In learning how deeply entrenched and rigid my own ideas of support work and Social Work were, I came to accept that there are other ways of approaching these roles, and other ways to approach the task of helping a client reach independence and higher levels of resilience.
I also came to accept that when placed in the real world, and placed within the practicalities of time and resource constraints- these other ideas were better ones to centre my own practise around. My own ideas struggled when placed in a real life, working environment.
Another preconception which I semi-consciously brought into the job and have had to acknowledge and challenge within myself, is how deeply and meaningfully I wanted to help people- and the wealth of belief I had that helping people in this vast way was a real, likely possibility.
This is something which has been upsetting for me to have to rationalise and put under the microscope, because I had such a belief in peoples inherent ability to change, if given the right support, that accepting the limitations of the reality of these situations has been difficult. I firmly believed that I could support people to feel better; by investing my time and energy into their needs and focusing on their situations.
The slow realisation, that other peoples issues and resistances are stronger than my ability to overturn them, has been difficult.
I think that this, somewhat naive belief, stems from the amount of help and support my social workers gave me, all those years ago; how close we were and how absolutely brilliant they were to me when I was suffering most. I wanted to be able to help people like that, to that degree, and support people in the way that they supported me.
What I have come to realise, is that it’s unlikely I will ever be able to achieve this. I’ve had to swallow a slightly bitter pill, though- because I learnt it through my own experience, the bitterness was lessened.
The main practical reason underpinning this is that my social workers worked with me for five years; at my place of work we are not meant to work with people for longer than a single year.
So in purely practical terms achieving the level of ‘success’ they did with me is not likely. Also, I was lucky in that I had other support networks around me at the time, I was young and highly motivated, and I had a degree of social wealth to fall back onto; I had a university degree, I was naturally confident and relatively able.
Most of the people I work with are not as lucky as I was when I became unwell and needed support, they don’t have the social wealth that I did. Whilst this really only makes me want to work to help them more, it represents a massive drawback in achieving the level of recovery with them as my social workers did with me all those years ago.
I have had to accept this hard truth; that trying to save people, so to speak, is just not realistic or good practise.
This is, however, such an important lesson for me to learn, because it means that I can focus on what can be achieved , and what is realistically possible in the moment with renewed vigour. Instead of working to achieve some deep personal sense of mission, I am engaging with the clients in the real world, in the present moment and situation. I’m living in the world as it is, instead of holding onto how I would like it to be.
Moreover, if I don’t work in this way, I am really only working to satisfy some deep, personal desire of my own. I’m ignoring the reality of the situation around me, so that I can hold onto my own sense of mission- i’m working in a way which is self-serving, and this is completely missing the real nature of the work. It’s not meant to be about me, and my dreams of helping people in such a deep-rooted way- it’s meant to be about the client.
So I have had to severely re-evaluate my expectations of what real level of support I can provide to a client. I have had to lose the semi-conscious, half realised idea of saving someone, and instead settle for supporting someone, practically and within realistic para-metres.
I had one client who particularly hammered this point home for me. I listened to them rant and rave, express all kinds of anger and frustration, despair and pessimism that their situation would ever change. Because they were fairly young I think I saw a lot of myself in them, and could relate to their angst and their uncertainty.
I firmly believed that I would see positive changes within the time frame that I worked with them, and then experienced the sense of gloom as it slowly became clear that this would likely not happen. Although I did acknowledge (somewhat more cheerily) that I was still right, they likely could and would get a handle on their situation and improve their life in the ways they wanted to- it just wouldn’t be on my watch. It would likely take years, and I would be long gone by then.
So this has been difficult learning process- but one which is so very, very important. I’ve had to adapt and limit my expectations of what is practically and realistically possible within the role of support worker (which actually takes a lot of responsibility off me), and this will let me relax a little and really engage with what can be achieved in the here and now.
(Continued in Part 5)