I became a Social Worker because one day, standing in the hall of my digital imaging internship where I was doing animation for a homeschool curriculum, I felt the sudden clarity that I HAD to do something that directly helped others. I loved art, but I just couldn't see spending my career sitting in front of computer screens creating moving pictures, even if it did make me cool.
On the first day of graduate school, all the talk of social justice brought home to me that I was in the right place and was never going to be anything else.
Fifteen years later, I still love it. Nothing feels better to me than helping someone get free of something in some way and sending them onward. I am excited each day to wake up knowing I get to offer a healing space and a path of transformation for my clients. Now that I am adding clinical supervision and support for new Social Workers, my excitement is on a whole new level!
In a profession surrounded by scarcity, it is so easy to fall into scarcity-thinking. This energy is constricted, fear-based, helpless, and hopeless. We start believing we need to protect what we think is ours: our program, our clients, our skills, our know-how, our resources, our "territory." We take our ball and hide it in our cubicle or office.
But in this field of doing more and more with less and less, we need Social Workers with abundance mindsets now more than ever. An abundance mindset is simply living from the belief that there is enough to go around. When we believe this, we are open, we are generous, we take risks, and we share.
In this time of fear and scarcity, and Social Work force with an abundance mindset could serve up the stone soup we need right now.
We must first begin within ourselves and then with each other.
Where are you afraid? What are you guarding, worried that someone might take it if you gave it away? How might you support a colleague, cheer on an assistant, withhold gossip, share "insider" knowledge?
The more I lift up others, the more joy and passion I feel in my work, which hardly feels like work at all.
Let's lift one another up and see what miracle we might manifest!
You can do great work!
Some years ago, I saw a cartoon with two frames. Both showed an angry mob stringing up a Social Worker. The first frame was captioned, "Angry mob hangs Social Worker for removing the child." The second frame was captioned, "Angry mob hangs Social Worker for not removing the child." In psychology, this is called a Double Bind and it's crazy-making. It's easy for a new Social Worker to doubt him/her self. However, the Social Worker practicing good self-care and a little targeted social/emotional intelligence, can navigate these situations and be confident, knowing she is doing good work and making a difference.
We work in a profession where the expectations and responsibilities are high, and the resources and authority are low. The systems we work in are highly stressed. When everyone is trying to survive and living in a scarcity mindset, we believe we do not have the time or energy to take care of each other. Newly minted, front line Social Workers can sometimes bear the brunt of this scarcity. As a new Social Worker, I figured out that I needed to take good care of my people-pleasing heart because doing my job meant at least one person was angry at me at any given time.
Here are some steps to take when you feel like you are falling short:
Look at the Big Picture - Take Nothing Personally
Understand the system in which you are working and the pressures that are exerted on those around you, especially superiors. This is important so you can depersonalize as much of what you are experiencing as possible. If you look through the lens asking, "what is this person afraid of?" It will help you shift out of, "What am I doing wrong?"
Check Your People-Pleasing
Most people show up to work wanting, on some level, to do a good job and get some kind of positive feedback. Some people want this a little. Others want it a lot. This is a normal human need and organizations practicing good social/emotional intelligence regularly give positive feedback to their employees. However, in a profession fraught with double binds, someone will always be displeased. The more we can mindfully notice our desire for others to be pleased with us and then take compassionate care of that desire so it is not driving us at work, the more resilient we will be in the face of others' displeasure.
Get Clear About Your Role
I can't stress this enough, so I talk about it all the time. Get clear within yourself about what your role is. Ask yourself, what is the intersection between what I can actually do and what is needed? Then focus on doing that thing. We do often want to do so much that we make ourselves ineffective. However, when we can get clear about what we can do and what is needed, then we can really make a difference. Even if it is a seemingly small thing, it is still important to our clients. At the end of the day, you will know you did a good job, whether anyone else does or not.
Have Boundaries - And Protect Them
We are responsible for preventing our own burnout and having and protecting our boundaries is critical for this. Take your comp-time. Practice number 3 each day. Take lunch. Say no.
