Social Work has taught me so many things, but I thought I’d share just a handful of the life lessons that I’ve picked up over the past 12 years.
When it is your job to confront the raw and harsh realities of life such as addiction, mental health problems, homelessness, disabilities, domestic violence and abuse, and offending behaviour (this is by no means an exhaustive list!) there are certain life lessons that you come to learn and take with you into your practice, and your personal life too. Here are just a few of mine.
1/ If there is a choice, always choose a hard chair over a soft one. But if you have to sit on a soft seat, take it. Don’t sit on your notebook, it’s rude and your trousers can be washed! Always keep a few bin bags in your car, just in case.
2/ Expect the unexpected. I always risk assess but the assessment is only as good as the information you have available. Some unfortunate situations have shown me that there is a first time for everything. It is far better to be relieved that nothing untoward happened than to go all in without considering that you may be holding only one piece of the jigsaw, and you or other people may be at risk of harm.
3/ Don’t make promises that you can’t keep. If you’re not sure how something is going to play out, own it. Honesty and integrity go a long way, because what it all boils down to is people – people’s lives.
4/ Never stop learning. Every person you meet can teach you something new or help open your mind to new ways of thinking. My job is not black and white, and there are vast chunks of grey. Laws change, society changes, interventions and resources change, and our perspectives change. You can never know it all.
5/ Vicarious trauma is a thing. We can be affected by things that we see, read or hear in different ways, and sometimes the adverse effects to difficult stuff we encounter can hit home long after an event. Vicarious trauma can happen to anyone and it’s completely normal. Reflection and self awareness of your own core values and triggers can massively help. Be kind to yourself.
6/ I choose to see the good. Even when it is hard to find, even when I have been the target of abuse. This is not to say that I am so resilient that I can overlook things, or that I’m living in a bubble of blissful naivety. Far from it. For me, it’s about trying to understand why the person may be feeling and behaving in that way, often because of the trauma of what they’ve been through, or possibly a perceived lack of kindness and compassion from those in a position of authority or trust. If I ever lost my optimism, stopped believing that there was hope or that people can change, I would have to call it a day. It is possible to have a heart and maintain clear rational thought and decision making. In fact, I think that balance is absolutely essential.
7/ Kindness is king. You and the individual may be feeling like you are worlds apart but I try to look for small commonalities and the things that make us both human. It might be that we both find their choice of mug for my cup of tea funny, or laughing together because I look bedraggled from a car-to-front-door dash in from the rain. Shoes, pictures on the wall, the silly song on the radio, perhaps they’re a lefty too, I try to find them. We are all people first. And even in the situations where the person might not engage, I’ll always be kind and treat the them with respect. Being kind does not mean that you automatically become a people pleaser.
8/ You will never be an expert in someone else’s life. Period.
9/ I’m not a rescuer. Perhaps this is one of the biggest Social Work myths or misconceptions. Supporting and empowering people to find solutions or a way forward for themselves is a million times more meaningful and powerful than simply fixing it for them.
10/ Positive risk taking. You might think that as a profession we would seek to avoid risk at all costs, but you’d be wrong. In a job where you encounter high risk behaviours and the dark, harsh and gritty realities of society on a daily basis, you quickly learn that life is for living. Enjoy it, take chances, smile, laugh and do things that make you happy.