One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a social worker is that, in order to excel, you must absolutely get comfortable being present in situations that make your skin crawl. You will encounter people, places, things, and circumstances that will test the limits of your ability to maintain a modicum of objectivity, but how do you become comfortable with discomfort. From my experience, three things will help you learn how to do this:
- Time on the job. Repeated exposure over a long period of time will familiarize you with the unpleasant particulars you will face. I always say that, while nothing surprises me, some things do shock me.
- Having a strong sense of yourself and your values. This will help you notice whether your discomfort is more about you then your client’s presenting issues.
- An understanding that the process of learning this skill will never be over. You can refine this skill, but you will never perfect it.
For instance, my very first client at my first “big boy job” was a 15 year-old boy with significant anger issues to whom I would be making home visits. When I pulled up to his family’s trailer, he was sitting on the front steps smoking cigarettes with his family. By family I mean his mother, 12 year-old sister, and 10 year-old brother, all of whom were smoking. His home was infested with fleas from the seven dogs that crowded the living room in which only a few of the dogs were his. The others were strays that had simply wandered in and were being tolerated by the family.
He had lit fire to a neighbor’s car because he was unhappy with the relationship between the man and his mother. While my own values and the way I conducted myself in my personal life were completely at odds with much of what I was experiencing, I quickly learned this kid was a person with very real and alarming concerns that deserved a shot at help as much as anyone. I had to put my judgment on the shelf and realize it wasn’t about the life to which I was accustomed. The fact that I included this story from so early in my career, about 13 years ago, shows how deeply it affected me, and how so many years later, I am still conflicted about the way I handled the situation.
I could fill a book with stories of clients/patients that led me to places that challenged my ability to stay present while feeling extremely uncomfortable. Some of these situations involved people I was tasked to help in which I found very little about them to like or admire. However, I have made it a lifelong goal to practice Carl Rogers’ idea of “Unconditional Positive Regard” which states we must treat people as human beings regardless of things they have done. It is not always easy and it would be dishonest of me to say that I always succeed, but it is a work in progress. Remember, the things that make you the most uncomfortable are also your greatest potential learning opportunities. Do not shy away from them.
Most importantly, it is crucial to have a support person whether it be your own therapist or a colleague with whom you can process such events. This will help you more clearly see what it is in you that causes your discomfort. Your continued effectiveness as a social worker depends upon your dedication to ongoing personal growth. If you do not have a support person, please seek out someone with whom you feel comfortable. It will make all the difference!