Practice a Creative Hobby
When we give so much of ourselves in a world where there is so much pain and loss, as we do in Social Work, we need to experience creation. When we can lose ourselves in the flow of creative process, we are filled up and enriched in a way that is unique to creative flow. It does not matter what we are creating, whether it is art, knitting, building birdhouses, gardening, or anything else where we are "making," we are giving ourselves the gift of creative flow. It's not about the outcome, but the healing process.
Get Outside Support
Sometimes we really need outside support. Of our organization is not able to support us meaningfully and compassionately, and we find ourselves shrinking under the pressure of it all, then connecting with Social Workers outside of our organization can be a lifesaver. Whether it is a peer support group, group or individual supervision, or a therapist of our own, having an outside voice can be a lifeline that helps us thrive and love what we do!
As Social Workers, we really can change the world, or someone's world, and make it better. We are brave warrior healers! As such, we must master the head and heart game. We need to take care of ourselves and each other.
You can do great work!
In just about every therapy session, at some point, I meet my client's Inner Critic. Sometimes she subtle. Sometimes she's mean and unrelenting. Whatever way she shows up, she is saying, "No."
No, it's not ok to believe something good about yourself.
No, it's not ok to be kind to yourself.
No, it's not true that you are worthy.
No, it's not ok for your to make a mistake, to be imperfect, to forgive yourself, to believe that you just might be ok.
My clients want to know what to do with this voice. How do I make it go away? How do I stop believing it? How do I convince myself that these things she are not true?
Don't I need to make her go away in order to feel better?
At this point, we do something crazy.
We welcome this voice and we thank her.
Yes, we welcome her and we thank her.
This Inner Critic or judge or self-aggressive meany is actually trying to be helpful. She is an old protector trying to give warning that it might be dangerous to relax, to be, to feel good. She doesn't want us to get hurt.
So, we thank her. After all, she's been working hard, day-in and day-out for a lot of years keeping us safe from rejection (we rejected us first), from failure (we just didn't even try), from judgement (we judge ourselves to "keep us motivated").
We recognize her hard work and thank her for her service. And then we let her know that she can take a break now because Self-Compassion has the talking stick for a while. Inner Critic will surely have the floor again, but we know well what she has to say. She is not rejected, just invited to have a seat while Self-Compassion tries out her new voice and we practice feeling a little good, a little comforted, a little validated, a little ok.
So, the next time your Inner Critic has a lot to say, thank her for her service and invite her to take a little break, so Self-Compassion can have a turn.
In 2005, after sending out resume after resume, I was hired for a job I did not want as a foster care case manager. I did not want this job so much that I showed up to the interview in a denim suit and I did not try too hard in the interview.
They hired me.
This job turned out to be the most rewarding and growthful of my career even to this day. I had to dig deep every day and face the grim realities of race, poverty, inequality, and some truths about the privilege in my whiteness, but also some things my privilege could not buy.
I had decided earlier in my career to just show up where I was needed and bloom where I was planted. So, I threw myself into foster care case management. In the first few weeks, I was sent to observe my first family court hearing: a Termination of Parental Rights hearing. There were several children involved so the court room was packed with lawyers and Social Workers and who knows who else. And me, someone who knew nothing about these two people, there to watch them sign away their children.
I did know that the mother and I were the same age and had been born in the same hospital.
I listened to the lawyers make their case for TPR. They listed the reasons each parent was unfit. I listened to the judge ask repeatedly and in different ways, "Do you understand you will have no right to make medical decisions for your children? Do you understand you will have no right to make educational decisions for your children? Do you understand you will not have the right to see your children?" Each parent responded to each question. It was clear they had been prepared and were already resigned to the outcome. This hearing was a formality.
I thought about this mother and I, as infants, going home to very different worlds. I felt humbled by the trajectory of our lives that had brought each of us to be in that court room. I knew that there was nothing different about us but our circumstances and that perhaps, but for those circumstances, she could just as easily have been one of the people in a suit in that room, and I just as easily resigned to judgement.
I carried this moment with me for the next three years in my work as a case manager.
