Have you ever met someone who you could not wait to stop talking to, only to find out they were a social worker, or in the helping professions in some way? Have you worked in or with a non-profit and observed behavior that could be classified as snarky at best and downright bullying or harassing at worse? What about a victim advocate who engages in victim blaming? A sex educator who shames certain sexual practices?
If these sound weirdly specific it's because they are all real. I've seen them myself, and each time I walk away feeling confused and incredulous. Years ago as a brand new social worker, I entered the profession pumped full of pride and faith in the discipline I had chosen—and chosen to spend quite a bit of money and time to enter, mind you, so I really wanted to love this! I had held a string of corporate roles before coming to graduate school. Perhaps it was knowing the benefits and pay I was leaving behind that made me think everyone in my new field would show up with best intentions. If you want to treat people poorly or just show up to collect a paycheck, I thought, go do it somewhere where you'll get paid double while do it.
In short: why would someone who works for considerably less money, and fewer benefits, and in much less shiny office buildings, do so if they do not love it and are fully committed to it as their life's work and calling?
Trauma When I facilitate any training on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) with social service providers, many in the room share that they have a high ACE score. They may even verbalize that it is why they chose their work. They want to “give back.” And my anecdotal and scholarly research supports this. I have worked in HIV/AIDS, refugee resettlement, and domestic violence/sexual assault services. A close family friend died of HIV, my father was raised in an immigrant family, and I have experienced abuse in a relationship. Sigmund Freud believed in recapitulation of trauma as an attempt to resolve it; meaning that the reason many of us find ourselves in the same situation over and over again is that we are trying to master it. While there is no evidence that mastery every occurs, no matter how long we torture ourselves, we do it. I could not save my friend from HIV, but I hope my education on safe sex saves someone else.
Unless we have done a whole lot of self-work to address our own trauma, we will never be fully present for the trauma of another. In fact, we will likely practice unethically with our clients facing similar life circumstances, and not even see it coming. We may judge a client harshly because we see them making the same mistakes we did. Maybe we judge them because, in our eyes, at least WE didn't do it that way, at least WE were smart enough to only go back three times and not a fourth, and so we feel righteous and judgmental. I hope I don't have to tell you that this is not a healing situation. For anyone.
Stress of the job Even if we have no prior experience with our field of work, it is taxing to face crisis every single day. This burnout may cause us to behave unkindly to clients and coworkers, family and friends, alienating those who could help us center and refocus our energy. Self-care practices are important for everyone, but they become absolutely critical when the work we do has us facing the darkest depths of the human experience.
Inflated ego of do-gooders It is easy to feel important as a social worker. Sure, we may make less money than our finance friends—a friend of mine once told me they were disappointed by the size of their annual bonus that year and the sum was the same as my entire salary--but the cultural capital is enormous. Most every time I have told people that I am a social worker by training, I am praised for it. I am thanked. A cocktail party introduction turns into a conversation around how I should make more money than I do, that they can't imagine the work I do, and there are often “awwws” and sighs involved. It's all very dramatic! And you know what? If I arrive at that party after working a 60 hour week, and I keep imagining the vibration of my emergency phone that isn't even on me tonight, that drama feels good. It makes me feel justified and important. There is an oft-shared Muhammad Ali quote: Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth. If it feels as if you're paying for a penthouse condo but you're living in a shady studio, it is incredibly easy to resent those who you assume aren't paying their share. This self-righteousness may be good to get us through a busy spell at work, but it can also begin to make us feel indignant and intolerant of anyone outside of the social service field. What our business card says does not define us, though. Our actions do. And if our title leads us to defensive, egomaniacal, or unkind behavior, it negates our do-gooder status.
We are all just people Perhaps most disappointing of all to a young social worker was this notion: we are all just human beings trying to figure this thing out. While the education and career experiences of many social workers can turn them into some of the most empathetic people on the planet, just as many are people you wouldn't want to spend time with, even if they paid you for it. And I maintain plenty of friendships with folks in the for-profit world who are humble, loving, genuine people. It is hard being a person.
The more research I've done around the impact of primary and vicarious trauma, the more grace I've been able to cultivate for those who have experienced it and how that influences the ways in which they interact with others. But if we are choosing to show up in the world as helpers and keepers of safe spaces and publicly claim that as our work, we cannot actively contribute to toxic work environments, hostile work environments, or breed ill will in our personal life. It is our responsibility to confront ourselves and do the work to adjust how we meet the world and those who make it up. This isn't easy work, as the scores of self-help books and seminars, therapists and yoga studios, places of worship and rehab, all attest to. It is the essential human task. And if we do agree with Ali that there is rent to be paid for our time here, let us begin by renovating ourselves.
