Which Four Letter Word Best Describes Your Relationship with Work


Social workers and most employees use the word “love when we first start our new jobs. A regular pay schedule allows us to pay our monthly student loans when due. We learn and experience the difference between what the books say and practice realities. We get to “help people” which is the reason many of us went into the social work profession. The ability to help those in need feels good.

Our honeymoon with work lasts for about six months to a year. Everything is new and exciting. We get to know the intricacies of the inner workings of our organizations. The employer and employee become aware of each other’s interests, strengths, and quirks. The honeymoon is fun. The courtship continues. We love, love, love what we do and the organization we are with.

Then something happens. Longevity with an organization provides an awareness of the shortcomings. We begin to compare our goals, interests, and desires with that of the organization. When they do not match, we become frustrated and the relationship becomes strained.  In some instances, the relationship between the employer and employee becomes so frustrating that it sours. Think of a marriage that lasts although the two parties can no longer stand each other. Is your work relationship the same?

Are you a social worker who continues to work in a situation that is no longer satisfying? Have you started using four-letter words other than “love” or “like” to describe your relationship with work?

Many social workers cannot quit good-paying jobs. We need them to sustain our modest lifestyles. However, after five or more years on the job, some feel burned out from unmanageable workloads, hit or miss supervision, and political jockeying. Some may feel depressed because of vicarious trauma. Stress responses may be in overdrive causing edgy or anxious feelings when at work. A few social workers just check out emotionally, opting to go through the motions putting in their “eight” and doing no more than is necessary to get through.

Dissatisfaction with the workplace will continue until the social work honestly answers specific questions. Am I compelled to do this work? Am I demonstrating competence? How comfortable am I in the context of the work environment? These questions jump-start the re-tooling process for every social worker with over five years of experience.

What questions are you asking yourself?

Let’s Talk About Burnout, Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma

Helping professionals do an excellent job of breaking down the stigma surrounding mental illness. However, when we look in the mirror, we are not quite as good at applying those same stigma-fighting and self-compassion principles. There is a tendency for helpers to place the needs of others above their own needs.

We will fight incredibly hard to help others enjoy peace, health, and their human rights, but in order to do so we often compromise our own peace, health, and human rights. We spend our working days carefully listening to the needs of others, deaf to the screams of our own hearts and bodies. Ashamed of the humanness that has prevented us from living up to the SuperHero image of helping professionals, we are wary of sharing our own stories.

Unwilling to share our vulnerable selves, the stories we do release for public consumption are often so heavily edited the end result resembles little more than a “once upon a time” fairytale. Let’s not contribute to the all-too-common fairytales about what it’s like to work as a helping professional. Instead, let’s talk about how it really feels to face the darkest corners of human life (and death).

Let’s talk about burnout, Compassion Fatigue, and Vicarious Trauma.

If we don’t, they will become the bogeymen that consume us. My own story of Vicarious Trauma began suddenly in 2006 when I was working as a Child Protection Officer. My ears and eyes were filled with the sounds and images of broken babies. My hands were filled with paperwork and my head was too full, too busy, to do anything except meet the deadlines that came thick and fast from all directions. The bogeyman that bit into me refused to let go and evolved into a full-blown eating disorder.

From 2008 to 2011, I was hospitalised twice and worked hard to heal my body. From 2012 to 2016, I worked hard to find the words I’d buried, match them with feelings, piece it all together and also work up the courage to share my precious story with strangers.

Without a doubt, the research and writing I undertook during those four years were the most agonising and significant steps I took toward recovery. I began by researching anorexia. Up until my mid twenties, I’d enjoyed healthy eating patterns and body image. How was it possible for such a person to suddenly stop eating? I started with the book “Eating Disorders in Adult Women” (edited by Julian Fuchs, 2008) and moved on to the wealth of research from Steven Levenkron.

There were many references to eating disorders stemming from Trauma, but I rejected the theory that my eating disorder was the result of this. Trauma was, I told myself, something that happened to survivors of war or whose lives had been threatened under the most horrific of circumstances. I refused to minimise the awfulness of their experience by including myself within their number.

Perhaps what happened to me was “just burnout”. I pulled out Christina Maslach and referred to her extensive research on the topic. Her descriptions of burnout were familiar but didn’t quite fit my symptoms. Again, there were plenty of references to Trauma. Fine. I piled my bedside table with all the classics on Trauma – Judith Herman, Peter Levine, Babette Rothschild – never believing I’d find myself living within their pages. I did. I knew about Trauma, of course. I’d learned the basics at university and had applied the theories when working with clients who’d experienced domestic violence, sexual assault, or childhood abuse.

