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.