Growing up, my family moved a lot. From my recollection, we moved 8 or 9 times prior to my high school graduation. As a child, it seemed to me, that I was constantly having to adapt to different surroundings, different schools and different people.
Looking back, I can now see both the positive and the negative effects of all those moves.
On the positive side of the column, I learned to adapt to new situations quickly. I also developed a strong sense of self, which has contributed to my ability to be content in my own skin. By attending different schools, I escaped the schoolyard politics most children experience navigating from elementary school to graduation with the same group of kids.
However, I recognize that there were some negative effects as well. For example, I attended 3 different high schools, and never truly felt part of their alumnus. And, in the frequent moving, while I gained the skill of bouncing back, I lost my sense of home.
As melodramatic as that sounds, I feel I must clarify. I had and still have a family who loved and still loves me. In that sense, my home was always with me. Compared to some children I knew who didnt have that assurance, I know that I was blessed in that area. We were not “the Cleavers” for sure. Like most families, we had dysfunction and peculiarities that defined us…aka we had (and still have) our share of crazy. But there has never been a time when, deep in my heart, I felt unloved or unwanted.
My loss of home refers to not having the experience of putting down community/neighborhood roots. I had lots of “best friends” that lasted a few years. That is, until we moved on. Then came the starting over.
Other than church, my family were not “joiners”. We weren’t PTA, Junior League sort of people. Both of my parents worked to provide, for us, a good life. But I secretly desired (as a child) to stay in one place, become part of the community and never leave.
I had a recurring dream, back then, that I was lost and couldnt remember how to get home.
Interestingly enough, as life imitates life, I continued to move frequently, even after graduating. In my social work career, I lived in two states and 5 different cities. Each city became a clean slate and a new opportunity to integrate into the community. Each time I moved in to a new house, I thought that it would be my last move and that city would become my home.
So, In an effort to learn the city and feel a belonging, I completed a little ritual every time I moved.
I purposefully got lost.
Whether I was going to work, to the store or to the theatre; I took a wrong route to see if I could get there another way. Most of the time I would eventually emerge close to the place I was seeking. However, some times there was just no way through so I retraced my steps. But even then, I discovered new things I hadn’t known were there.
When asked by friends why I needed to know so many routes to work or play, I explained that I was not looking for routes to get out.
I was looking for all the roads that would lead the way back home. Getting lost opened up a myriad of choices should there be traffic delays or closed streets. These choices ensured that I could still find my way back home.
Right. Nice story, but where is the correlation to Social Work?
It’s all about making and learning from mistakes.
And, yes. I make mistakes…sometimes on purpose like choosing the wrong turn. But, like you, I also make mistakes that are unintended. Those types of mistakes often come from me trying to get things done quickly, or my missing an important piece of information or just from my carelessness.
Finding my path to the “right way” can be nerve-wracking and laborious. And, like you, I can become ashamed and even defensive when my mistakes become evident. But I have learned to accept and even appreciate my mistakes. Because, I find that I learn something new with every mistake if I allow myself to get out of the defensive mind state and examine what led to the error. The trick, I employ, is allowing myself to be open to the new discovery and to file it in my brain.
Making mistakes is just part of life. All of us make mistakes. We make poor decisions in our personal and work lives. We say or do the wrong thing sometimes. We even miss important clues when assessing people and situations.
In social work, I have seen workers make small mistakes such as forgetting to issue a purchase order or miss a scheduled appointment. Those mistakes are easily remedied. But some unintentional mistakes can skew an assessment or compromise an intervention, yielding serious consequences. Compounded by the public’s need to shame and blame social workers who make mistakes, these workers often becomes traumatized by their error.
They demonstrate the fight…flight…or freeze of trauma.
Fight: some workers who are in this situation deny to themselves and others that they even made a mistake. They blame everyone else.
“I didnt get enough training!”
“My supervisor didnt support me”
“I had too many cases!”
Now do not interpret my statements above as discounting the very valid issues with our broken child welfare system in the US. Workers are asked to do more with fewer resources…an almost impossible feat.
No, my point here is, owning and embracing that “YOU” made a mistake will free you to learn from that error. By examining what wrong turn was made, you can store that data and learn a new way to navigate that route
FLIGHT: It saddens me when workers quit because their mistake seemed bigger than their ability to overcome it. This becomes especially apparent when a child becomes the victim of repeat maltreatment. Some worker’s carry that event and their feelings of guilt as a badge of shame. Unable to face that shame, they often leave the profession.
Hear my words…You were not the perpetrator of that event! The person who hurt the child is the perpetrator. Working with a population of traumatized families, there will be times when you miss a cue… believe a lie or misread the evidence. It is important to not allow the weight of blame and self doubt to suffocate you. Equally important, you must accept your mistake and learn from it. Your professional growth, your assessment abilities and your decision making improve as you absorb the lesson.
FREEZE: some workers, after making a major mistake become immobile. They simply refuse to make decisions for fear of making another mistake. However, lack of attention can lead to families floating in limbo, their treatment stagnating and their children lingering in care.
Immobility decays you from the inside. You will not thrive by biding your time without making tough decisions or taking risks. Unfortunately for you, inactivity is much worse, on a larger scale than making an error. Placements disrupt as foster parents receive no support in coping with a child’s trauma behavior. Parents, receiving no empathy, support or intervention, lose hope and disappear.
Yes…yes…yes…You will make mistakes. But they dont have to destroy you.
At first, as a social worker, you will make them often. Most will be minor and easily corrected. A few, however, may be traumatizing. Mark my words, if you practice for a number of years, It will happen.
But what happens afterwards, is up to you.
I challenge you to own your mistakes. As hard as it may be to do, embrace them as a learning opportunity. Allow yourself to grow from your mistakes. Visualize where you left the path and got lost. Remember the wrong turns and avoid them in the future. Use the resources you have: supervisors, peers, support systems to ameliorate the current situation. The benefit of making and learning from the mistake is that, when faced with a similar situation, you can avoid making the same mistake. And that, my friend, is a gift.
The more experience you have navigating your course and learning from the wrong turns along the way, the sooner you will find your way back home.
As for me, I grew older and started putting more roots down. I have lived in Birmingham for 14 years now: joining in and enjoying being part of the community. When I first moved here (once again) I took all the wrong roads on purpose and now I know a myriad of alternative routes to get anywhere. I also know where all the good BBQ is.
My car now has GPS, so I never have to get lost anymore. I simply say “take me home”.
And it does.