Reading these books was a completely different experience and everything I thought I knew about Trauma was turned on its head. I read the theories as if I were reading them for the first time. Now, I didn’t just understand the words, I felt them and knew them to be true. Since releasing “Selfless: a social worker’s own story of trauma and recovery” I’ve been privileged to hear many people tell me about their own experiences of burnout, Compassion Fatigue, and Trauma.

It’s been wonderful to be part of this burgeoning web of storytelling and it has strengthened me more than I ever thought possible. It’s my dearest wish that my book will start a conversation about how to improve the support we provide to our frontline helping professionals. There is so much more that can be done. Let’s show how much value we place on the essential services they provide.

Finding Joy In Service: Exploring Compassionate Curiosity with Dr. Gabor Maté

Powerful service to others is based in one fundamental element and that is connection. We strive to create a space of connection that will help to build on feelings of trust, openness, acceptance and unconditional care for another person.

As we go through academic preparation and learn from the less formal interactions in our lives, we learn how to create this space of connection with others; we learn how to let others know that we are present and engaged. We learn how to send the message that we care.

Offering compassion as we develop connection with another is our way of saying that we care and that it is safe. Curiosity sends the message that we have a desire to understand and to explore the nature of an experience.

When these two elements come together, the results can be magical.

Compassionate Curiosity

What is compassionate curiosity? And how do we engage in that energy? My understanding of this most beautifully combined process of exploration involves an intricate balance of energies that can open deeper experiences of conscious service.

When we bring curiosity to our experience of compassion, we gain greater capacity for understanding of our own experience as well as that of another. Curiosity keeps us exploring and opens us up to deeper levels of willingness.

When compassion guides our natural curiosity, we learn to probe gently in order to connect within and with others in this process of life and learning. It is in this place that we enter a space of authentic empathy.

Curiosity directs our compassionate energy. Compassion creates a space of acceptance and healing and helps us transcend judgment.

“Compassion does not create fatigue. Lack of self-compassion is exhausting.”

Whatever energy we are creating to welcome others and to serve others is only as powerful to the extent that we include ourselves.

Include Yourself

How can you take the position of compassionate curiosity with yourself?

Consider how you respond to you when you feel you have made a mistake or when you decide that you have not lived up to your own standards. Are your words sweet or salty?

In those moments of sadness or fear, can you be present to your experience? What do you tell yourself? Are you open to feeling better or are you mired in self-punishment? How do you soothe your tender heart?

What about those times when you have just nailed it, you experience a personal victory or success? As the sense of humble pride and confidence arises, how do you greet it? Do you quickly shut it down because it is conceited to feel good about yourself; you don’t want to appear boastful and bigger than your britches. Do you immediately downplay your joy because you don’t want others to feel jealous and ultimately, not like you?

Is it possible to embrace it all in a way that honors our full experience? Can we be present to ourselves whatever the moment brings?

I am learning this in my own life now. I realized with guidance from helpful people that I am always talking to myself anyway, so why not make it encouraging and comforting? What if I came to myself from a place of compassionate curiosity? How would that change things?

I imagine how I would respond to a small child or someone I love deeply, and I take that approach with myself. That is the quickest route I have found so far to engage in self-compassion and self-love.

So, what does this have to do with finding joy in service? Joy naturally springs from the same place as compassion and curiosity, love and belonging. One of the bravest actions we can take is to explore with curiosity and compassion that place where our joy lives. And when we find it, feel ourselves light up, and open up to receive and follow our joy, we demonstrate self-love. When that overflows to others, we are engaged in conscious service.

Join The Conversation

I remember when I first heard the term compassionate curiosity like it was yesterday. The words went directly to my heart and set off bells inside my soul. I was attending a workshop and listening to an eloquent and wise speaker. I am beyond ecstatic to welcome this man as my guest on the next episode of Serving Consciously at www.ctrnetwork.com on Friday February 10, 2017 at 12:00 Noon (PST).

Dr. Gabor Mate

Gabor Maté is a medical doctor recently retired from active practice. He was a family physician for two decades and for seven years he served as Medical Coordinator of the Palliative Care Unit at Vancouver Hospital.

For twelve years he worked in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside with patients challenged by hard-core addiction, mental illness, HIV and related conditions. For two years he was the onsite physician at Vancouver’s unique Supervised Injection Site, North America’s only such facility.

