Set your boundaries and replenish the well…

July 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

It’s a hot and blustery evening and I’m sitting here, a little sweaty and a lot tired. It’s a tired that I know very well. The edges of my fatigue are very familiar to me – I’ve gotten to a point where I can gauge the different “stages”.

The beginnings of my fatigue are benign – it feels like a small muscle ache in the middle of my back, but with a good stretch, it releases. And there’s a sense of relief that comes with that. An acknowledgement that good work has been done and a nice reward is deserved.

The “middle” fatigue feels more like I’ve done thirty leg squats and just want to lie down for days. It’s a bone-weariness that weighs me down and I start to crave sugar like no tomorrow. The prospect of that burst of energy from a sugar or caffeine high is like a drug and I look forward to it. It catapults me to the end of my workdays – tricking me into thinking that I can keep this pace up.

One would think that my “ultimate” fatigue would simply be like a stock market crash. One day I’m up and the next day I’m worthless. But for me, it doesn’t work that way. In fact, it’s almost like an audible `click` I hear in my head. Like the switch to my brain being turned off and the automatic pilot of my body taking over. Any good sense I have goes out the window. I end up pushing and pushing, working harder and harder, denying and ignoring all the signs of impending trouble. It’s almost an out-of-body experience in a way, because my brain is no longer in control but it can see everything that’s happening and is helpless to stop it.

The way I know that I’m beyond fatigued is when I feel and know that I no longer can empathize with my clients, my friends, my family. When I start to feel the burden of being “put upon”. When I start to have thoughts of, “I don’t want to have to do one more thing for this person.” Or when I begin to take deep and very loud breaths without realizing it. When I get preachy and I can hear the shrillness in the tone of my voice. When I`m actively avoiding certain topics of conversation or not starting where the client is at.

Finally, I know when I`ve reached my limit, when I have not maintained my boundaries – that they have become porous and translucent. And then the vicious cycle of being hard on myself begins – berating myself for not maintaining that vigilance and protection. (Which of course, only makes me feel worse.)

Every social worker has their limit – whether they realize it or not. We are not endless wells of empathy and compassion. We are human beings with both flaws and strengths. What we most commonly are though, are givers. People who feel more like themselves when they give to others. But with this also comes the danger of giving too much and becoming empty, if we don`t adhere to our boundaries. It`s a constant checking-in to make sure that the well doesn`t dry up; that our integrity as a person first and a social worker second, remains intact.

My favorite social worker, Brene Brown, has some great comments about maintaining boundaries and she certainly says it better than I can right now. But what she says is so very important.

It`s a good reminder: set your boundaries and replenish your well.

Success/Failure, Failure/Success

March 26, 2016 § 1 Comment

I’ve noticed that many young social workers are finding this blog and leaving me wonderful comments! But as lovely as these comments are, I also sense a lot of trepidation in them – either about having to make decisions to go into social work or the struggle with the work itself.

I too remember those tumultuous feelings at the beginning of my career. Often wishing that someone – anyone!- would pop out of the woodwork and just tell me what to do. Give me the answers please! (Wouldn’t it be great if stuff like that actually happened? We’d all be out of a job, I think – ha!)

I only have two things to say. I won’t say this is advice, but I will leave these tidbits on your doorsteps to do with however you please.

This first thing has to do with how you define success.  Ask yourself this question – many, many, many times:  What does success mean to you?

I’m not talking about what career milestones that you are planning to reach. Or the lifeplan that you have etched in your head about love, relationships, family, home ownership, happiness, travel, retirement, all packaged tidily and benchmarked at different ages and stages.  (Don’t get me wrong, this is all well and good. Life goals are important.)

What I’m talking of is more about the success in the work that you do or will do with your clients. How will you define success with them? Because your answer to this question will be crucial to how you will fare as a social worker.

If your answer is: Well, success means that my client will finally be cured of their addiction, depression, grief, etc., then I’m sorry to say that your social work career will be very intense – and very short. You will soon be shaking hands with your new friend named Burnout, with your relationships in shambles, your health detrimentally affected, and you’ll desperately be looking for a way out. Tying your definition of success to an absolute outcome can be anathema to your career as a social worker.