There are few things more disheartening—and common—than hearing people bemoan training when I have built my career around that very thing. But because I am a trainer, I also completely understand why others feel this way. I spend a lot of time in trainings. You don't hate trainings because you aren't “in the know”; a good trainer hates bad trainings too.
So what are the pitfalls of training? While they vary depending on the topic, the audience, the location, and about one million other factors, I've distilled it down to a list that I will explore this week and next.
Checkbox Approach These are trainings that have to get done because the higher-ups say so. Often, that's the only explanation given. Too frequently, even the trainer says something like “I know, I know, but we gotta do it...” That doesn't exactly motiavate the masses. While there are trainings that are required in certain work places, if that is how anyone involved approaches them, they are almost guaranteed to fail. After two very high profile Supreme Court cases in 1998, sexual harassment training has become ubiquitous in the work place. Not necessarily good sexual harassment training, mind you. But training none the less. And around a topic like that, you want buy-in. But you cannot expect those receiving the training to buy-in if the trainer and those hosting the trainer are not buying in. This means that even if you are not training, but hiring a trainer to work with your people, you have a critical job:
Prepping the audience for best outcomes When I taught sexual health education to middle schoolers, I would often arrive on my first day hearing the teacher from the classroom door as I approached. “Now I know this is going to be awkward, but we have to do it.” “I know you don't want to do it, but get over it.” Inspiring, huh? This sets me up for failure. A skilled trainer can work to recover, and I have definitely done that many times over the years. But starting in the red with people is not ideal. If you are bringing a trainer in for your organization, your work is to motivate the group to get something out of the training you paid for. Tell them why it is important. Tell them why it will be beneficial. Believe in the training you are providing to them. And of course, that is easier to do when...
You hire a solid trainer We have all sat through bad training. It happens. But it can happen less if you take the time to vet your trainer when you're hiring them. I know this takes more work, and I know you may not know what to look for in a trainer (and that will be a separate blog post, coming soon!). But probably the trainer you're engaging calls him or herself an expert. But are they? A lot of independent consulting trainers, non-profits with a training arm, and for-profit consulting training firms like to throw that word around, but when you dig deep, their trainers are anything but. I have seen “expert” trainers in the domestic violence field who have never worked a domestic violence case, from any angle. I've seen “expert” trainers hired to help teachers who have never had their own classroom. Anyone can learn facts and statistics and read them from a slide—including you, and your team. Hire someone who has more. Sure, the trainer knows 1 in 3 women experience intimate partner violence, but can they answer a specific question about the process of obtaining a protective order or how the local shelter system operates? You are the client. You can ask them what they know, how they know it, and how they educate. The “how” of their work is called
...their pedagogical approach, and it super matters! A good trainer will have a lens through which they approach their work, other trainers/facilitators/educators they admire and follow, and can describe their approach to you and why they choose that one. Ask them about it! Why did they put that activity in that part of the training? Why do they use PowerPoint? Why not? How do they go about arriving at their curriculum? How do they evaluate their efficacy? We will delve more into how to hire a trainer in a later post, but start with these. A trainer who will be enthusiastic and engaged with your organization will be excited to talk about their work.
Do you want a *truly* expert training for your team? Visit our training page to find seek&summon's areas of expertise.
Have you ever accepted a job knowing before you even got to orientation day that you wouldn't be there very long? It can be an unsettling feeling, and certainly diverges from the way past generations did their work. My partner's grandfather worked at the same oil company from high school graduation to his retirement party. Of course, not many of us are offered pensions and post-retirement health care coverage anymore, so the incentives have changed regarding company loyalty. And in the non-profit field, there are unique structural situations that may have us planning our exit strategy before our current job even gets our direct deposit information. There are some strategies to ensure the only turnover your agency faces are the ones on the pastry tray at the staff meeting.
Opportunity for Growth A lot of non-profits are tiny. When there are few layers between you and the top, it may foster a nice relationship with leadership where an entry level employee has daily face-time with the CEO, but it also means there is not much room for promotion. Turnover is a problem for these organizations because people want to be rewarded for the efforts, and often with added titles and promotions. They want their hard work and increased knowledge to add up to something.