He is internationally known for his work on the mind/body unity in health and illness, on attention deficit disorder and other childhood developmental issues, and his breakthrough analysis of addiction as a psychophysiological response to childhood trauma and emotional loss.

Dr. Maté is the author of four best-selling books published in twenty languages on five continents, including When The Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection and the award winning In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction.

Gabor is the recipient of an Outstanding Alumnus Award from Simon Fraser University and an Honorary Degree of Law from the University of Northern British Columbia, among other awards.

He frequently addresses professional and lay audiences in North America and internationally on issues related to childhood development and parenting, physical and mental health and wellness, and addiction.

He is Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Criminology, Simon Fraser University. His next book, Toxic Culture: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a World of Materialism will be published in 2018.

You can tune in live on Friday February 10, 2017 at 12:00 Noon (PST) at www.ctrnetwork.com. Just click on Listen Live and you will be in! And of course, if you would like to interact with us, please call in during the show at 1-844-390-8255.

Windows into a Life in Poverty and Lessons for Social Workers

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Living in poverty is more than not having enough money to meet an arbitrary threshold. For many, a life in poverty is one of perpetual disappointment, missed opportunities, self-loathing and blame. Recognizing these feelings in others, and the impact they have on us professionally, is an important step in creating change. A simple transaction at a thrift store, or a quick inventory of gas purchases, can open our eyes to so much more.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I found myself browsing the racks at a nearby thrift store, shopping for clothes for my upcoming second child. As I haphazardly tossed one-dollar onesies and two-dollar leggings into a growing mound in my cart, I observed another woman, presumably a mom like me, anxiously moving through the store aisles. She carefully scrutinized each item and, even more carefully, examined the price tag. Surveying items that held promise, she would look at the cost and quickly place them back on the rack.

I encountered this woman again at the checkout. She had ended up with four or five items—clothing for a small boy–and paid for the items using carefully counted nickels, dimes, and pennies.

As I got back to my car, I couldn’t help but feel great sorrow for this woman; too poor to buy many of the second hand items she wanted for her young son, and pulling from the bottom of the barrel to provide him with a few essentials. As a mom, I could intimately relate to the deep-seeded desire to provide for your children, and the failure and humiliation we feel when we can’t do that as well as we feel we should.

I, however, had visited the thrift store because I am thrifty, not poor. I can’t stomach the prices at fancy children’s clothing stores for items my child will likely wear once. I have never been unable to purchase clothes for my kids for financial reasons. I have never had to worry that my family won’t have enough of what they need.

Of course, my assumptions could be off. There are undoubtedly multiple scenarios for the woman’s behavior, and there are certainly those who would presume this mom’s prior bad choices or poor money management had gotten her to the place she was that day.  But as a social worker, these are the experiences I can’t help but internalize and analyze. Like many social workers and other helping professionals, I can’t help but feel the pangs of sadness and anxiety, observing the lives of those who struggle to make ends meet.

These observations offer a window into the reality of living in poverty; an unending series of difficult decisions and stress, feelings of unworthiness and humiliation, excited to watch your children grow, but scared about what it will mean for your tight budget. Research increasingly points to the impact of poverty on cognitive functioning and physical health, which is likely no surprise to those of us who have worked in the field. As social workers, observing and internalizing these feelings is a part of what makes participating in this profession so profound, yet often so painful.

This is certainly not my only experience which offered a glimpse into the daily lives of the poor, and if you gathered a group of social workers to discuss, they could most likely build a long list. Both in practice and in our daily interactions in the community, we see it. Some are more obvious. Observations of diapers not changed because there are too few to get through to the next pay, bare cupboards during a home visit, moms who stay with abusive partners to keep a roof over their children’s heads.

Others are less obvious. One dollar lunches at a fast-food restaurant, kids in too-small clothing. A mother snapping at her child who asks for something at the store, not out of anger at the child, but anger with herself for always having to say no. I keenly remember, several years back, watching a low-income parent at a birthday party interacting with the other moms and dads. One mom was gleefully sharing about an upcoming family event in the community. “Only five dollars per child!” she exclaimed. I saw the other mom hesitate, look down, shame in her eyes. Five dollars per child? Easier said than done.

My father, a life-long advocate for low-income people, has many times encouraged people to take a glance at the gas pumps in any given community when they stop for gas. In wealthy and middle class communities, pumps will show recent purchases of $30, $40, even $50 dollars. Full tanks, gas flowing until the pump clicks, symbolic of the abundance in the community. What about a glance at the tanks in poor communities? Purchases totaling $2, $4—gas purchased one or two gallons at a time, as money becomes available (sometimes borrowed or found) — to support a single trip to the store, or the doctor, or work. This strategizing with scarcity is a prime example of the difficult day-to-day decision making that plagues many in low-income communities.