But if your answer is: Well, I’m doing my best and I’m batting 50/50 with my clients where some are making baby steps toward a positive direction and I think that’s a good day, then you may enjoy a long and very rewarding social work career.  Moving toward progress can be a form of success. Making attempts where there had been no effort before – even so-called “failed” attempts – can still be a form of success.  Hard work can be a form of success. I think you can glean what I’m trying to say here.

The second thing is something that was passed on to me by a cherished mentor, whose voice I can still hear in my head, even now.

When I landed my first job as a social worker, I was giddy and riddled with excitement. This was finally what I had worked so hard for and I was determined to be successful. And for the first few months, I worked hard – stayed late, answered every phone call, every email, wrapped up every issue tidily, sat and listened with empathy to every client, mediated tense discussions with families, supported staff and their struggles, put out as many fires as I could – basically tried to be the magical social worker that I expected myself to be.

But you know what that led to? Me – crying in my office, almost every single day.

My mentor found me like this. And I remember her quietly closing the door and sitting down across from me and saying: “Sometimes, and maybe especially at the start of your career, you will have to take the time and find your place in this work. Not every social work job is going to be the one for you. You will have to take your time, try different things, work in different environments, until you find your place. Give yourself this time – if you can. It’s so very important.”

I’ve shared this not just because I hope it will be helpful, but because even at this stage in my own career, these two things I find I come back to, time and time again.

Redefine success. Take the time, if you can. It’s so very important.



What you might not want to hear…

January 30, 2016 § 1 Comment

Warning: I’m going to be blunt. Brutally honest. I’m going to tell you the cold, hard truth. Perhaps you should sit down, take a deep breath, and stop operating any heavy machinery.

Are you ready?

Okay, here goes….

There is absolutely no way to keep your emotional distance being a social worker.

I’m very sorry to say this. And perhaps this is not what you wanted to hear. But I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you how it really is.

There will be days that you will wake up in tears. That you will go to bed in anger. And many, many moments where you will feel numb or frustrated because you just cannot bear to hear one more heart-wrenching story.

And yes, you will have times where you feel like the world is in the palm of your hand – when you have made something happen and relieved someone of their burden – even if just for a day.

But mostly, this work places you on the neverending rollercoaster of emotion that sometimes you may feel you cannot get off of. The ride keeps going and most of my career has been just as much about learning how to ride that wave, as opposed to wanting it to stop.

I’ve laughed with clients and I’ve cried with clients. It is the very nature of the work – we are guides and companions on the journey. And we cannot do this if we are just that one step removed or that slight distance apart. In my practice, I don’t believe in throwing the life preserver into the water and then walking away.

So how does one not become decimated? How does one continue when you are wrecked and wracked with emotion?

You don’t.

You take a time out. You rest. You let yourself be grateful for what you have. You learn how to be compassionate with yourself. (Because you cannot be compassionate to others if you are unable to first be compassionate with yourself.)

And then you get back on that ride. Because what we do is important and for me, still the best work in the world.




The Indelibles

September 13, 2015 § 3 Comments

It is inevitable. As a social worker, you will encounter those who I will call The Indelibles.

The people who will never leave you. The ones whose encounters imprint themselves on your brain like a pool of ink. The individuals whose stories will continue to walk along side you for the rest of your career. The visions of their faces and bodies will emerge in your head at the most inopportune (and opportune) times. The ones that will take hold of you and sometimes leave you at the precipice of your own limits and force you to face yourself, the world and your work in it.

I have a number of stories that I carry around with me. Even now, I still can’t shake them.

Especially one: a pair of blazing young eyes and lips made piercingly violet by whatever noxious substance had taken hold and whose unblinking stare held me down like black anvils on my shoulders. I still remember the utter silence of that stare. And the colour of her puffy jacket as she walked away from whatever help I could offer.

These people – these stories – often bring social workers to the grim reality of people’s lives and sometimes make us face our utter helplessness as professionals. The inability to do anything. It is a very uncomfortable stance to face, but a necessary one to truly understand the work and yourself.

I tell my students that there is a difference between being a “helper” and being a social worker. A “helper” is putting yourself in a very selfish position – of gleaning a sense of personal satisfaction from some small act of assistance that only addresses the problem in the moment. But this “help” is usually very fleeting and often doesn’t impact a client’s life in a meaningful way.

In my version of social work, things work very differently. A social worker often does not have moments of triumphs with clients in days or months or sometimes even years, but we continue to attempt to lay the difficult groundwork and foundation to help clients enact real and lasting change. The decisions and conversations we have are difficult and fraught – there are no easy battles, no settled conclusions, no turn-key solutions. We do the best with what is available in the system. We help to guide a client as best as we can without stripping them of their dignity, their autonomy, and their responsibility.

