Driving to work yesterday, I listened (as is my habit) to the local Contemporary Christian radio station. A song began playing that I had heard many times…but never really paid heed to the words. That day they struck a chord.

You’re a good good father
it’s who you are
And I’m loved by you
It’s who I am.

My mind began to unpack those comforting words. The writer meant to invoke the listener’s memories of what a good father meant to them and inject those qualities into a song about God’s deep love and committment for us.

Nice.

But what if you had no frame of reference? What if you did not have a good father? How would you relate?

My own father was a good man. He loved me dearly, of which I have no doubt. But my father was damaged. He was broken by a series of events in his childhood, which he kept hidden like a shameful secret deep inside his heart, allowing it to slowly devour him from the inside. I watched as he abused alcohol for the majority of my youth and young adulthood, never knowing he was trying to chase away his own demons. He quit drinking in his 50’s after a heart attack. But he never dealt with the underlying issues. So, even sober, he remained shattered. In his later years, when I was an adult, he told me his secret, cringing silently as he waited to hear the shock..the shame..the blame. When I gently told him what happened to him was not his fault; he began to cry. Suddenly, the memories of 30 years as his daughter came flooding to me. And I understood. My father never abused me, never abandoned me. But he was emotionally unavailable to me. Because he was broken.

How does this relate to social work? My story is far more common than you may think. Often those who go into the helping professions do so from a place of restoration. Many social workers experienced adversity as a child. Out of the adversity, these workers, like me, developed a resilience..a determination to break the chains .and a strong desire to help others survive and thrive their own family issues.

So we went into the world of child welfare, charging forward; determined to right all the wrongs; heal all the hurts; and save all the children.

I watched as some workers progressed in their career with a fervor and then started to slow down; move without as much determination and some froze completely into inaction. I heard the complaints. I heard them called apathetic and uncaring. I heard them called lazy. But what I saw was the brokenness that comes from a lack of resiliency.

Resilience is the ability to rise up, transcend your own trauma and adversities and keep on the path to self fufillment. So how did these social workers become this way?

The vast majority of children we work with have been touched by trauma to varying degrees: some have been damaged, some broken and some beaten down by the experiences that they have lived with most of their lives. They carry their trauma around like a rucksack filled with stones: slowing them down emotionally, impeding their ability to bond or to develop lasting relationships. Often they give up trying to succeed and settle for trying to survive.

As social workers we know to look beyond the behavior to focus on the pain as we try and help them develop skills and abilities to transcend their experience to develop resiliency.

But pain and trauma has a way of paying it forward. Much like the flu, trauma can be contagious. As the social worker listens to so much pain and anger coming from abuse of the innocent, they begin to carry vicarious trauma. It’s almost like they come to the job with their own rucksack, empty and new. Each client who shares their pain, with emotions as sharp as a cut onion, hands them a rock to put in their sack. After only a few months, their bag feels a little heavy. After a year, it is slowing them down. Pretty soon, they can be bent over at the weight of vicarious trauma.

What is done for them? Nothing. The typical response is “give them a raise” and they will stay. I challenge that. While more money and lower caseloads are certainly needed and deserved in the social work profession, that will not make them more resilient.

Recognition of vicarious trauma (beyond the public lip service that it exists) must be accompanied by action. I would love to see child welfare and mental health agencies provide greater support to these champions. A free non stigmatized support group would be a start. A group where workers could go and unpack their russack, knowing it was a safe, non judgemental, place to ask for understanding and help. A place both supportive and educational regarding self care opportunities and shared experiences would go a long way to forging a community of hope and beginning a path for resiliency.

Until we can truly provide the kind of emotional, mental and educational resources to those workers staggering under the weight of vicarious trauma, only those who are innately resilient will be able to keep walking. It is up to agency leaders and innovators to come up with ideas and strategies to build resiliency.

27 thoughts on “Resiliency!

  1. You with profound sincerity and care. What a lucky team it must be that you work with, even though you and they must struggle with the demands of the work you have taken on. I was raised to believe, as a teacher, that my job was and is a vocation. Although that notion can be misunderstood and even sound haughty in this day and age of work pragmatic, regulated values, I believe you view your work as a vocation too. I might write further on what I mean by vocation soon on my blog. Have a great week.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am humbled by your gracious comment. Yes I truly believe it is my vocation. I also truly believe that teaching is a vocation and more and more you see and interact with the same children. Thank you for what you do. Share your blog post about vocation when you write it so I don’t miss it.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree. A relative of mine had to back out because she simply couldn’t bear the weight of everything she was trying to fix/love/help/save/nurture. it was overwhelming and WAY too much to carry. It’s just not as easy as “let it go”. Sigh. I know another woman who does wonderful work at a shelter while her own life is in pieces. She has no energy or direction to help herself. it stuns me to read that there aren’t support groups. God. Years ago I had a meeting with a fantastic therapist. She was absolutely brilliant and a huge help to me. She was running late one day and ran in the door, wild hair flying, spouting, “I’m so sorry! My therapist was running late!!!” I laughed and said, “YOU need a therapist?!!” She said, “Oh, Sweetheart, we need them more than anyone!” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Thank You for Your beautiful heart and the work You. Y’all are Angels. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Here it is required that therapists are supervised which allows them a chance to process their clients. I agree with you wholeheartedly that your profession attracts those with childhood trauma, often without the person knowing about it. I think those are the people who get into the most trouble, hearing about abuse and keeping their own suppressed. Therapy, 12 step groups and God are the only way I know that people in the profession stay healthy.

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  4. all the you say is true and I always had supervision or therapy to debrief not just about the daily trauma of clients but also the workplace politics which are often another obstacle. Only mistake was that in one job my supervisor was paid by my workplace [instead of me] so there was NO confidentiality!
    Did start up a local support group under the banner of our professional association and it was well attended, confidential and much needed. Once a month we had a social breakfast before work and once a month we had professional exchanges eg rotated talking about our workplaces, dramas or a useful article … whatever that person chose was right for them and the group. Sadly when I left the area the format was changed and it ceased meeting needs and dissolved.

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  5. Omg I am also a social worker and I have been through hell and back. But I’m still here still pushing and still fighting for me and my clients. I learned to be resilient because I refused to die where I was. Thank you for sharing

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thanks so much for addressing this. It continually amazes me that the careers in which a person helps people are the ones that tend to pay the least. It’s not that we do it for the money or the recognition…but you’re right – appreciation and encouragement does go a long way.

    Liked by 1 person

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