Much like identifying signs of child abuse and neglect, social workers are often the first to observe these seemingly insignificant behaviors. And while others may be quick to blame poor judgement or character deficits for these unfortunate circumstances, we as social workers can see them as symptoms of a larger problem. We can choose to believe that all people, regardless of income, have the desire and the right to care for their families, have meaningful work, and participate in the community. We can choose to view these conditions as motivation for why we must take care of one another.

Internalizing the pain that these families and individuals feel, day after day, is an occupational hazard that we can’t completely avoid. Sometimes these feelings can seem like a burden too great to bear. Compassion fatigue is very real, and we must always remain mindful of the need for rigorous self-care. But it is important not to ignore these instincts, as it exactly these feelings of empathy and care for others that are at the root of our profession, and that can serve as a call to act. I would encourage us to use these experiences and our reactions as ammunition to become better helping professionals.

These interactions can provide us with needed inspiration to keep going in our pursuit of social justice. In daily practice, there are small opportunities. We can provide families with information on free community events so parents can still feel the pride and joy of giving their child a new experience. We can organize a clothing swap among low-income clients to share gently used items. If there are no options for free diapers in our community, we can work to create one. When interacting with clients, we can consider the physical, cognitive, and emotional implications for those living a life clouded by scarcity. More broadly, we can bring these issues to light to our decisions makers, locally and beyond, in the hopes of developing sustainable solutions.

Everything I Know About Vicarious Trauma in Five Minutes

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I was the poster child for Vicarious Trauma at least that’s what I liked to tell myself. In the great oppression Olympics that belongs to folks who have done human services over long careers, sometimes too long, it’s a coveted moniker. Why did I think I got this title?

Several years ago, when I was at the peak of my clinical practice, I ran six group therapy sessions a week for men referred for sexual offenses, many of whom I also saw in individual and family counseling. It was all sex offenders, all the time.  Impressively–again, this is what I liked to tell myself–I could hold it together for a 50-hour work week. I  had mastered the “pose of equanimity,” as they euphemistically called it in graduate school.

But a more savvy observer might have said my “pose of equanimity”  looked more like a frozen, coma-like state of emotional numbing. When I went home, I’d fall apart: a mess of eating and sleep problems, disengagement from family and spouse, flashbacks, startles responses, and nasty dreams. My gastrointestinal tract was a roller derby rink.

Of course, this notion of an oppression Olympics where I get the gold medal is foolish.  Even though I know this to be true in my heart, nevertheless, as I go about, years later, as a consultant facilitating dialogues about vicarious trauma at human services agencies, I notice that other folks in my field jockey for the same distinction.  I’m not the only social worker vying for this same validation. Among ourselves, we social workers love to tell war stories.

Generally, when social workers launch into tales of the “worst of the worst” stories of what they’ve seen with disadvantaged and troubled clients, I recognize a very human tendency:  that longing for validation of one’s suffering and appreciation for one’s personal sacrifices within beleaguered, feedback-starved environments. There’s something about thinking that my professional travails are the worst that is validating, even sustaining, bordering as it does on the heroic.

Now that I’ve affirmed my recognition that I think the oppression Olympics is a fallacy, I do want to note the two times I trained at agencies when I actually thought for a moment they really should get the prize. One was at a local program that works with a high volume of undocumented, impoverished immigrant families. I had never seen social workers embedded in such intensity of critical, unmet needs. The system was so closed and the resources were so paltry.

The other experience was at the drunk tank in my town, where inebriated folks are kept on 48-hour holds to get them off the street. The Emergency Medical Technicians had cleaned out one of the dingy, concrete-walled tanks for me to set up my laptop and infocus machine. While I clicked through my slides, I could hear the fury of involuntarily confined drunk people in the adjoining locked cells, screaming “FUCK YOU! LET ME OUT OF THIS HELL HOLE!” at the top of their lungs. My training group of twenty participants didn’t even flinch.

When I heard about the Portland Ignite event, it seemed like an opportunity to connect the common experience of vicarious trauma, which is epidemic in our field, with another event World Social Work Day on March 18th. Of course, I had known about World Social Work Day for years in the same way that I knew about National Doughnut Day (First Friday in June), Pi Day (March 14th), and National Tattoo Day (June 5th). Why did World Social Work Day exist, I used to wonder, if no one, at least in my experience, really did anything about it? Having another bogus, fluffy holiday seemed to trivialize the hard work we do.

