I am training to be a social worker.
As I have experienced more of social work, I have gotten quite disillusioned with what I can do to change the world.
But going for a recent British Association of Social Workers (BASW) conference changed my perspective towards my learning.
I learnt three lessons. Firstly, as we get further in our careers as social workers, we must never forget to ask ‘why’. Secondly, we must not forget to indulge in self-care. Lastly, we must not fail to acknowledge the impact we make to the lives of others, no matter how small our impact seems to be.
Siobhan Maclean, the author of Theory and Practice, spoke at the conference. She shared that as a practice educator, she had noticed that slowly, more and more students were stopping to ask ‘Why?’ Instead, more and more were asking how and what to do. Simon Sinek, author of ‘Start with why’ writes extensively about how the best companies always describe why they do certain things, before mentioning how and what they do.
In social work, I have also realised that over my placement, I have stopped asking ‘Why?’ but have instead started asking what and how to do things. Questions that are process-driven, rather than purpose-driven. As social workers, we cannot, and must not forget ‘why’ we entered this profession in the first place.
Secondly, we must not forget to put in place proper protective mechanisms to care for ourselves. When we work with clients, there are times when people seem to draw on our emotional well. But just as people draw on our emotional well, we must also make sure that we fill up our own emotional well with positive experiences. During my first weeks of placement, there were times when I saw the world as dark and dreary, as if it was devoid of hope. But I have come to realise that the clients I work with are not representative of the entire world. Beyond the borders of my workplace, there are happy, satisfied and excited people as well. Babette Rothschild, in her book ‘Help for the helper’, shares about how ‘no single therapist can or should treat all clients’ (2006:xiii).
It seems that there are times when we self-medicate with more alcohol, tobacco, or food to sooth our aching hearts. We can turn to healthier coping strategies. Exercise and rest are important. More importantly, when we walk out of our workplace, we cannot carry the ghosts of our clients’ problems home. Practice mindfulness. Use your five senses to ‘feel’ the environment around you. Listen to the birds chirping. Touch the comfort of your duvet. See the beauty of the world around you.
Lastly, remember the difference you make. Even when nothing seems to change, know that each touch you make in a person’s life matters. No matter how small it seems. I want to end with a familiar story of ‘The Star Thrower’, by Loren Eiseley.
Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.
Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching. As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”
The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”
The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley