beneath the surface.  Your desire to fix the blaring issues will probably succeed in the short term.  But the underlying issues will continue to manifest until they are brought to light and addressed.  In the example of my brother, I assumed he was scared because he did not react the way that I would have if a bully tried to pick on me.  However, the truth was slightly different.  Greg was more introverted than I was, and as it turned out, a deep thinker.  He did not lack courage, but he did choose to avoid conflict.  He had chosen to ignore the bully until he could find “his” solution to address the situation.  By intervening, I had taken away his ability to avoid the conflict.

Look at a case example.  Mary had a baby boy, born with a serious life threatening kidney disease.  Although his prognosis was extremely poor in the beginning, he was making slow improvements.  Our agency got a call from the hospital concerned that Mary never came to the hospital to visit her son or to learn the skills necessary to care for him upon his release.  The doctor did not feel the child would be safe being released to his mother, as she had demonstrated no attachment to him and He thought the newborn should go into foster care.  To address the doctor’s concerns, the social worker spent time with the mother, to assess the situation.  Mary initially stated that she could not come to the hospital because she had two other small children who needed her and she could not afford to put them into day care for the time necessary to attend the classes.  However, as the worker took time with Mary , actively listened to her and dove deeper, the mother opened up.  Her own mother had the same disease as her newborn and had died as a result.  Mary was very close to her mother and when the disease became terminal, Mary spiralled into a period of debilitating and overwhelming sadness that took her over a year to return to what she described as normal functioning.  Mary recounted that time as the worst in her life.  When she was told her son had the same disease, she was sure he would also die and was afraid to go through that experience again.  Mary had no vision for her son because she had no hope.  By bringing Mary and the doctor together so she could learn about her son’s more hopeful prognosis, the worker was able to offer Mary the hope she needed to create a vision for her family that included her son.  Mary took the classes and soon afterward, with supportive services,  was able to bring her baby home.  

This case example might seem simplistic compared to some of the more complex issues some of your clients face.  But a child did not enter foster care and was able to be with his mother because a Social Worker took the time to dive beneath the surface.  

So, how do you find out a family’s vision?  Three steps:  listen, listen, listen…and don’t be afraid to ask.  Some people, like Mary, have struggled so long with the issues that they feel hopeless.  They think they have no future.  Ask them to close their eyes and picture their life if the issue, habit or circumstance was gone or waning.  Help them to envision a future for them and their family.  It takes time and engagement, but once the client can see hope in the future; they can develop a “vision” for themselves and their family.   ONLY THEN, can you work together to carve the services, interventions or steps needed to get them there. 

When I say BE A VISIONARY!  I don’t mean assert your visions on others.  While it might create a short term solution, like knocking down A bully, the problem can always come back. 

 A true VISIONARY can help another to find their vision and guide them towards a lasting change.

POWERFUL

Dear Social Worker

You are Powerful.  Never forget it.  
There is Power in so many aspects of your life. You have a college education when many do not. That is Power.  You have a career that earns you a salary, when many do not.  That is Power.  You are trained to see beyond the facade when others accept it unquestionably.  With a wider lens,  you are able to focus on the whole person not just the snapshot they display.  That is Power.  So you see, you wield power every day without even trying..without even knowing it. 

 Know it.  Be aware. Keep it in the forefront of your mind.  Because, ironically, to be truly effective as a social worker, you must always be aware of the power you hold and then try not to use it.

You see, our clients do not feel powerful.  Societal norms, prejudice and  life circumstances have eaten away at their sense of control and power, like a steady trickle of water erodes a mountain until nothing is left but a jagged ravine.  This erosion can effectively render some of our families powerless. 

 When you begin working with your clients, you set out to engage them with honesty and sincerity paving the road that leads to collaboration.  However, if you are not aware and purposeful in your approach, collaboration can evolve into control.  Negotiation can turn to domination and the chance for effecting true lasting change disappears.

People are in need of services when they at the point of crisis in their lives.  Some clients come to you voluntarily for help, because their current situation has become unbearable and impossible to manage alone.  

