Self-Determined to Self-Destruct

“To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

It is no secret and no surprise that social work is a tough profession. Social workers are notoriously overworked, overstressed, underpaid, and underappreciated. Social workers are graceful absorbers of spite and voluntary experiencers of traumatic stories and events. Social workers are the keepers of burdens and secrets, the withholders of assumptions and judgements, the givers of hope and care.

Among social work’s core values is that of an individual’s right to self-determine. If you are a social worker, I need not remind you that self-determination is an ethical principle that recognizes the rights and needs of clients to be free to make their own choices and decisions. If you are a social worker, then you know what the fuck self-determination is and have since at least the very first day of graduate school.

As a social worker myself, I recognize the fundamental importance of self-determination for every human being on Earth. If there are other life forms somewhere else in this universe, I also recognize and respect their right to self-determine. I do not apply the right of self-determination selectively.

A person who has committed a heinous crime, afflicted abuse on a child, taken their own or another’s life or otherwise made a decision that conflicts with more widely accepted values has the complete, utter and unarguable right to do so. If I did not believe this, I would be an interior designer that insisted each client have at least a splash of turquoise in their home, or an eccentric novelist with a hallucinated muse. But instead I am a social worker, and the value of self-determination roots firmly through my being.

In social work, we talk about self-determination a lot. We talk about why it is important, the fact that it exists despite illness or disability, how it supports recovery, how policies impact it, how we can foster and cultivate it, and how we can help implement it.

But for some strange reason, we never seem to talk about how difficult it is to watch our clients, fellow human beings with whom we have bonded and for whom we care, make choices that cause them harm. We meet people where they are and we accept, respect and support their right to choose, to self-determine. Yet at the end of the day, the belief in a person’s right to self-determine does not make it any easier to watch that person drink themself to death or live vulnerably on the streets instead of an in apartment.

It is grueling to stand by, never silently but always humbly, while people make choices that will ultimately result in injury, death, or otherwise impactful consequences. My boss recently called this, the part of social work that simply involves showing up for someone “being a god damn human being.”

Sometimes, being a god damn human being is a struggle. It feels heavy, it feels sad. But when I think about my job from this perspective, as the simple act of showing up and genuinely engaging, I am reminded that I make a difference, albeit not the one I expected, even in the lives of people who are self-determined to self-destruct.

And at least these individuals get to self-destruct with the dignity of choice and with the knowledge that their social worker honored that choice, if nothing else.

2 thoughts on “Self-Determined to Self-Destruct

  1. As social workes we learn to suspend judgement first of all (and I wish more of the general public would judge less as well). We respect the humanity in everyone, no matter what choices they make ot where they are headed. I think of that part of our professional journey as a form as bearing witness, being there for someone to affirm their inherent dignity dispite the sometimes very shaky and clearly dangerous road they may choose to be on.We are at the same time in a helping professions, and also fellow human beings. We need to carefully discern a cry for help, because that cry may be extrememly difficult and may take different and sometimes barely apparent forms. Recently retired and looking over 47 years of social work, I can think of so many times when respecting a client’s right to self-determination meant clearly indicating other, “better” options, respecting the clients right to choose, but also leaving that change door wide open. The long-term addict who just one day muses about being clean for her kids, the sex-trade worker ignoring cancer treatments who happens to mention once “I don’t like that clinic anyway because I never have a ride there”, etc. etc. In the end, that social worker “listening ear” may allow us to hear the loneliness and longing hidden so deeply they are near unrecognizable. Their may be a more active way of bearing witness which will end up giving hope to people who never even knew what hope looks like. And you are so right – we don’t do this work for the money. Please stay in the profession, Banshee, you totally have the gift – please keep using it.

  2. Thank you so much for writing about this. As a student on the path to becoming a social worker, I’ve always struggled with practicing and holding on to the true value of self-determination can get so hard sometimes and you have put it so nicely in words. Your words have really put things into perspective for me. Thank you and keep shining!🌸

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