It is in this way that I think social work is a profession that teaches you who you truly are. We are in a profession that pushes our personal boundaries and prejudices and limits almost every day. We are asked to walk away from our comfort zones and enter another’s harrowing experience more often than most. I can’t comment on what and how you will feel when you first realize you are at that point in your work – it is different for everyone. I can only assure you that, at that moment and on that edge, you will have to make a choice about what kind of social worker (and maybe even, what kind of person) you want to be.

Stories, stories, stories

April 3, 2015 § 3 Comments

One of the best things about where I am at in my career right now, is that I get to take on students and teach them about how to be a social worker.

When I first started teaching, I had a lot of doubts about what exactly I could impart to them. I wasn’t at all sure how I would be able to teach what I know to a young and impressionable student. And even though I have a number of years of social work under my belt, like most clinicians I imagine, I still struggle with how to define our work and how to explain what it is that we do to others outside our field.

But the most common question I get asked by my students is: how or why did you get into social work?

A great question.

For the most part, I think that most individuals who go into social work are earnest and kind-hearted and carry a very well-defined and intense desire to make real change in the world. And indeed, being a social worker can provide some tangible opportunities to enact change and impact people’s lives profoundly.

(How much change and how often social workers can make things happen is something entirely different. Not to mention, what defines “successful” change. Which is a whole other topic for a later post. I’m sure other seasoned social workers will agree!)

And yes, those were some of the same reasons that I decided to go into social work. To impact people’s lives and make things better. But there was also something else that I felt was more profound and important for me and is really what inspires me in my work everyday.

Some students (and colleagues) can look in from the outside and just see a social worker, sitting in front of a client, chit-chatting away. The “social” in our social worker title. And yes, this is an important aspect of what we do and how we engage clients, create significant therapeutic alliances and elicit trust. But the “chit-chat” is really about a human being bearing witness to another human being. Listening and validating that person’s story. Being fully and wholly present with another.

It is this connection that I get to foster with people that is the real “specialness” of the work that we do. The privileged position to have the opportunity to stretch the tentacles of my humanity out to touch another’s humanity.

Even when clients are yelling and screaming at me, spewing anger and sometimes even real hate, I always try to remember that in the end, we are all human and really just want someone else to bear witness, to be with us in our experience. To show us that we are not alone – especially during the darkest times.

It is in our attempts, as social workers, to create this connection that is what defines what we do. I believe that our responsibility is to bring people’s wholeness (but not perfection) forward. In illuminating their stories, we help lead individuals down the path to their own solutions and remind them of their strengths. And this is often, as I explain to my students, how real and lasting change in people’s lives happens.

So despite all the challenges, the personal obstacles and the just plain hard work of the job, this is why I went into social work. Not the easiest of paths by any stretch of the imagination. But so very, very worth it.

Struggling with defeat – Part 2

March 6, 2015 § 1 Comment

You must forgive me. I’m writing this after one of the craziest and stressful periods of work I have had in a long time. For much of this evening, I thought to myself: I’m exhausted. The last thing I want to do is write about this stressful time. However, then I thought, but this might exactly be the time that I need to write about it.

So here I am. Barely awake. My feet and mind and heart aching.

What I really want to continue to say from my last post was that I had tried many things that I thought would make things better where I work. I had tried striking up a committee to look at increasing quality in workflow and care initiatives. I tried to drum up interest to have an ethics debrief session for staff to talk about traumatic incidents and compassion fatigue. I tried to be very respectful of people’s roles and attempted to cajole, kindly tease, and encourage, my colleagues into communicating with me about patients.

There were a handful of people who wanted things to change. (They had told me so – in confidence, of course.) And they showed up for the committee meetings when they could. But it all just fizzled. Despite my efforts at niceness, at respect, at encouragement – it all fell apart.

It is very frustrating to feel like the only one who is trying to drive change. It is very difficult to maintain an optimistic perspective when everyone is just waiting you out. I felt at times that they were watching me, waiting to see how long it would take me to just give up. And then they could feel free to go back to their regularly scheduled, apathetic activities.

Unfortunately for them, I took longer than usual. Almost a year. Looking back, I’m surprised that I was able to keep up the blind ridiculousness for that long.

