Category Archives: empathy

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. Continue reading

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Joking about social work

Remember July’s controversy over an audience member’s report of Daniel Tosh “joking” that she should be gang-raped during his Laugh Factory comedy show? After reading way too much about it, Jessica Valenti’s response article “The Anatomy of a Successful Rape Joke” stuck out in my mind and made me think about humor in and about social work.

I hope we can all agree that rape itself is not funny. No one (as far as I’ve read) responded to the Tosh situation by flat-out saying: Rape is funny. Period. In the same way, I don’t go around saying: Social work is funny. Period. Nor would I say I joined the field for the laughs. But I do think that making jokes and seeing/finding the humor in social work is useful and at times somewhat necessary for both my clients and for me. Continue reading

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Oh, you work with teenagers?

I love working with teenagers.

I make this or similar statements often when describing what I do. The responses I receive generally fall in to two categories, with very few landng somewhere in the middle. The first type of response occurs when I am talking to the minority of people who also work with teenagers and love what they do (pairing emphasized due to the unfortunately large and infamous group of people who have decided to work with teenagers despite believing they are demon spawn). This response often comes in the form of a smile and nod, sometimes accompanied by an anecdote that exemplifies why the adolescent age group is enjoyable to work with.

The second and more common response customarily includes a look that to me suggests I have just grown a second head or confessed to eating babies. The look is usually followed by a shocked statement about how impressed or surprised they are that I can do/enjoy/survive such a job. The accompanying tone of voice indicates that I might as well make a living carrying shards of glass from place to place between my toes. Even more fascinating to me is that this type of response often comes directly from my adolescent clients, who ask me if I’m crazy and insist: “Miss, I would never want to work with teenagers.”

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Countertransference the Friendly Ghost

Emotions happen. And at times, they can be uncomfortable and difficult to manage. When emotions about personal matters surface while we are wearing our so-called professional social work hats, we must decide if and when this “countertransference” can be used to help support our clients.

By becoming a direct practice social worker, I made a choice to frequently discuss difficult and/or distressing experiences with clients. Privately, I can cry or become otherwise overwhelmed by emotion when I witness or hear about something particularly sad or terrible. Containing my reaction in public (except in movies where I am that girl) is usually only a challenge when something poignantly reminds me of difficult experiences of my own. In my personal life I know that I can simply choose to leave or “step outside” when necessary, but in the room with a client, their needs come first.

I remember two generalizations my grad school professors frequently made about social work students:
1. We all spend more time caring for our friends/family than ourselves (more on that another day).
2. There was a major event, an experience, or a something in our lives that we identify as directly linked to and possibly as the impetus for our choice to enter this field.
Whether or not either of these things are true for all social workers, I have found that many at least identify with the second. Myself included.

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