One of the slippery slopes in Social Work is in how we manage our relationship to our clients' behavior. It is easy to slip into judgement and then gossip, criticize, eye-roll, and otherwise condescend to our clients to their face or behind their backs. It is common to find veteran Social Workers who are burned and burned out who relieve their distress in this way.
I don't need to tell you that this harms clients, even if we think they do not know what we say about them. I do know that it also harms us and increases our risk for burn out, puts us in victim mode, and poisons a system already toxic to everyone in it. As healers, we must guard out hearts and our tongues for our well-being, as well as our clients.
I've been yelled at, cussed out, hit, bit, betrayed, and disappointed by clients. I've spent weeks going above and beyond to get something in place for a client, something they said they wanted, something that could really make a difference for them, only to have them no-show, change their mind, or otherwise sabotage what we had worked so hard for. It is easy, and understandable, that good-hearted, well-meaning, and hard-working Social Workers resort to badmouthing their clients.
Through it all, I would come back to that court room. I am not a victim. My job is to help. I get to go home every night. My client's life is 24/7 and I do not know what I would do if I lived their life. Probably whatever it was they just did. I tended to my disappointment and refocused on getting clear on what I could do and where I could do it. I did not invest myself in rescuing anyone. There are no saviors in this work. We must let that go quickly, if we are to really help. Our job is to sand the rough edges of our very rough systems for our clients. Our job is to offer help. Our clients are not beholden to us to accept it. Embracing this is the key to protecting our own hearts so we can be maximally effective. It also deeply respects the dignity of our clients.
By managing my expectations, staying in my lane, and focusing on getting clear about what I CAN do, I can minimize burnout from disappointment and feel good about what I do, no matter how small, that does make a difference.
You can do great work.
Karen J. Helfrich, LCSW-C
One thing I have heard a lot and that I remember saying myself is, "I don't think graduate school really trained me to be a therapist. I feel like I don't know what I'm doing."
The CSWE requires 9 core competencies for Social Workers completing the MSW degree:
1–Demonstrate Ethical and Professional Behavior
2 –Engage Diversity and Difference in Practice
3 –Advance Human Rights and Social, Economic, and Environmental Justice
4 - Engage in Practice-Informed Research and Research-Informed Practice
5 –Engage in Policy Practice
6 –Engage with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
7 –Assess Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
8 –Intervene with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
9 –Evaluate Practice with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities
This is a lot to learn in 60 credits.
Gaining the experience, skills, and confidence needed to feel good in our role as therapist means post-graduate training for most Social Workers. This can feel daunting. I know that it did to me.
After dreaming of becoming a therapist since childhood, I felt like I wasn't providing to my clients the healing experience I wanted to provide. I still found myself scrambling to figure out what to do next with my client or how to respond to a particular moment, or, worst of all, how to engage clients who simply did not respond.
This left me questioning if being a therapist is really what I was meant to do.
Today, I can tell you that I have a thriving practice where I do challenging, creative, experiential work with clients I love seeing, and I never don't-know-what-to-do-next. It has been a journey, but the key has been identifying a treatment modality that speaks to my heart and my passion and getting solid training in it.
It doesn't matter where you practice, you have to know that you have a full toolbox and that you can use those tools with artistry and master craftsmanship. Our MSW degree is the foundation and the ticket to ride in this amazing field, but we need to keep learning.
My suggestion is (always) talking to other clinicians and getting online to research about the cutting edge modalities. Who is developing and doing this work? Where are the training programs? What speaks to my heart? Is there a theory or practice that I keep coming back to? Also, explore the question, who am I passionate about working with? Who would I really love to help?
The direction you want to go in is at the intersection of these two questions:
In the coming weeks, I look forward to sharing information about different options for Social Workers who want to explore what's out there.
If I can support you, please don't hesitate to reach out. I'd love to connect with you!
Karen J. Helfrich, LCSW-C
As a therapist, mother, daughter, partner, and seeker, I am always on the journey toward a more peaceful, authentic life. I hope to share knowledge, insights, and the ongoing unknowns I find along the path...