And that was when I found myself at that window. Staring at the tiles on the floor, seeing nothing.

Defeat does not come easy to me. I imagine, it doesn’t come easy to anyone. But I was surrounded by colleagues who had been beaten down by defeat and bullying over years and years and years. And finally, I was one of them.

It still is hard for me to even look at that last sentence.

My struggle with defeat is personal. And it resides completely around the concept of acceptance. It took me a very long time to accept that the things I wanted to change are so much bigger than and so very beyond just me. That looking back now, I realize that my efforts were doomed to fail because I was fighting an “enemy” whose sickness permeated all the veins in its very being. To extract the sickness needed more than just my little committees and small kindnesses.

My therapist told me that at times like these, there are only two choices: accept that things will not change and choose to work within that environment or make a plan to leave.

This sounds harsh, but I realize now that it is absolutely right.

Respect is something that I’ve learned I cannot work without. It permeates and informs my social work practice every single moment of the day. Slowly and painfully, I’ve realized that to continually feed a machine that takes my respect and spits it out on a daily basis is untenable and damaging to me.

So I’ve decided to make a plan. This has not been an easy decision. But a necessary one for my own emotional safety and wellbeing.

But until then, the struggle continues.

Struggling with defeat – Part 1

February 12, 2015 § 2 Comments

The struggle has been long and it has been tiring.

I remember the exact moment when I realized that I had finally reached the edge of it all. I had taken the elevator to almost the top of the tallest tower in the hospital. As I exited the elevator bay, there was a huge window, which allowed for a wide view of the city. On a clear day, you can see all the way down to the lake – even sometimes see the white crests of the waves as they rush into the city shore. This window was often where I would come when I was having a particularly hectic and myopic day. A glimpse of the outside world was what I needed to feel calm – to return a sense of perspective to me and my work.

But that day, I wasn’t there to look out the window. Instead, I slumped onto the wooden bench, hunched over with my head practically between my knees. My shoulders were rounded over and if you were a person coming upon me from the hallway, you would’ve thought that I was inspecting the tiny flecks of colour embedded in the tiles on the floor, very, very intensely. But to be honest, I wasn’t seeing anything at all.

You see, that was the day I realized that I had lost. That I was done.

Many months before, a new job had landed me in a new program and with a new team. I was both excited and trepidatious when I started. After being in precarious employment positions for a number of years, the prospect of having a stable and secure job was a relief. Social work positions in hospital settings are difficult to come by and this was one where I had just hung on and hung on and finally had won the waiting game. So I was very grateful.

Starting a new job is already a difficult thing to do – getting used to new procedures, a brand new environment, a different patient population, and not to mention, trying to remember everyone’s names. And in the past, I had been pretty fortunate to have worked on units and teams who welcomed me with open arms and did what they could to orient and support me through the transition.

But this was not the case with this unit.

When I arrived, I was almost completely and utterly ignored my first day. And in the weeks that followed, things only got worse.

Staff thought my questions about patients were intrusive. They didn’t know why I wanted or needed to know or worse, some nurses thought that I was checking up on them or into their nursing practice. One of the staff physicians thought I was accusing him and his group of residents when I was trying to locate a wayward patient chart. The desk clerk mistakenly thought I had gone over her head to the manager about an incident with a patient and definitely let me know her displeasure about it and threw personal insults at me. And the worst moment? When my manager thought he was doing me a favour by pulling me aside and telling me – almost conspiratorially and in the guise of “protecting” me – that he had received comments from staff saying that they thought I was a bully.

I was flabbergasted. Completely without words.

For a while after, I have to admit they almost had me. After going through that rough start, I had retreated into myself a little bit to regroup. They had almost succeeded in indoctrinating me into their fear-based culture. And they were so good at it that it took me a long while to figure out what was going on.

But when I did finally figure it out, I – being the kind of person glutton for punishment – was hopeful for change. I guess this is what makes me the social worker that I am. I still possess a tiny spark of naivete that can get me into trouble.

So, I embarked on a mission. A mission to change the culture, to cultivate trust and empathy, to change how staff viewed social work, to open up communication and foster team work, and make staff practices and processes transparent. And this was all going to be for the benefit for the most important people of all – our patients!

*Sigh* Such optimism. Such hope. Such blind faith. And needless to say, things didn’t exactly go as I had planned….