Much like many on my Social Work programs – both as an undergraduate and a graduate student – I started my career with wide eyed optimism that would stay with me even through confrontation from cynical Social Work lifers who’ve “been there, done that and saw it die a horrible death”.
As a Social Worker cynicism is always hot on your trail due to bureaucracy overload, horribly managed structural changes, legislative changes, changing political agendas and many other optimism crushing factors. However, none of it diminishes the need for optimism or the belief that change is not only needed, but indeed possible even in some of the most hopeless seeming situations. The moment you stop believing change is possible, as a Social Worker, is the moment it is time to leave Social Work because with that frame of mind you have already limited your ability to be as effective as you can be as a professional. It is a case of mind over matter. It is a case of seeing every client as an individual or as an individual system as it relates to work with families and groups. You may have seen a similar set of circumstances – almost mirrored in some instances; but while you should use that knowledge to help you understand what a particular client is going through, past experience should not taint your ability to work through similar circumstances with this client. Your past experience should enhance it.
No matter how familiar a situation or circumstance may seem to us a professionals, it will indelibly be slightly, if not drastically, different because you are dealing with a different client. They will bring their own experiences to the problem as well as their own strengths and resilience. By casting them off into our own predetermined groups we are not only doing them a disservice, we are doing ourselves a disservice because we are limiting our ability to help them.
Past experiences with social problems should give a practitioner an insight into some of the barriers they may encounter when working with a client experiencing something similar. It should have allowed a practitioner to build up his or her own resilience to the problem as well as resources to help address it. Social Workers need to believe in the possibility of social and individual change in order for our work to be relevant and effective. We cannot hope to improve society if we cannot believe in it on a basic level.
Social Workers become cynical for a variety of reasons whether these are related to the organisation or their own feelings of how effective their personal practice may or may not be. But one tool that we have to combat this is reflection. I know, I know; people, professionals, academics all go on about reflection. They do so because of its benefits to Social Work practice and Social Work practitioners. It is exactly this reflection that allows you to build the skills I discussed in the previous paragraph. It is constantly learning and revising practice that keeps us relevant, engaged and involved in the profession. It is understanding ourselves and the motivations of others that allow us to make the biggest impact on those with whom we work. It is our idealism that help us build resilience in our clients helping them to believe in themselves.
As Social Workers, we meet people where they are and in some small way, work to ensure they are better off when our work is complete. If we effect no other visible change in our clients, the most noble goals of Social Work is self determination and resilience. If we can teach those we are on a road that affords us the opportunity to make the most of what we know. Meeting people where they are sometimes means believing where they do not. It is difficult, emotionally draining and incredibly rewarding. You may not always meet the big goals, but one thing I have learned as a Social Worker is that the small wins are sometimes just as powerful as meeting those big goals.
I think as Social Workers we fail ourselves by seeing the picture a little too big. For example, for a professional, getting a job may seem like a very small goal. However, for someone who cannot read and has gone their entire lives able to hide that fact from the majority it is a daunting task. Not only that, it is an unfair one and we would be setting that person up to fail repeatedly. What happens then? They begin to distrust the profession and they no longer believe in us. When they no longer believe in us, we can no longer be as effective as we once were. We cannot have the same impact.
Idealism in Social Work is a must. We hear all the time that we need to be accountable for the work we do. We must also be accountable for our own professional development. Research is constantly being undertaken. New theories are always being introduced. If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always gotten. We need to change the way we approach problems and a great way of doing this is engaging with other professionals, through training, through workshops, through consultation, through volunteering and being part of Social Work organisations. You can build your professional resilience by staying current. You can pull yourself out of a professional rut by stepping outside of that which you know. It can be scary but find a manager or a colleague who is willing to support you through the process of change. We don’t expect our clients to change on their own do we???? NO! We believe they need our help. So how can we expect ourselves to change without support. Social Work is a proud and ever developing profession. We owe it to ourselves to bring our best to it.
Believe you can. Know that you make a difference. Vow to be as good to yourself as you are to others. Seek support when you need it and keep your hand outstretched. Not only will you find people will take it to allow you to help pull them up, you will find someone will grab it to pull you up as well.