I have a pretty good life.
I live with the cutest puppy in the world (oh, also this pretty nice guy) in a great place. I have parents who have been married for over 40 years and still like each other, not to mention their kids. My brother, sister-in-law, and cousins are pretty much my best friends. I also have rocking friends who are not obligated, by blood, to love me. I have a good education, a job I like more often than not, my health, and no massive debt.
It might seem like I’m just bragging, but I promise I’m going somewhere with this.
My clients remind me to be grateful for what I have. There are plenty of people who don’t have a comfortable home, or parents who support them. These aren’t things I should be taking for granted. Things suck at times and drive me crazy, bad and unfair things have happened to me, I work hard and am far from rich, but overall, I’m fortunate.
I don’t care that you guys know this. Obviously, or I’d be making up some Dickensian tale of my early years in a workhouse. Plenty of middle class white kids do this. “Oh, we didn’t have cable until I was 11.” “We could never afford summer camp.” “We took family vacations, but never out of the country!”
Are you crying yet? I’m sure you see my point. Trying to act like you struggled in ways that you really didn’t is belittling to people actually having a hard time, and it also makes you look ridiculous. Just own it.
But with clients, of course, it can be a bit more complicated.
A friend of mine, a licensed social worker, got engaged back when I was an intern. The international symbol for “newly engaged lady” is some sort of flashy wave of the left hand. My friend, however, was hesitant to wear her ring to work. “You’re saying a lot about yourself with that. And it’s just weird. Wearing a diamond.” Diamonds are the international symbol for “just spent a lot of money on something I can’t eat or live in.”
We always think about the subtle signals we send out. Pictures of your happy extended family, a wedding ring, all of that. It’s not just about your private life, and that sort of self disclosure. It’s also about you having a stable(ish) life that clients are often working for.
I was a huge fan of the show Ellen when I was a kid. I also wore lots of flannel shirts and was a star softball catcher. My parents were pretty surprised when I brought that first boyfriend home, but that’s really another story.
There was an episode in which Ellen volunteered at a homeless shelter, and invited a fellow volunteer over for Thanksgiving. Everyone went around and said what they were thankful for–Ellen talked about vacations, a new car, and all sorts of sweet possessions. Of course it turned out her guest was, in fact, homeless, and just thankful to have a place to eat. She felt like an asshole, but hilarity ensued.
I know that I get to do things my clients don’t do. One mother recently said, “Everyone else gets to go home to their own place, and I’m stuck in a damn shelter.” Yeah, it’s true. I didn’t tell her about my recent attempts at gardening, but she can rightly assume that I am not in a shelter myself.
leaving for the just returning from the Bahamas shortly. (Note: WiFi at that hotel was too damn expensive for an update, sorry.) A dream family vacation to celebrate my parents’ anniversary. You have to tell your clients when you’re going away, of course, and I always do. It’s only fair. But I had to tell one woman that I would be “out on vacation” the day after her children were removed and placed in foster care.
Obviously, she’s dealing with enough, and not even thinking of me. But it’s hard to feel like a bigger asshole. (Trust me, I’ve tried many methods.)
I don’t think looking at people who have less to remind you to be grateful about what you have is cool. Disabled children don’t exist to teach us a lesson, and the poor aren’t always with us so we remember to appreciate our nice houses, even if we don’t have a pool.
So I’m not trying to say that. “Thank goodness that’s not me” is not a long leap, and that’s no way to respect a person’s dignity and work with them.
We need to be mindful of the messages we send. So often, we forget the ways that we are fortunate, in an effort to not seem privileged (especially since that word annoys me so.) But we all are, in some ways. It’s just one more thing to think about.
Didn’t you need another one?