Professional Development If an organization cannot offer endless ascending spheres of promotion like some larger employers, an employee may be just as happy knowing they are learning and growing in their knowledge, if not changing titles. According to AdWeek, 87% of Millennial workers say that professional development opportunities are a top reason they stay at a job. 69% of other working age groups agreed. Providing this doesn't have to mean big ticket items like paying for a degree or certification, but access to regular, best practice skill-building in the field. If you are in a field where employees have licenses to maintain, helping foot the bill for their continuing education is a huge perk that may keep a person invested in their job with you for quite some time. Licensed social workers, for example, require about 30 hours of continuing education over a two year licensing period, depending on the state. As an employer, you can offer to pay for credits that relate specifically to the work they do for you so it also benefits your organization. Need to really keep things low-cost? I have a consulting client that just did not have the budget to offer much training, so we instituted a book club around topics the staff wanted to learn more about, and brought in a local topic expert to facilitate the discussion.
Lack of HR/Protocols and Processes Large organizations and many for-profit corporations of any size typically have an HR department and a clear protocol for dealing with grievances and problems. In a small non-profit, it is common for there to be no HR department, leaving employees without a clear chain of command regarding complaints and issues. Many employee handbooks I've seen cite the CEO or executive director as this person—but what if that is the person about whom you need to file a complaint? Going to their “boss,” the President of the Board, is sure to be awkward. Even with policies in place about protecting “whistle blowers,” you can understand why someone on a staff of four people would still not feel comfortable raising concerns about their CEO to the Board. That employee usually quits, and elects not to share their concerns even as they exit, for fear of “burning bridges” in a field where everyone seemingly knows one another.
The cost of turnover is huge to an organization. A Center for American Progress report found that for a mid-range salaried employee (~$40,000) the cost to search, interview, hire, and train a vacant position can cost $20,000 to $30,000. Read that again. If you have a program manager making $40,000 annually and you only keep them for a year, you've spent $70,000 on that role. And if you have to replace it twice in a year?
Surely the above tips are cheaper than that. As many non-profit workers agree and often espouse when fighting for money to serve their clients, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That goes for our organizations, too.
Interested in booking some continuing education for your team? Click here to see what seek&summon offers.
Ready for an expert consult around the professional development your organization offers? seek&summon happens to do that, too.
Earning my Maser of Social Work prepared me to do an alarming list of things, including but not limited to:
-working as a resource broker between client and community resources
-managing and applying for grants
-writing mission statements and establishing a board of directors
-skillfully working alongside someone as a therapist
-diagnosing mental health disorders, which can alter the course of a person's life by allowing them disability benefits, or barring them from owning firearms or adopting a child, as just a few examples.
It's a heady time, graduating with your MSW. You feel like you can do it all, but also you have no experience doing any of it. But I would stare at my bookshelf and remind myself that I spent two years learning something, didn't I? I had this.
And I did have it. I had a few things. All of those skills, the student debt to prove it, letters after my name and the promise of more as my career marched forward, and a bookshelf literally bowing under the weight of what I had read. What I didn't have was a self-care practice.
Self-care wasn't really the buzzword it is today when I was in graduate school. Certain professors would tell us we should all have a therapist if we were going to be therapists. They would add perhaps as an afterthought or addendum, “Oh, and you really need to take care of yourselves too.” But there wasn't a class about it, or even a day-long seminar, and for those of us who focused more on the policy, fundraising, or community organizing realm of the profession? Forget it. A lot of graduate school was cheerleading the profession, amping us up for a long and meaningful career. And it worked. I had so many moments of feeling like I had found my people, and my place in the world, and that it was the end of some Cinderella story where the prince was actually a career.
But Walt Disney often leaves us at the wedding scene, the search over, the swell of music leading us to believe it only goes up from here. But just like a marriage, a career takes work to make the long haul. And for those of us in the trenches with others, a little “premarital counseling” would go a long way.
When I started my training and consulting business, I thought my most requested training would be Sex Ed 101. That's my expertise, what I've been doing the longest, and the thing that gets attention at cocktail parties. But my most requested trainings have been around self-care. As little as we know about healthy sexuality in our culture—and the CDC recently felt compelled to release a statement letting people know they should not reuse condoms--it seems we may know even less about functioning healthily in the world each day. That is scary. And yet, here we are. Anti-depressant and anti-anxiety meds are prescribed at an alarming rate, the self-help industry flourishes, people in the helping professions turn to the same self-medicating substances our clients use. When a term like “self-care” comes along, we are so divorced from the concept that we co-opt it to mean anything but. Search #selfcare and you will find a lot of alcohol. Baked goods. Expensive spa days. Grand vacations. Netflix binging. Call off work for repeated "mental health days." And while all of these things have their time and place, we need to have a conversation about self-care versus self-indulgence and, really, self-sabotage.
Starting the Self-Care Conversation
Just like any practice, we need to start with the fundamentals.