But some clients are involuntary.  Their crisis was brought to your attention by someone else. Someone reported them for abuse, neglect or worse.  They were not yet ready to accept the vulnerability necessary to ask for help.  They are often angry, suspicious and unwilling to admit that they need help.  It is obviously more difficult to build a partnership with someone who is involuntary.  It is normal to want to demonstrate your power to get them in compliance to make needed change.  But compliance motivated by acquiescence results only in lip service and if change is made it is often temporary.  In other words, power is not a good change agent. Empowerment is.

When initiating an intervention with a involuntary client, your first meeting can be the most important one.  You are introduced into their world at their moment of vulnerability.  The scales measuring the balance of power, are already heavily tipped in your favor.  How you handle the beginning will greatly affect the final outcome.    

Knocking on their door for the first time, you want them to see you as the one who can help them address their crisis and have good outcomes.   But they don’t share the same vision as you.  They see you as the powerful judger,  who has come to point out all their sins and decide how best to atone.  They see your power.   They are anxious, some are afraid, some are angry about their own perceived lack of power.  What can you do?  Why is it so important to balance the scales?  

Do you remember what drew you to Social Work? You became a Social Worker to make a difference in the lives of others.  You believe in social justice for all, no matter their race, age, gender, orientation or religious belief.  You believe that every human has worth and is entitled to dignity and respect.  You believe that deep within that ravine of powerlessness  lies the abilty for self determination and healing.  These beliefs develop into skills that help you to open your mind and to listen with your third ear: not just listening for content but also for understanding.  You can’t change the inherent power bestowed upon you by your position and authority.  But the scales of power begin to balance as the client becomes more empowered

Empowerment is one tool in your kit that is a great equalizer.  By empowering your clients they are able to become real partners in the plan for achieving their vision.  Active listening is the cornerstone in building empowerment.  Active listening demonstrates your sincerity in wanting to know about the successes, near misses and even failures they have previously experienced when dealing with their life issues.   Being heard and knowing their input is being taken seriously allows them to see that you really do want to help them with their current situation.  And,  as you engage with them around their vision, their power grows and gives seed to confidence in building a partnership with you.  It is your ability to empower others, not your own power that helps them to achieve lasting change.  

So yes, you are powerful.  Yet you hold something within you much stronger and more effective than authoritative power. You hold the keys to empowerment, which leads to hope.  And with hope comes the opportunities for lasting change. 



Replenish your Bucket

There is an activity used in training that teaches a lesson in self care. In this activity, you are handed a bucket of water.  Other people are identified in the activity:  your partner, your boss, your children, your aging parents, your friends, your foster children, your co-workers, your clients, your trainer and so on. As they come to you, you must dip out of your bucket to fill theirs.  After a while, there is nothing left in your Bucket.  

The point of the activity is that you cannot continue to pour out your life sustaining water without finding a way to replenish it.

That activity aptly identifies how you as a service professional can become empty.  Empty: Void of the energy, passion and commitment that led you to become a Social worker.  I have been there and it is a horrible feeling. Have you been feeling disconnected? Almost apathetic?  Do you wonder why your deep passion for the service to others is being replaced by frustration and resentment? Trust me in this.  You are not alone.  

 One night, coming home from a late meeting, I had been riding with a friend and we were getting ready to take the back road to my home.  I knew the stretch would last for 10 dark miles with no stores and few houses.  As we turned onto the road, I heard a warning bell.  When I asked her what it was, she explained to me that it was the low fuel alarm.  I tried to convince her that we needed to turn back and replenish her gas. She laughed and told me she had plenty of gas left.  We made it to my home.  I was never sure if it was because of her knowledge of her gas tank or my fervent praying all the way home. Either way, she was right.  She knew how far her car could continue to run after the bells.  

Do you know when your low fuel bells are blaring?  What do you Do? There is no one answer-fits-all.  What fills you up is different from what fills me up.  

I used to feel so guilty when I had run out of water.  I couldnt understand why the career I loved left me so disillusioned. I had ignored the warning bells and kept going.  The result was that I found myself stopped, stranded and immobile.  I felt like I couldn’t go one more day or give one more drop.  But I knew what I had to do.  

