Self-reflection is crucial in our profession...
For the past few days, I have reflected a lot on what it means to be in the field of social services — reflecting what it means to be a social worker, from my perspective and the perspective of the individuals that I support. So much comes up in the day to day tasks, that sometimes it isn’t very easy to take time to reflect. Reflection is an essential component of direct client work because it allows the provider to gauge the state of their internal responses. Theoretically, reflection would happen every day, even multiple times a day. Still, the reality is that there are very real expectations being placed on providers that happens when the direct client work is not taking place. We always hear about the numbers: how many clients did you see, how long did you see them for, how many positive outcomes did you have? While knowing this information is important, it is easy to get caught up in checking off completed tasks. This polarized thinking, if not checked, can lead to provider burnout extremely quickly. Individuals are complex, and change/progress is not a linear process, it is almost like a dance that takes place over time. Life experiences, environment, and social supports all contribute to the collective experience. Over time, these positive and negative experiences are compounded, shaping the individual that is sitting across from you in a therapeutic space.
As a provider, after spending a lot of time working on myself, I have found that I have a tough time sitting with a person’s discomfort, without wanting to fix it. I am talking about this because the feeling of wanting to take away someone’s pain/suffering is extremely real to me. It triggers a part of my own life experience that I am still working on bringing healing to. Sometimes, it feels like healing takes place in collaboration with the support of another individual, who is willing to stay neutral and walk through the pain with you. Before graduate school, I understood that therapy was beneficial, but it took being on the other side of the provider/client process that I realized how important it truly is. I am just going to say it, the work that we do is triggering. As providers, we are entering into someone’s life, and bear witness to their pain and suffering, in a safe and contained space. Client work is a big responsibility, and because of that, as providers, we have to allocate time to work through our complexities and struggles.
I genuinely believe that people are called to this work for a reason. We all have a narrative that brought us to this specific moment in our lives. The amazing thing is that ‘this very moment’ is always changing because time continues. Our stories help us connect with others on many different levels. We have a choice regarding how much of ourselves we share and in what context. I would love to create more communication around this in the comment section. I can start with my own response, and if you feel comfortable, you can answer the same questions below.
- What brought you into the mental health field?
- What is one area that you struggle in?
- What types of support do you have in place?
- What is one thing that you wished you knew when you entered the mental health field?
I had always had an interest in Mental Health. Part of it was because I had my own ongoing struggles with depression and anxiety. Growing up, I understood what I was feeling but did not have a name for it. Once I started college, I decided to go to counselling and start working on myself. It was not an easy process, and some parts were excruciating. It was an ongoing struggle between where I was and where I wanted to be. Being away from home for the first time presented its challenges, and it also proved a space for growth. Throughout college, I went back and forth about deciding what I wanted to study. I started out focusing on Biology, and even though I did well in the classes, I was not passionate about what I was learning. I started to lean more towards human services/child development. I ended up getting my degree in Child Development and started teaching in a toddler classroom after graduation. Looking back, this was a time of growth in my life. I was figuring out who I was as a professional, building relationships with colleagues and starting to plan my next steps. During this time, I was also starting my graduate program at San Francisco State University in Social Work. I was working full time and taking classes part-time. After a year and a half of being at my teaching job, I started to look for something different. I was hired as a lead teacher at Catholic Charities Treasure Island. This job was challenging in many ways, but the interactions that I had daily with parents, allowed me to understand that I was heading in the right direction. The work that I was doing, it just felt right, and I was able to feel a sense of accomplishment in myself. During school, my focus started to shift from early childhood to pregnancy and postpartum mothers/families. I completed my second-year internship at an organization that supports mothers before, during, and after pregnancy/childbirth. For my thesis, I wrote about the effects of Maternal Postpartum Depression (PPD) on infant attachment and development. Currently, I am working at a shelter for homeless families. If you asked me a few years ago, I would have told you I have no idea where my life is going. Now, I feel like I am in a place where I have options, and I am genuinely enjoying the work that I am doing.
One area that I struggle with is believing that I have experiences and perspectives that would be valuable to others. Sometimes, my self-doubt can be my own worst enemy. I am not writing this for sympathy, I am writing this because I genuinely feel it is something that others can relate to on a personal level. Every day is an opportunity for me to start fresh and continue to work towards what I know that I am capable of. Some days are easier than others, but it ultimately comes down to deciding to keep moving forward. The other side of this is taking time to become aware of my limitations, including when I am pushing myself too hard. Being aware of my limitations is the most challenging. I think that I can keep adding commitments to my already busy schedule and have it not affect me. My friends around me know when I am doing too much and tell me to take breaks and take care of myself. It is very encouraging that I have people in my life that are aware of my baseline stress level, but I also have to be mindful of that in myself and adjust my schedule accordingly.
Having adequate support is a crucial component of living a balanced life. For me, having support is something that took some time to establish. I have always been very independent, wanting to do things on my own. It took spending time in reflection to realize that asking for support and sharing parts of yourself with others was not a sign of weakness but strength. I also had to learn to trust myself with other people. I had to teach myself that relationships/friendships were safe and that my feelings/emotional responses were real and valid. For a long time, I felt like I did not have a voice. I felt the need to take care of everyone. Now that I am older, support looks much different. My close friends know me well enough to know that something is off, without me having to say anything.
I think the most significant piece of advice that I wish I had, was that it’s okay not to have all the answers. At the moment you might not have all the answers. Holding space and validating someone’s lived experience can be very healing. I know that for me, it took time to learn how to hold space. It was a level of connection that was extremely uncomfortable in the beginning. I felt like my safety was at risk. It took a lot of time and understanding/processing my own experience which was the first step. This process was messy and painful, but ultimately it made me a more empathetic provider because I took the time to work through my struggles and challenges. This is not to say that problems don’t come up, because they do on a daily basis, but I am in a much better place to cope with them.