Self-Aware Social Work

3 March 2017 00:00

A social worker I was once responsible for called me a ‘very human supervisor’. I felt honoured and was pleased that someone was able to recognise skills I’d tried to nurture for many years. This has a lot to do with who we are in our personhood and something also about how we use ourselves in our relationships. Being human, in my view is connected to the ways in which we learn the impact of ourselves, our own being and personal experience on others, which is referred to in social work as being ‘self-aware’.  There is not a great deal of accessible information about how we can learn to be self-aware. I mean by this that ideas and theories about ‘self’ can be mightily philosophical and that doesn’t always help us to find the simplicity in working out who we are in our ‘being’ for social work. Yet social workers are required to be self-aware and to self-reflect in their education and practice. This blog looks at some of my experiences of learning self-aware practice that I hope might inspire some ideas for social professionals and educators.

I managed a Direct Work Team in the early 1990s. We supervised a number of long-term placements offering outreach services to children who were not living at home and specialist foster care training. We were also part of a preventative service working therapeutically with children and families in the community. As a team we were interested in a number of methods drawn from play, drama and family therapy. We were very lucky to have a member of the team who was experienced in art therapy. We also had funding for external consultation giving us sessions with a family therapist, a drama therapist and individual supervisions at a local family consultation service. This allowed us to do some very emotionally intelligent and amazing direct work with children and young people in life story work and group work, as well as successful outcome preventative family work. Our sessions with consultants were often experiential. Because of their nature they could trigger going into some dark and scary places from our personal lives. But no more scary than for the child or family whose lives are opened up to the scrutiny of a social worker. In the supported and held space of a professional we felt safe and able to explore feelings with each other. Our consultants prepared for being “with us” in the space. That is, for holding space that was safe and caring. By doing this they simply modelled good practice for us in our practice. The independent supervisors from the consultation service were experienced therapeutic practitioners who helped us to understand the dynamics and systems we entered into with children and families. The reason we did these things is because we believed, having come from front line services, that not enough time had  been devoted for thinking about ‘who we are’ while we on our social work courses and then in our practice.

This makes it sound as if we spent most of our time luxuriating in supervision and consultation. Oh, so not true. We had heavy caseloads under pressure to take more referrals than a small team of 4 could really manage. Even as the team manager I was required to hold a half case-load and we were often engaged in court assessments. But as a team we committed to taking a day or afternoon every term to unleash our creative, playful selves. It was a way of getting inside our own heads to think about our part in the systems we worked in, be that the child’s systems, the family systems, the team systems, societal and cultural systems, and how all these impact on our personal systems. This was not conventional training but facilitated through dreaming, playing, experiencing and using some of those tools we often use on service users, to really explore ourselves. Our work formed an understanding of our own cultural and emotional lives and how these connect with the lives of those we work with. It made sense that we should work on ourselves in this way.

In many disciplines of therapy and counselling trainees are required to undertake personal therapy, something which is not a requirement of social work. It is debatable whether it should be. For me the difference between our work and that of the therapist is our social systems approaches and social models. Our work on ourselves in the Direct Work Team was not ‘clinical’ in the sense of therapy, although it was therapeutic and also formative within wider contexts of our lives. It formed a way of thinking which I believe is about the ‘humanity’ in our practice. This might be thought of as  ‘reflexivity’; the way in which relational dynamics are impacted by outside and inner forces and how we deal with those ‘head’ and ‘heart’ activities in our practice.

My interest in student’s perceptions of ‘self-awareness’ is recorded in my Masters Research. Students who responded to a survey and interviews overwhelmingly expressed the importance of self-awareness in their learning. I discovered through the research the many ways in which students are able to learn, with some very positive examples through role play, group work and practice supervision. It was also interesting how many found reading, absorbing information in quiet contemplation for their research and the process of writing reflective journals useful.  Students also reported that self-reflection is not something that can be easily achieved within the pressured environments of the course and practice education in placements, particularly when their work prompted memories or trauma from their own past. Some respondents reported that being assessed and performance managed required good supportive supervision as it could impact on how safe they felt to share personal information. For me this points to a need to think more about how resources are used to facilitate students and practitioners in having qualitative space to reflect that is not bound by structures. I am continuing my interest in the social work self in my PhD research.

Important experiences in social work have taught me the value of ourselves as resources in our practice. Who we have is who we are, or who we become as a result of learning more about ourselves. This is true for whatever we do in our lives. In order to do our work well I believe it is important to nurture ourselves for working in some very tough and emotionally charged circumstances of practice.  There are so many complicated issues in organisations, in our social and economic circumstances and in the political domains that are meant to serve us. As social workers I believe that keeping hold of our humanity is crucial to best serve those we work with.

Further reading:

Horwath, J. (2007). The missing assessment domain: Personal, professional and organizational factors influencing professional judgements when identifying and referring child neglect. British Journal of Social Work, 37(8), 1285-1303.

Ruch, G. (2000). Self and social work: towards an integrated model of learning. Journal of Social Work Practice, 14(2), 99-112.

Ruch, G. (2002). From triangle to spiral: Reflective practice in social work education, practice and research. Social Work Education, 21(2), 199-216.

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