I had to first get alone:  read, pray, meditate and fill the hole in my bucket. In my alone time I often went to the lake to fill my eyes, ears and nose with nature.  Sitting by the water’s edge, I listened to the geese as they called their young to get in line.  I watched the calm lake shatter like glass with the leaping of a large bass in pursuit of a dragon fly.  I smelled the freshly cut grass and the luscious aroma of Jasmine on the wind.  As I surrendered to these senses, my own issues were put into perspective and my bucket slowly refilled.  After my alone time, I reached out to my friends for non work related fun and laughter.  Reconnecting with joy filled my bucket to overflowing.  

And so it went.  I continued to pour out of my bucket every day.  But I learned from my friend to know my gauges.  This helped me to see the low water level before I hit the despair of empty.  I was able to reach out earlier and get some fuel before the warning bells came.

We are all water-givers.  That is just who we are.  There are many in our lives who are just water takers and we accept that.  There are going to be times when we become empty.  This is not a terminal condition.  You can not only replenish your bucket but also put in your own “bells” to warn you when your water is low.   No one knows your bucket better than you.  If someone has to point out your empty bucket, it has been empty for too long.  Diligently search for and what fills your bucket.  For some it is playing with their children.  For some it is listening to music.  For some it is singing, reading, painting and yes, writing.  When you find your replenishing cistern, then learn your gauges.  Don’t wait until you are empty to draw out water.  Make it a regular habit to drink in so you can continue to pour out.  Keep your bucket full

Be The Change

Institutional Culture is a term batted around by leadership and systems experts.  The widely held belief that organizational change begins from the top down is indisputable.  I concur that if the CEO does not share the passion for the mission, that lack of passion will trickle down to the staff.  But let’s not discount the power of the hidden leaders.  I also believe that leadership at the ground level can effect real change.  I have seen this first hand.

Jeff (not his real name) had been a Social Worker for several years, experiencing the pendulum swing from stability to crisis and back to stability multiple times.  During one season, the agency received an unusually large influx of new cases to be assessed.  The already overburdened workers were ready to give up.  Without informing any leadership staff, he called a meeting of his fellow workers.  Encouraging them and giving them pointers on how he survived similar crises, he was able to give hope.  The panic subsided and the cases were assessed.  No one quit.

That is a leader who began the work of instituting cultural change from the ground up.  When approached about becoming a supervisor, this same SW declined, stating he felt he could affect change more effectively in his current situation.

Karen (not her real name) worked with foster children.  She noticed that the 3 new workers assigned to her unit seemed lost.  Her supervisor was temporarily supervising two units due to staffing issues.  Karen decided to help.  As a foster care worker for years, she had established a good relationship with the community and the courts.  She offered to mentor the new workers and her supervisor gladly accepted the idea.  Karen went with them on a few difficult home visit, modeled engagement and talk them through their questions.  As a result, the workers became more confident and less anxious.

Neither of these workers changed the world.  Neither of them changed the very large agency in which they were employed.  But they did make a difference in their sphere of influence.  Their actions were pebbles tossed into a pond.  A ripple began.  And what they didn’t know was that people were watching and learning.  See, ripples tend to grow and multiply until the entire pond is affected.

You can affect the culture of your institution. When hard times come, you will hear the complaints, the rumors, the prophesies of doom.  You can join in and watch as the fear and negativity choke the life out of you and your peers. Or you can use your experience and influence to affect an understanding of how to make it through.  You can offer hope. You can affect a change in the culture.  

You will observe your peers floundering at times by indecision on a difficult case or just with inexperience and lack of confidence.  It’s ok to do nothing.  You have too many cases yourself.  You are trying to survive as well.  I understand.  There is nothing wrong with that.  But you could also take a few minutes, use your knowledge, skills and experience to hold their hand, guiding them through the rough spot.  You can shape their mindset about the job and help build their skills and their confidence.  You can affect a change in the culture.

