3 Ways to Tell You’re a Bumbling Social Worker

Poor Thing.

You’re trying, you’re sighing, and you’re even crying.

But for some reason you just can’t get through. Why not?

If in addition to your sniffling you are doing any combination of the following things, you are doing your job incorrectly.

I’ll preface this post by noting that I know almost nothing about social work; I am merely an unpaid intern who has undergone a week of lengthy trainings alongside other rising professionals in the field.  Therefore, my advice should be taken with a grain of salt.  Nonetheless, I feel as though I have gained valuable knowledge from my week of training, and I am more than willing to share this newly acquired information with all of you.

We as humans have the capacity to empathize with others, to take on their feelings and circumstances as if they were our own.  Though as a social worker you are obviously equipped with this ability, it is not your job to use it.  I repeat: IT IS NOT YOUR JOB TO EMPATHIZE WITH THE CLIENT.  I know you may have heard otherwise, but consider the negative repercussions of such an impassioned bond.  Assuming you understand a person who doesn’t feel as though you do can lead to unnecessary strife.  The foundations of a good social-worker client relationship are built on cultural competency, rapport, and a shared understanding of the relationship. That said, it is nearly impossible to attain such a connection if:

1.    You refuse to acknowledge your beliefs and biases.

  • Many people make the mistake of assuming that because they do not define themselves as a “racist,” “sexist,” or any umbrella term of the like, they do not harbor any preconceived notions based on an individual’s identity.  The first step to understanding a culture different from your own is acknowledging the difference.  This variance is complicated by your own personal beliefs, which may take some courage to confront.  That said, be compassionate with yourself when these biases crop up, because no one can truly exist without belief in something, nor should he/she want to.  We are human, after all.

2.    You remain ignorant about the client’s culture.

  • It’s one thing to be ignorant, but it’s another to be aware of your ignorance and continue in your lack of knowledge.  A client may come to session extremely disagreeable and unwilling to cooperate.  He/she may refuse to comply with your “safety plan” and threaten to return to a dangerous situation.  However, the problem may be you, not them.  If you continue to suggest solutions contrary to the client’s culture/beliefs, you will continue to struggle in the relationship.  A good way to get to know your clients better is to ask them questions.  How does your family do this?  Would it be acceptable for you to do this?  In this situation, how would you respond? Be creative.  No question is too small.

3.    You feel yourself more responsible for the client’s welfare than the client him/herself.

  • This one is pretty self-explanatory.  You are not responsible for the client’s well being.  He/she is.  You are responsible with providing them ideas for safety, and sometimes catering to their legal/psychological needs, but you are not responsible for their happiness.  Clients have to be responsible too.

Keeping these things in mind, you can really begin to work for effective change.  My observations have suggested that the social services work best when those in a position of power are logical, detached, and unemotional.  Though the empathetic impulse may come in handy in some situations, it may not always be effectual.  Challenge yourself to be more than a social worker—be an efficient catalyst for change.



7 thoughts on “3 Ways to Tell You’re a Bumbling Social Worker

  1. Hi Amber. I’m deeply curious to know more about your last paragraph. What do you mean by it? What do you aspire for yourself in this context? What does “more than a social worker” mean to you? Please! More!!

    • Hi Nancy!

      In the last paragraph I attempted to sum up my general observations of social workers and the work they perform on a daily basis. In the first part, I wrote that the social services work best when those in a position of power are detached and unemotional. When people start to involve themselves emotionally in others’ situations, the nature of their advices may start to change. One might provide a different sort of guidance to a friend than they would to a stranger. If I were a social worker, I imagine that I would work very hard to understand my role. I would constantly remind myself “As an employee serving in this capacity, my responsibilities are X, Y, and Z, not A, B, and C.” Emotional attachment and musings on moral obligation would distract from one’s clearly defined responsibilities. I think I would find it somewhat difficult to put these ideas aside, so I do not think I would like to be a social worker.

      In the second part of the paragraph, I challenge my readers to be effective catalysts for change. The specificity of the phrase “more than a social worker” applies only to those people within the profession. It is not meant to discourage people from going into social work, though I see how that can be inferred. A social worker has the capability to work for change, especially related to an individual. As previously mentioned, I think this work is more effectual when the social worker remains clear-headed. After my week of observation and the readings I have completed, I see now the sphere of influence in this profession is quite limited. Since I also want to be an “effective catalyst for change,” my “being more than a social worker” will indeed include working in a profession that is not associated with social work, such as politics or law.

      • Thanks, Amber. That was a really useful insight to share with me. I think it resonates with what I’ve learned in international development that “helping” is more often about my own emotional needs vs the needs of others, so detachment – of some kinds – is essential. But I too, experience the need for activism. But with a clear head. Does that make any sense?

  2. I enjoyed reading about your insights, Amber. You distilled some personal challenges to being a social worker (or any helping professional dealing with mental health or social ills) very well. I thought you might enjoy reading this book as you continue in your professional development:
    LeCroy, C.W. (2012). The Call to Social Work: Life Stories (2nd Ed.). CA: Sage Publications.

    I use it in a capstone course I teach for undergraduates who want pursue careers advocating for children in any number of ways.

    • Michele,

      Thank you very much for reading! I am glad that I could articulate my observations in a way that was easy to understand. Thank you also for the reading recommendation; I’m excited to look into it!

  3. I’m curious if part of your learning curve has been reminding yourself not to empathize with the client and whether that has been difficult. Do you think you eventually become inured to what you see and hear and the sadness and violence that is routine to many of the people you are dealing with or do you become more able to turn off the empathy? I’ll be interested to hear more about your insights in this regard as the summer progresses.

    • Hi Christy,

      Thank you for your questions. I have really only listened to advice from my supervisor and from one social worker to another. I haven’t gotten the chance to practice any interactions similar to those that an actual social worker might experience, as these are not a part of my internship position this summer. From what I have observed thus far, it doesn’t seem that people become more emotionally accustomed to hearing such sad stories. I think they learn better ways to respond to the stress, but I don’t think that they are much less likely to internalize the struggles they hear. My opinion is founded on interactions I have had with my co-workers, some of which have included emotional conversation and an underlying tone of despair. I think that social workers work face a trying paradox; they are attracted to the profession because they feel a moral/emotional obligation to help others, but must constantly challenge themselves to remain unemotional and detached. This is a struggle that many social workers battle with every day, and I think it only gets infinitesimally easier with time.

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