We do not take credit for our families’ successes and accomplishments, so why are we so quick to blame ourselves for their downfalls and breakdowns?
I’m going on two years in the field and I can say that my number one struggle remains to be setting and maintaining emotional boundaries.
Already an issue due to the very personal way I approach the work, I find this separation almost impossible the longer I remain working alongside each family. Over time, due to the nature of the general preventive model, I am enmeshed in every way within my “strictly professional” relationships. From having a comprehensive understanding of their histories, their day to day realities to the hopes and dreams they carry for the future, it is not long before I begin to carry these as my own; before I pour my time, passion and effort into helping them achieve their goals because, damn it, they deserve it. Each and every one of them deserves a shot at stability and certainty; a moment for the chaos around them to release them from its grips, for the dust to settle so they can finally see and believe in their innate ability and self-worth. And I was put into their lives to help them with this, entering with promises already broken by virtue of my utter powerlessness to impact such entrenched patterns of injustice.
Walking alongside them day after day, I am overwhelmed in the face of the structural and cyclical blockades that threaten to strangle their capacity for self-determination. Ultimately it is all unbearably out of my control. How do I continue to pour myself into these hole-filled containers when so much of me already remains in puddles on the floor? How do I make a job sustainable that inherently triggers the failed efforts of my past to fix my own family?
I am starting to see that this is what likely leads to my feelings of personal failure when things go awry- the way they more than likely would have whether I was present in this capacity or not. Despite rationally knowing that I was not the cause of these breakdowns, my empathetic prowess works to my detriment in not allowing me to separate their devastation from my own.
It seems I care much too much. But how can I reconcile this with my fear of apathy and hopelessness jading and hardening my soul? How do I continue in this fight without allowing it to break me down in the process? How do I strike this fundamentally important balance?
I don’t have the answers here. Nor do I have the funds to afford a therapist that might be more able to guide me to them. So where am I to go? Despite my consistent efforts towards self-care- maintaining a vibrant social life, doing yoga, etc etc, I cannot seem to shake these deep questions I am confronted with each and every time I step back into the office. I try to write it out in my journal and reach out to professional contacts for advice, remind myself that I am planting seeds for individual impact and I will never truly know how far that impact will reverberate out. I repeat the golden mantra of social work that “All I can do is all I can do” but somehow through all that, it just never seems to be enough.
Ultimately, my fears extend far beyond my own personal mental health concerns/existential dilemmas regarding my purpose in life. There is a startling lack of support and flexibility given to most front-line staff making the conscious decision to dedicate their lives to these efforts. I believe that among the multitudes of egregious social injustices that need to be addressed, the high turnover rate within social welfare agencies due to widespread compassion fatigue and burn-out is an important one to talk about because it systemically perpetuates many of the issues we set out to ameliorate. Statistically, a majority of social service providers choose this profession based on a strong personal identification with the population they serve. Thus, the inevitability of transference/countertransference, vicarious trauma, and other triggering experiences must be adequately supported to keep our fellow warriors in the fight instead of allowing it to break them down. If we are not given agency support and a safe space to collectively grapple with these emotional minefields, we are increasingly unable to provide this care to those we serve. In fact, the lack of consistency and apathy that prevails when these challenges go unacknowledged can result in disserving those we wish to help.
Much like what I believe my families could truly benefit from, I think we as direct practice staff need to coalesce for our common good. We need a safe and consistent space to come together to address and support each other through these trademark textbook symptoms that we face on a day to day basis that go on compounding like interest over time. Although I have yet to find the time and energy to formally channel these frustrations into a funnel of productivity, I aim to develop a curriculum to be used as a guide for us as a community of social workers to unpack the emotional baggage we so often carry alone in this line of work. A space where we share and acknowledge the burden we willingly accepted when we chose this as a profession. Where we come to realize and understand that while we made that choice alone initially, we are all in this fight together and need each other if we intend to make it out alive. Or if we simply want to avoid the additional cost of traditional therapy;)
So. Who’s with me?