Give me a minute to figure out how I can blame myself

19 04 2012

Everyone knows I have a work-appropriate non-sexual crush deep respect for my supervisor. She’s a gifted, knowledgeable social worker, and manages to be fun and have a great sense of humor while being a really fair boss. (And dammit, if I weren’t anonymous I could show this to her and totally lobby for some comp time.) Therefore, when she gives me advice, I take it seriously.

We also all know that I had a grand old time with my self-evaluation. However, that was only part of the process. My supervisor has to evaluate me as well.

Essentially, she thinks I’m pretty awesome. This is good, because a compliment from someone you admire is way better than a compliment from someone you know to be a jackass. (Like when Kanye West told me he liked my shoes.) But it’s an evaluation, you need something to work on. And nobody’s perfect.

So my area to improve? Not taking my work home with me. You know, not taking it to heart so much when things go wrong. Not being overly involved with my families. When bad things happen, not being so devastated that it impacts my work, now or in the long-term.

My supervisor admitted that she is still struggling with this. Probably because it’s impossible.

There’s not even a good consensus on what is and isn’t the right way to handle this. I mean, you need to maintain a professional distance. If you take every set back hard, and every struggle your families go through becomes personal, you’re not going to last. But, you know, you never want to be jaded. You need to care, or you’ll be terrible at this and won’t have empathy.

So care, but don’t care too much. You’ll know if you’re caring too much. You won’t really be able to do anything about it, because you’re in too deep, but you’ll know. If you’re not caring enough, you might realize it, but you won’t care. Because…you know.

When the topic of getting overly involved or caring too much comes up, people usually talk about self care. When we talk about self care, it’s usually meaningless bullshit. Not that self care (which, for the last time, my non-social work friends, is not  our euphemism for masturbation) isn’t important. It is. But everyone knows what works for them. When it’s discussed at an agency event, someone always tries to get me to meditate. No. I don’t meditate. I go to the bar I live above, hang out with my niece, listen to Freelance Whales or Mumford and Sons, write obnoxious blog posts, watch Arrested Development or A Very Potter Musical, or go to the gym. Oddly specific, I know. Did you write those down? Did they help you? No, because you have what works for you.

Anyway, self care is something you do continuously to keep yourself going at work. To avoid burning out. But it doesn’t address how involved is too involved. How you maintain a professional distance while having empathy and feeling, at least on some level, what your clients are feeling.

I realized how much of an issue this is for me particularly after one of my little boys was shot. It’s horrifying, even in the abstract, because that event was so wrong and against everything that should happen. The fact that my supervisor pretty much directed me to go home that day, because she knew I was no good to anyone, made me realize that this was going to be a struggle for me.

I happened to run into his thirteen year old sister in the neighborhood that day. She ran up to me for a hug. I could pretty much hear my casework professor’s voice ring in my ear. “Hugging a client? Unprofessional and confusing to the child. Is this about what you need or what she needs? This child needs boundaries reinforced.” (My casework professor was a known bitch.) But then I could also hear myself. “Who the fuck cares?” We both needed a hug.

My supervisor had talked to me about not overextending myself with this family. They had a ton of issues but the kids have an incredible amount of potential. They’re just so special, and so intelligent, and it kills me to think of some of them wasting it by not going to school or hanging out with gang member assholes. So I did a lot for them. I was always looking for extra ways to help. To a point that I’m pretty sure I’m invited to their guidance counselor’s wedding. Some families just hit you hard.

The problem is, you can’t make people change. I could make things easy for this mother, but I couldn’t make her put her children first. While I was running around killing myself, because I couldn’t stand the thought of something happening to these kids when they were supposed to be in school, or them being screwed over for life because they dropped out in the seventh grade, they didn’t mind all that much. So in addition to them still not doing what they need to do, I had the fun bonus of kind of starting to resent them.

I care deeply about this family, and I love those kids. I love all the kids I work with. I have boundaries. I don’t friend them on Facebook (I will admit to checking a girl’s Facebook, once, because I was afraid she was going to school one day for the purpose of fighting. Fortunately, her guidance counselor had checked it before I did.) I don’t initiate physical contact, though my teen girls are huggers and my toddlers are under the impression that I’m some sort of jungle gym.

But I call my kids sweetheart or shortie. I joke around with the moms. My teens and I have secret handshakes, and on occasion I buy them lunch. When they come in, I tell them how happy I am that they made it in, and I know that they believe me. I think about these kids when they’re not with me, and I worry about them and I’ve cried over them and for them more than once.

My bitchy casework professor would kind of hate all of this.

Friends and family members have a hard time understanding my job, and the hard to explain relationship I have to my families. I know they worry about the effect emotional involvement in my work affects me. So do I. I can have moments of feeling like I can’t do this anymore, but they can only be moments. If I didn’t love and care about my families, or worry about these kids when they leave my office, I’d be no good at this.

There’s some kind of balance between, “You got evicted? Well, probably should have followed through on the program I sent you to” and “You got evicted?! This is all my fault! I’ll stay at work until ten and pay to put you up in a hotel tonight!” Something that preserves my sanity (hey, I could have sanity) while getting people the help they need.

Maybe before I retire, I can figure it out.

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4 responses

19 04 2012
Swrkr247

When you figure it out, can you please let me know? Also, can your supervisor call me? I want to steal all her awesome supervisor secrets. i’m in the middle of trying to help my team be a little less jaded. Overall they are great, but I think they are hitting the one year wall. They have figured out that sometimes all their work just won’t help, but haven’t figured out how to keep putting fourth the effort without burning themselves out. I, as their supervisor, am trying to teach them how to practice some ways not to personalize their clients’ shortcomings. But of course I feel like a failure when any of my staff seem to be burning out. Its a crazy vicious cycle in social work!

29 04 2012
KatjaMichelle

I second this when you figure it let me know!

Also Swrkr247 YOU ARE NOT A FAILURE!!!

29 04 2012
socialjerk

I definitely wish I had an answer. My supervisor always lets me know that it’s ok that I’m frustrated with lack of progress, or whatever the case may be, and that she often is too. The most important thing is that I have total faith that, as long as I’m doing my job, she has my back. That support goes a long way in fighting off burnout. Good luck with your team. That’s a rough time, but I hope they can figure it out and push through.

21 04 2012
sarah

This definitely is one of the harder things to get right in social work, but I firmly believe that the more real skills we have to offer in difficult situations, the less tempted we will be to rely on giving purely of myself as a stop-gap. Typically my coworkers with the worst boundaries are just really lacking in actual skills and so when they want to help, then just help the way anyone would – with their time, their money, their caring.

And I agree that you have to genuinely care about people or it won’t really work. Hell, I work with mentally ill adults with poor hygiene and often bedbugs and I still sometimes let them hug me if I can tell it’s clinically appropriate.

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