Leadership is not just a lofty title that comes with a corner office. Leadership is action.  And leadership occurs at every level of staff.  When you are experiencing those difficult times, I challenge you.  Don’t just cry out for the change.  Be The change.

When Storm Clouds Gather

I took this picture from my office one day as I watched a rather nasty storm approach.  Severe weather has triggered a nervous reaction in me since the day my family and I were awakened early one morning to the sound of a tornado approaching our house.  The house suffered major damage, but we did not. However, the experience did leave me more weather anxious.  Yet, on this day, as I watched this storm approach, I felt calm.  I felt prepared.  I knew what to do if it spawned a tornado because my agency had a plan for weather.  Better yet, the staff was aware of the plan and had practiced it in other storms, proving its success.  

As a Social Worker, you will face “storms” every day.   Caseloads for Social Workers around the nation are already too high.  Compounded by  the expectation of the depth of work required to facilitate real and lasting change, the task can seem overwhelming.  It has been proven that inability to achieve expected outcomes causes anxiety and stress, leading to the high worker burn out and turnover rates across the country.  You came to this profession to make a difference but sometimes everything going on around you hinders you from doing all that needs to be done. 

And your fellow workers, who couldn’t keep going,  left for clearer skies. You were left to pick up their cases simply because you were still there. But it is not just another case file you were handed.  No, it was  a child or family who will have to experience another worker,  another viewpoint and often a delay in permanency.  These delays serve to further damage a child’s ability to engage or trust anyone. And you know that you carry the added burden of responsibility for more lives and must shoulder the very real fear of missed cues that could affect safety.  These dark thoughts, swirling like debris in your mind as you see the storm coming, make you afraid. 

Conversely, seasoned workers, supervisors and management will likely have weathered similar storms before.  Although the situation is  still extremely stressful, and the same reality threatens their stability, the anxiety does not overtake them.  These veterans know that though the chaos rages around them, if they keep going, they will get through the storm.  They know that the experience will be very difficult, but they will survive

But if you are experiencing the roar for the first time and have nothing to draw from,  you may worry that you will be consumed by the raging wind.  Your confidence is shaken as you lose your foothold.  Without support, guidance and assurance tethering you, grounding you; you feel you will not make It.  What can you do?

It is inevitable that storms will come and go in a SW career.  But they do not have to devastate.  How can we overcome these periodic storms?

Successfully  weathering a crisis takes the engagement and trust of the whole agency.  Seasoned workers can be very supportive of the newer ones who are anxious about what is going on around them.  By sharing their experiences and how they survived the previous storms, they can facilitate belief that it can be done.  Managers can speak openly about the crisis plan and what is in place to help and support staff through it.  Knowing how the storm developed and being supported during it will help you get through.  

But your survival also rests on you.  Ask for assurances from the veterans.  Speak up to your supervisor of your need for extra support and guidance.  Cultivate a peer support group so that you can stand together.  Each crisis you weather builds your resiliency to face the next.  For I promise you, storms do not last forever.  And at the other end lies the sun.

Hate is a Cancer

“Hate is a cancer, slowly killing everything it touches.  Hate is the product of fear and an inability to apply reason to maladaptive beliefs.   Hate is the culmination of rhetoric spewed by dangerous people on the lost and gullible.  And we, who see hate for what it is, cannot be silent.” Angela McClintock 8.13.17.

Why did I quote myself?  Hubris?  No.  I want to make a point that if we, who abhor racism, violence, hatred in any form, do not go “on the record with our protests; we are choosing to look the other way.  There are multitudes of examples of small minded self important leaders who influence other small minded individuals to follow them down a dark and dangerous rabbit hole.  These people are not a majority but they thrive when the majority is silent.  Our silence allows their message to be heard.

One of the tenets of Social Work is Social Justice.  We believe in and are dedicated to holding high the banner proclaiming the worth and dignity of every human being with no regard to their race, ethnicity or religious belief.  Silence, on the other hand speaks volumes.

The water for camels blog was designed for encouragement.  But in light of recent events, I cannot encourage without challenging.  One voiced raised in outrage makes little noise.  It is an easily ignored annoyance swatted away like a mosquito.  But each voice added makes a difference.  Each new outcry creates a harmonic thread that builds crescendo to a cacophony of NO!!  

