Want ignorant assumptions, inauthentic praise or unwitting pity from others? Just tell them that you are a social worker.
“Oh, so you like fix people?”
“How noble of you.”
“I just don’t understand how you do it.”
One year ago, I wrote a blog post entitled “What It Really Means to be a Social Worker” that focused on what social work is, what social workers do and why I have historically been so deeply committed to such a demanding profession.
Yet the profession of social work remains grossly misrepresented and poorly portrayed in mainstream media. It is still not surprising that most people are completely clueless about social work. And because I learn something new with each passing day in this field, here is my attempt to put into words what else it really means to be a social worker.
It means knowing that your words and actions have a lasting impact within the lives of vulnerable individuals. It means knowing that this impact may not always be a positive one. It means holding yourself accountable, staying reliable, and always following through. It means doing these things even when you feel triggered, tired, and overwhelmed.
It means bearing constant witness to the self-determination of others, even when the others are self-determined to self-destruct. It means continuing to show up for someone when there is nothing stirring left to say, no guidance left to give and no action left to take. It means honoring the humanity in all individuals. It means affirming the dignity of all choices, most especially the ones we would never choose for ourselves.
It means recognizing that our most powerful tool as social workers is nothing more than our use of self. It means accepting that change will never occur outside of the relational dynamic that we create. It means utilizing our strengths and life experiences to connect. It means addressing the barriers created by our own personality traits and values. It means having the humility to admit when we are acting in our own best interest rather than the best interest of others. It means having the courage to seek and receive help.
It means reading between the lines and listening for the words unspoken. It means recognizing when the beginning of change seeps cautiously out of the deep, dark hole in which it is buried. It means cultivating conversations, no matter how uncomfortable, and nurturing desire even as it suffocates under loneliness, regret, and fear.
It means knowing when to challenge and when to retreat. It means knowing how to reframe, redirect and reset. It means holding a space for others to feel uncertain and lost. It means holding hope in our hearts and hands, grasping it until the last sliver slips through our very fingers. And when this happens, it means pulling new hope from the thinnest of air.
It means knowing that if there are answers on this journey, they will never be revealed to us. It means knowing that this is true for ourselves and for the individuals we serve. It means suspecting that the meaning of this journey is simply just to be present with life’s suffering and, most especially, present with our fellow humans.
It means a visceral reaction when others say that we are noble, that they do not know how we do what we do. It means that we do not agree that we are noble, that instead we feel grateful and honored to stand alongside such strong, resilient and beautiful individuals as they journey. It means that we are lucky, even on the toughest days. It means that we, too, are strong, resilient and beautiful individuals.
It still means asking ourselves, “who am I not to change the world?” It still means believing that we can, and do, make a difference every single day.
It means we wish that everyone had the opportunity to bear witness to, to appreciate, and to experience the entire strange spectrum of our human condition, just as we social workers have the privilege to do.
This is the follow-up to “What It Really Means to be a Social Worker.”