-Identify activities that you enjoy and make time for them. Hold that time on your calendar like you would any other important meeting.
-Realize that you are the instrument of your work. I read a book about professional sommeliers once and those folks give up so many other tasty and olfactory experiences in order to keep their pallets pristine for wine tasting. Professional athletes adhere to strict diets and exercise plans so their body can perform. How can you take care of your instrument?
-Practice saying no to demands that don't serve you. And if you're introverted like me, you may have the opposite problem. Our assignment then is to...
-Practice saying yes. To your friend who invites you to yoga, to the free movie in the park, to walking the dog when it is easier to hit snooze.
-If you manage people, make sure your staff knows self-care is a priority, and model that for them. You can say it on a loop but if they get emails from you when you have the flu or hours after giving birth (true story from my professional life!), they won't feel empowered to claim it.
-Self-care is a practice. Like a therapists practice, or a physicians practice, or a religious practice. We show up to it over and over again. Sometimes we fail. But we come back the next day.
-Check out seek&summon's self-care workshop, It Is Hard Being a Person.
Developed as a two hour workshop, it can be expanded to a half day, full day, and coupled with a self-care assessment for your organization. We discuss the differences between self-care, -indulgence, -avoidance, and -sabotage.We develop a plan to help us differentiate, and identify what real care looks like, and how to capitalize on it. Feeling like you really want to go for it? Add a yoga class for your team. And check out this upcoming community event, It Is Hard Being A Person: Self-Care and Journaling.
Earlier this summer I visited one of my oldest friends. She is now the mother of two exceptional tiny humans and part of the joy of our visit was getting to adventure along with them for four days. I expected a lot of story reading, dance parties, toy cars, and lots of giggling. And as I listened to these two little beings sing songs, make up riddles, and jump off of impossibly high ledges, I could not stop staring at the one who was six years old and think, Is that always how young six has been?
My dad died when I was six. My-dad-died-when-I-was-six. MydaddiedwhenIwassix. The sentence that I have said for more than a quarter century now has become one word, one sound. I’ve said it so often and perfected the detached delivery of it, that it has almost lost its meaning. But of course, that experience can never truly lose any meaning at all. It can morph, it can wax and wane. But it is ever-present, defining my life since it became my reality. It compelled me to grow up quickly. It triggered anxiety, depression, and a deep longing for stability almost impossible to describe that I carry still. I was chronically tired at school because I was afraid to sleep at night. I skipped school and missed social events because I did not want to be separated from my mother. I had concocted an elaborate plan if I should be unlucky enough to experience this again, waking one morning to find my mother dead too. I had an overnight bag packed and hidden in the back of my closet that I would retrieve, escape to my friend’s home, and set up camp before I was whisked away to a foster home. I spent my insomniac hours rehearsing my prepared persuasive speech to be delivered to my friend’s parents upon my arrival, convincing them to let me live there. I made mental provisions for the family dog, and tallied what I knew how to cook should circumstances be that I had to fend for myself as an orphan.
Six. Because I had spent that year coming to terms with death, planning for my own care, and imagining the worst case scenario each time my mother left me anywhere, I think of six as practically a teenager. My first social work job was with refugee youth and my coworkers marvelled at the things our young clients had overcome. I was moved of course, but it made sense to me. Of course they took care of themselves, I thought. They weren’t babies! They were already six!
This photo was taken at Greylock Mountain on that visit with my childhood friend and her children--one of them, you guessed it: six years old. All week I had listened to him mispronounce words, ask for help getting into his jacket, and struggle to process anger when his younger brother took his toy. And as we began to climb the lookout tower at the mountain, he looked up to me and said “Aunt MarMar, can I hold your hand? This looks kinda scary.” And it was scary. He’s six. We were climbing three flights of a spiral staircase, crowded by strangers, to look off the side of a mountain. And as I took his hand, thinking to myself, “Of course--he’s six” something clicked for me and I thought, “And you were six. You were only six.”
We never know when our grief and past trauma will come flying back to us, reminding us that we are never just our present adult self. We are always an adult who was also once a child. We carry whatever experience that was, the full spectrum of its joy and sorrow, with us to the end. I spent the last day of my trip encouraging my friend's kids in their childlike behavior. I awed at their imaginations, their spongey brains learning by the second. And another part of my healing began, as I let a six year old teach me how to be six.
Ready to learn more about childhood trauma? Do you want to learn about childhood grief through a mixture of research, best practice clinical intervention, weaved with Mary-Margaret sharing more of her story as a case study? Visit the training page to learn more about booking a training.