Missing: social work on/off switch

I assume that on/off switches were issued upon graduation from social work school and somehow I missed out on receiving mine. Perhaps I walked past that station while trying to find the cap and gown drop-off area. It’s possible. It was a hectic day.

To my credit, I paid a lot of attention in social work school when they talked about “self-care” and I have worked really hard to improve my ability to leave my social work self at work as much as possible. Easier said than done. If I were a Barbie, this would be a matter of changing outfits (well, except if I were a Barbie from a McDonald’s happy meal). UnFortunately, I am not a Barbie.

Obviously there are reasons I am a social worker and a lot of them happen to overlap with reasons my friends would give for keeping me around. Still, there are a lot of differences between being someone’s friend and being someone’s social worker. I find that maintaining that separation is important not just for our sanity, but likely for our friends’ sanity as well. Oh, and for ethics and all that.

My mom says that I’ve always had a penchant for friends who “did not hit the parent lottery.” As I have mentioned, I am without a father these days, but aside from that I probably hit the lottery or damn close to it. What my mom says happens to be true, though I certainly do not go around looking for friends who had shitty childhoods. I do try to surround myself with people who are funny, thoughtful, interesting, not-too-uptight, and other such characteristics. Maybe a lot of those people just happen to have mediocre or terrible parents? Or maybe most people just have mediocre or terrible parents? Who knows if there’s a connection. This isn’t a research paper.

I think my mom’s point is simply that my interest in helping others didn’t magically appear the day I applied for social work school. And some of the friends she refers to are wonderful, caring friends of mine to this day. Others turned out not to be friends of mine as much as they were people who took advantage of my willingness to listen to their stories and my mother’s willingness to open our home to them.

So I guess you could say that “social work mode” (what, you didn’t realize that I’m a robot?) is not the easiest thing for me to turn off. Social work is a weird/unique profession where some days it seems like the better I am at my job, the better I am at the rest of my life. The problem is that I don’t think my goal is to be good at life. At least not in the same way I want to be good at being a social worker.

At work, my client’s feelings and worries are what it’s all about. My feelings are only useful when they are helpful to my clients. I consider my reactions to what they say. How do I feel? Does it help me understand how they feel? And so on. By contrast, living my life the way I want to sometimes means feeling let down, disappointed, frustrated, angered by the people around me. It also means feeling loved and excited and other good things. But if I tried to see these reactions and emotions only as tools to help my friends, family, or significant other… well, I’m sure you can see how that would be a problem. I really would seem like a robot.

Figuring out how I will draw boundaries in my personal life will likely be an ongoing process for me. I think the hardest thing for me to do is learn to be cautious. For most of my life, I approached people as worthy of my trust until proven untrustworthy and deep-down-good until proven too “toxic” (another mom term). But the reality (which was slapped across my face circa 2004 and just keeps on slappin’) is that some people will suck you dry if you let them and offer nothing in return.

So I guess I’ll end with a couple of questions for those of you reading: where do you draw the line with friends/family/coworkers/partners? What experiences have you had where you were trying to be regular human (?!) and someone wanted you to be a social worker/mental health professional/etc.?

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4 thoughts on “Missing: social work on/off switch

  1. socialjerk says:

    Dude, it’s so almost impossible. I get calls from family members at time asking my opinion “as a social worker.” (Sometimes, when they hear something they don’t like, they go back to acting like I’m still fifteen, instead of a professional, haha.)I go back and forth between using my social worky senses to keep myself from going crazy on people, and understanding what they’re going through, blah blah blah, but at times it’s really refreshing to consciously turn it off. Like when a friend is complaining about an asshole boyfriend, instead of really using what I’ve learned and meeting her where she’s at, saying, “dump the mother fucker already.” I just need to sometimes.

    But yeah, it’s in your nature. My parents used to say they felt like they were running some sort of Home for Wayward Children based on all of my troubled friends who pretty much lived in our basement.

    • I agree… a lot of times I use work skills for my own sanity/self-preservation. But sometimes saying “dump the mother fucker already” is probably good for you/us AND for the friend.

      I almost used examples in this post of a “friend” who lived with us (read: IN MY ROOM) for awhile during high school, but I worried she would somehow find this post and know it was about her. I just can’t imagine anyone else doing the shockingly awful things she did. At least not all together.

      Oh also, it’s the worst when people change their minds about wanting to be “social worked” because the response isn’t what they hoped to hear.

  2. mjfrombuffalo says:

    Occasionally I get the “You work in child welfare, right?” prelude to the story of the friend/neighbor/cousin/what have you who might be somewhat but not really but maybe might not be parenting all that well and is it something that they should call the hotline about. In college it used to be “You’re a social work major, right” prelude to the tearful story of how their parents hate them and they can never measure up and their lives suck and the ensuing lethality assessment. For some reason this happened a LOT at parties and I felt like I’d have to stay sober so I wouldn’t be SWWI and incur the wrath of the Social Work Ethics Police.
    There are times our education gives us some good insight. There are times when our education gets in the way of being the spouse or friend that we can be. Lots of times I catch myself, thinking “Don’t social work this person.” But good social workers go into this profession *because* they are naturally inclined to help and want to go about it the “right way,” because the values of the profession match our own, and all that good stuff.
    I don’t think we can ever fully turn it off, only be conscious of it.
    And to follow up on Social Jerk’s comment, sometimes the “dump the mother fucker already” is the entirely appropriate response, whether or not we have our SW hats on!

    • Oh man, at parties? I’m glad I didn’t know I wanted to be a social worker until after college. I mean, I’d still get cornered in to hearing tearful stories, but at least I didn’t feel like people were expecting professional advice.

      I think that your way of looking at it is great. Plus, I think I feel better about my progress towards being conscious of it than I would feel about my progress towards turning it off!

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