It is time for the voices of hate to be drowned out by the message of hope.  Will you sing with us?

The Best Medicine

I met Brenda (Not her real name) on her first day with the agency.  She was on fire to make a difference in the world through her role as a social worker.  I remember that her energy was contagious and her drive to do good was solid. My first thought on meeting her was “this young lady will really shine!” She was not assigned to my particular program so I did not see her again for a couple of years. When I did see her again I did not recognize her. She looked ten years older and appeared apathetic about the case we were discussing.  I knew something very wrong must have happened in her life.  I pulled her aside and asked her if all was well with her.  All she said was “It’s too much. I can’t do this by myself.”

Social Work Burn out, Compassion Fatigue, or Secondary Traumatic Stress.  Call it what you will but it is a very real side-effect of Social Work.  See if you can recognize these symptoms.  (Not all inclusive)

  • Increased sick days
  • Flashbacks of cases/people you have worked with
  • Decreased Productivity
  • Increased Irritability
  • Projecting a sense of “not caring”
  • Increased family conflict
  • Marked weight gain/loss
  • Increased alcohol consumption
  • Depression

This stage marks the point where social workers quit.  Seeing no relief to those feelings they flee the very mission that once gave them purpose.

What leads an excited new social worker to this low?  There are multiple variables related to individual agencies, policies and politics.   These external factors can restrict a social worker’s ability to do the level of work they feel they need to do to meet the needs of their clients. Those variables are real, but different to each agency.

Internal variables are even more powerful and affect Social Workers profoundly.  All social workers listen to, observe and take on the trauma of others in Crisis.  They see children burned or beaten.  They listen as a mother recounts a horrific rape.  What a heavy burden they bear every day! And to further the stress, these workers are expected at all times to know the right answers and make critical decisions without making a mistake.   They are often told, “A mistake can mean someone’s life.”  As social workers we deal with the abuse and sometimes murder of children. We listen to elderly adult victims tell us how they suffered at the hands of their own children.  We try to assure terrified foster children that the stranger’s home they will be living in will be safe.  And it all piles on our shoulders.

How do we process all the trauma, grief, anger and fear we deal with daily without running away ourselves to a safe place? In my career, I have seen support groups for every disease, social conditions and addictions.  What I have never seen is a support group for those social workers experiencing vicarious trauma.  Until one exists we must find our own self care plan so that we can continue with our purpose.

There are many proven ways to manage self-care in high risk jobs including healthy lifestyle changes, exercising, journaling, and self talk.  I will focus on one that is simple and may seem incongruent with the job.  But it is a tremendous stress reliever to me.  Laughter.  I love to laugh.  It releases tension and stress from my body.  I work in a serious field with real life trauma. How can I laugh?

When I was over the Investigation and Family Preservation programs,  every day brought new stress.  I found myself chained to my desk dealing with the cases, the state office and the community every day.  I felt like I could not afford to take a break. I ate lunch at my desk and plowed through the mountainous tasks in front of me. I was burning out fast.  One day, a colleague came to my office and asked if I wanted to eat lunch with her.  I really didn’t have the time (I thought) but I went.  During lunch we started to get to know each other and found we were alike in many ways.  She had a dry sense of humor that made me laugh. What an amazing feeling!  The more I laughed, the more I could feel the stress leaving my body.  I returned after lunch with renewed energy to complete the tasks before me.   Of course the stress came right back the next day.  However, after that day,  lunch together became a source of daily stress relief as we always found a reason to laugh.  We laughed at things our children had done, current events and even at ourselves.  We challenged each other’s maladaptive beliefs that the world would fall apart if we weren’t at the helm.  It was both humbling and incredibly freeing.   When she left the agency, I was devastated.  But,  I knew I had to keep the practice up and find others to break up the day with laughter. And I not only did that, but kept my friend on speed dial for much needed pick me ups.