I always tell my social work colleagues that the antidote for vicarious trauma consists of three strategies: authentic connection with fellow travelers, exceptional self-care, and validation by our organizations of the work we do. I decided to get up at Portland ignite because I wanted to send a 5-minute message of deep gratitude to all social workers as well as appreciate all the folks who do social work without the benefit of a formal social work degree.

So here it is “Strong @ the Broken Places.”  Everything I know about vicarious trauma in five crisp minutes (20 slides, 15 seconds each, no stopping, no second chances). Happy World Social Work Day everyone!

The Standards of Self-Care (Part 1 of 3)

When we talk about the ethical responsibility we have to take care of ourselves as helping professionals, we don’t necessarily think about a specific set of guidelines to follow.  In this article, we will take a look at the Ethical Principles of Self-Care as well as the Standards of Humane Practice of Self-Care.

Self-CareThe Green Cross Academy of Traumatology has created the standards of self-care guidelines for their members to follow. The purpose of the guidelines are twofold: 1) do no harm to yourself while helping or treating others and 2) “attend to your physical, social, emotional, and spiritual needs as a way of ensuring high quality services…”  to those who are looking to you for support. It also states that self-care is so important for preventing a practitioner from harming clients, that it is unethical to not attend to self-care practices.

The three principles of self-care in practice are stated as:

1)   Respect for the dignity and worth of self: A violation lowers your integrity and trust.

2)   Responsibility of self-care:  Ultimately it is your responsibility to take care of yourself and no situation or person can justify neglecting it.

3)   Self-care and duty to perform:  There must be a recognition that the duty to perform as a helper cannot be fulfilled if there is not, at the same time, a duty to self-care.

The four standards for self-care are stated as:

1)   Universal Right to Wellness:  Every helper, regardless of her or his role or employer, has the right to wellness associated with self-care.

2)   Physical Rest and Nourishment:  Every helper deserves restful sleep and physical separation from work that sustains them in their work role.

3)   Emotional Rest and Nourishment: Every helper deserves emotional and spiritual renewal both in and outside the work context.

4)   Sustenance Modulation:  Every helper must utilize self-restraint with regard to what and how much they consume (eg: food, drink, drugs, stimulation) since it can compromise their competence as a helper.

Often when I give a workshop on Compassion Fatigue, I speak about the importance of helping professionals to attend to their own healing as well. This speaks to the ethical principles – we need to respect ourselves, develop our self-worth and be responsible for our own self-care. In order to be a helper, we have an ethical duty for self-care. We thrive as professionals when we come from a place of self-worth, confidence and dignity for ourselves… and yes, this means doing the tough emotional healing that we ask of our clients!

This doesn’t mean only getting help from someone when we are in a crisis, it means really taking an inventory of our own past hurts. What does our grief history look like ? Have we healed from significant losses both from death and the end of relationships?  Do we have a trauma history? Over 70% of the population has had one or more significant traumas, so have we healed from ours?

The thing about helping professionals is that many have entered the field because of a personal struggle that was overcome with the support of another helper, so naturally we wanted to do the same for others. Do we have any of our own physical or mental health struggles, and are we seeking support for them?

We will always have experiences that cause unpleasant emotions, that’s just life.  Having said that, as helpers we need to know how to deal with these in a healthy way so that we can integrate the experiences and move on, instead of being stuck in them and potentially being triggered by them when clients share similar struggles.

I recently received an email from a helper who provides support for pet loss.  She is not a counselor and wanted to know how to separate her grief from the grief of the people she is helping. In my opinion, this is a two-step response: 1) Helpers needs to heal from their own grief and 2) Helpers need to learn how to practice conscious empathy, so we don’t unconsciously catch our client’s grief.

Alright, enough of my rant on the importance of our own healing.  The standards of Self-Care are pretty basic and most helpers know these, although, the last standard “Sustenance Modulation” can be somewhat controversial for people. Sustenance modulation states that helpers are to utilize self-restraint with regard to how much they consume (food, drink, drugs, stimulation).  I don’t mean it’s controversial because it’s not true, I mean it in the sense that this is the standard that can sometimes bring up a little bit of defensiveness in people.

I would love to know your thoughts on the Principles of Self-Care and the Standards of Self-Care as they relate to your role as a Social Worker.  Please leave a comment letting me know what you think!

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