During my first supervision as a social worker, a psychologist asked what I liked about being a therapist. I replied: ‘helping people.’ The psychologist replied: ‘That’s a bit nebulous; help how?’
Well, to this day, I’ve always felt strange about that psychologist’s response. I still don’t believe the psychologist understood what I meant or the nature of social work as a profession.
For me, social work means answering questions in people’s lives without clear resolution. Our instincts as social workers tell us how to navigate the unknown when all other information and experience fails us. These instincts drive treatment forward through the novel’s dark annals and create solutions for the people we help when there are no answers.
As social workers, we must get in touch with the most basic to complex feelings and thoughts. Being tuned into these thoughts and feelings is essential to practice as a social worker. Our professional instincts are wrapped up in visceral responses to what we are witnessing as professionals. We feel this work deeply.
To do this, social workers are able to get underneath the plausible and the facts. Sometimes logic, sometimes chaos, and definitely in between what is known and what remains to be revealed is a space where problems are transformed into solutions.
Getting past the glory of being the person who ‘righted the ship’ and a ‘miracle maker’ is fundamental to this sometimes thankless work. Accepting death and failure and being the bearer of bad news is a big part of being a social worker. We social workers may be highly pragmatic and consistent when we need to be.
But when the clinical need calls for boldness and a bit of spontaneity, we are just as confident in the face of uncertainty as if the answer was right in front of us. We work with people who are unsure of their future and fearful, sometimes because they should be, at other times, because that is where their mind is.
Our job’s as social workers are to be confident and down-to-earth when meeting the consumer where they’re at, but also capable of driving treatment in a better direction. Your actions and words will create a space for your consumer’s next steps.
Be the worker that sets a standard on their path to recovery. Trust your instincts and teach your consumer to trust theirs. You will not always be there for them. Pass along this skill. It will be a device that serves your client in their darkest hour as it served you in your search for their treatment options when there were more questions than answers.
But the psychologist who asked me about social work and being a therapist at supervision was talking about “therapy” as a professional on the level of management.
But social work is more than providing therapy. Many social workers never provide therapy during their careers. Many are case managers or go into macro-level social work. They work at a more significant level and provide community consultation or are administrators in non-profits.
The psychologist wanted to know how work was going. But how can I take myself out of the equation and my profession? Psychology has had a much longer tenure in academia and the world of established discourses. Generally, people understand where a psychologist is coming from in terms of their approach.
A social worker, now that that is an altogether different story. Suppose a family member hears a social worker is coming to their house. In that case, it could mean just about anything – from a CPS (child protective services) call to in-home therapy or behavioural skill training for developmental disabilities.
In terms of this supervision session, I also might have been a little upset about the world’s status regarding altruism. I generally thought the idea of ‘help’ seemed unclear somehow to this psychologist. I thought something must also be very wrong with what is going on in this agency and others that find a very discrete, declarative statement so confusing. Help may be specific to the person, but the act of helping is as clear as day.
Helping someone, a family, a kid, and an adult is one of the most rewarding things I can think of doing in a world riddled with competition, violence, and tragedy. The act of helping, the helping profession, is and needs to be a must in a world of ‘nebulous’ shoulds. I wake up every morning thinking and hoping that my words will uplift a person and improve the quality of someone’s life in some capacity and form.
It brings me joy in its most Platonic form: It drives my work forward and the lives of those I serve in a manner that challenges me to tirelessly continue practising my skill and improving my craft to do better for my clients. The relationship between social work and psychotherapy continues to be misunderstood.
People don’t go into this work for the money, and most social workers don’t go into social work for the sole aim of being a therapist. Students go into the profession to get the micro/macro ‘bio-psycho-social-spiritual’ lens encompassing and beyond a single discourse scope.
Social work is truly one of the first interdisciplinary discourses to take on a single monolithic agency within higher education and, without question, takes priority in human services. In the end, sadly, most social workers have other jobs to support the thankless, never-ending work as we march on as undervalued ‘helping’ professionals.
Please make no mistake about it. Social workers love to see people better themselves from their work together as therapists and clients. Ultimately, I am hoping all of you are helping professionals keep your heads up. Keep the work going. Continue to support people through desperate times, instilling inspiration to all your grace with your helping hands.
Max E. Guttman, LCSW is a psychotherapist and owner of Recovery Now, a mental health private practice in New York City.