Some would say that I simply developed a support system, which is another research proven stress reliever.  Of course I did.  But what I remember most of my time with that colleague was not just the support, which was huge.  It was the laughter.  Reach out to each other.  Get a lunch group together. Find things to laugh about.  Give yourself permission to let go of the trauma…at least for a that time you are together.  Find the ridiculosity in the world…and laugh.

This Little Light of Mine

Being a Social Worker sometimes means dealing with a darkness that many people will never see.  And those people are happier for it.  I have had friends and associates tell me multiple times that they don’t want to think about the things social workers address every day.  I understand.  So, why do social workers choose a career fraught with secondary trauma?  Because they want to make a difference.  They want to share their light.  

When I investigated sexual abuse against children, the atrocities I investigated every day could have easily led me to a dark place.  Working with the “non-offending” family members, I often got frustrated by the blinders some of them would put on to avoid the ugly truth living right in their own homes.  I had to learn that while certainly normal to feel that frustration, I could not allow those feelings to lead me to a place of blame.  Blaming without knowing the deeper truths in each family could easily hinder me from engaging with the family to help them discover or strengthen their own protective capacities.  After years of working with these types of families I learned that the dark secrets were often part of a cycle handed down from parent to child.  To address and admit that it was in their own house, they would have to address that the same thing had happened to them when they were children.  However, by engaging and building trust, rather than judging, I was often able to partner with the family and link them to the interventions needed to bring light to that cycle and to help them begin the healing process.

Social Workers deal with cycles of abuse every day.  They see children caught up in domestic violence, drug abuse and emotional abuse.  They work with children who have been physically harmed by the people who they look to for safety. These workers, walking into those dark places,  are able to shine the light on how past hurt and pain can lead to perpetuating that abuse. Without that light, the cycle most likely would continue.

  Desmond Tutu said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness”. In our world, we see the light in the people we serve when others see only the darkness.  And the families we serve, often are hopeless, and have only seen the future through a black veil. 

Social Workers:  You help them see a glimpse of a what could be.  You are sharing hope. Keep shining the light in the darkness.  The cost is high but the intrinsic benefits are many.  By restoring hope, you bring light…by sharing hope you Are the light.

Where You Sit on the Boat

When I think about how much, as a social worker, I must accomplish in a day, a week, or a month just to stay above water, the enormity of each task can be daunting. Even when I was a  field worker, there were always deadlines looming.  There were families to be seen; hearings to attend; reports to write; vendors to pay and so many meetings.  When I think of  the demands on each staff, whether they are a worker or a director, I often wonder how anything gets accomplished at all.  Clients depend on us to help them navigate their crisis while helping them to develop transferable skills for coping, parenting and communicating.  Our superiors depend on us to complete the mounds of paperwork associated with every single aspect of the job.  And, the community expects us to keep children safe and families together without making a single mistake. 

 Whew!!!  THAT IS A LOT OF PRESSURE!

Social Workers, it should come as no surprise,  sometimes just give up when they can’t see a way to do it all.  They just can’t vision the finish line.  

A staff member and I were discussing a project that had been ongoing for months.  We seemed to take a few steps ahead just to encounter a barrier which would force us to take a step back. She told me that day  that she felt like she was in an old rowboat.  She had been rowing so long, but the shore was still so far away she didn’t think she could reach it.

I told her that was because of where she was sitting in the boat.  Granted the lake (project) was huge and the boat had hit some logs along the way.  But she was facing the oncoming shore and it still looked so impossible to reach. I told her if she turned and looked at the beach she had started from, she would notice that it was even further away.  She was more than halfway there.  I also pointed out some of the successes she had already achieved during the process. A smile crossed her face and She admitted She hadn’t been thinking about all the successes her team had achieved in the process.  She left with renewed determination to keep rowing that boat.

Your vantage point is important.  The perspective from which you view your situation can build you up or it can tear you down. It is also very important to celebrate small successes. When a child learns ways to express anger and fear without lashing out; that is a success.  When a homeless mother gets an apt and learns to make and live within a budget: that is a success.  Take the time to celebrate even if no one else does. And, when you think you cannot go another step, I challenge you.  Look how far you have already come.