by Michelle Cowden, LCSW-Sup
I remember when I was in graduate school and placed at my first social work internship. I thought to myself, “I can’t do this day in and day out.” I then started to wonder if I had chosen the right career path. Thankfully, my second internship gave me the opportunity to see another side of social work that resonated with me and I enjoyed it thoroughly!
How do we really know what the future holds or if we will be happy in a particular job? Internships are a great way to discover what you do and don’t like. You can go to school and learn all about the theory of helping people, but until you actually do the work, you won’t know if social work is right for you. After almost 20 years of being a professional social worker, I have noticed a few common traits among my staff and interns who are happy being social workers.
1.You are curious about people—all kinds of people.
You may not agree with the lifestyle or choices a client makes, but when clients come to you for help, you are genuinely curious about what they need, and you want to help them. You get excited about the possibility of providing them with resources, guidance, support, and ultimately, the tools to help them be successful.
2. You find yourself reading all sorts of self-help books to understand yourself, so you can help others understand themselves.
You gravitate toward knowledge for your own personal struggles and then want to share that knowledge with others. You find yourself putting on trainings for your co-workers or seeking other avenues for sharing this information, so that not only can your clients benefit, but your co-workers’ clients can benefit, as well.
3. Instead of getting frustrated or anxious about an upset client, you feel empathy and understanding.
I’ve seen this over and over again with the interns and staff I have supervised over the years. When someone is not the best fit for a social work position, that person tends to get overly upset and frustrated with clients instead of having compassion and understanding for why a client acts or behaves in a certain way. For example, we see many children in our residential program who have experienced trauma. Sometimes they will act out and direct their anger toward a staff member. Someone who is passionate about helping others will realize the child is acting out as a result of past trauma, and will try to help that child find alternative ways of expressing emotion. Someone who is burned out on social work or not the best fit to be a social worker in this setting will get frustrated with the child and expect the child to just “change” without having the patience to help the child make that change.
4.You find that you have a lot in common with your co-workers.
This is a tell-tale sign that you are in the right place. If you find that you have a lot to talk about with your co-workers, there is a good chance that you are in the right job. If you find that you have nothing in common with the people you work with, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate why that may be. Maybe you want to be a social worker but are not working in the right agency.
5. You get excited about going to work after you have been on vacation (or for interns, after break).
If you find that on the Sunday before you are due to go back to work, you are happy, excited, and full of energy with the thought of going back to work, you are probably in the right job. If you find that on Sunday night you are anxious, can’t sleep, are feeling angry or frustrated and really dreading going back to work, the job or internship might not be the best fit for you. I have seen this time and time again—people who come back from vacation all excited and ready to work again and those who drag their feet when they come back. For those who are not happy about returning to work, I explore with them what about the job doesn’t excite them. Sometimes there is an easy fix, and other times, I have the conversation with them about it possibly being the job itself. In that case, they need to do some soul searching to figure out what’s going on.
If any of these traits resonated with you, you are in the right place and probably happy in your job. What does it mean if you don’t have the traits listed above? Does it mean you wasted your time getting a degree or working in the social work field? No, it may mean that the job you are currently doing is not a good fit for you. It could mean that the population you are currently working with is not the population with which you work best. Yes, ultimately, it could mean that social work is not the field for you, but most of the time, that’s not the answer. Here are some ways you can assess what’s going on and why you might be struggling with being happy in your job.
- Think about why you were drawn to social work. What was it about being a social worker that excited you?
- Now think about why you still want to be a social worker. What about being a social worker excites you now?
- Think about your current job. Do you do any of the things that align with why you wanted to be a social worker in the first place? Do you have opportunities to do some of the items that excited you? You may not be currently doing them, but is your supervisor open to letting you adjust your current role to meet some of your interests?
- Think outside the box. Most of us in the helping professions sometimes lack the discipline to help ourselves. It’s always much easier helping others. Think about ways in which you are excited in your current position. Think about what it means to be happy. Perhaps shifting your mind from what is going wrong to what is going well will help you see that, deep down, you are happy in your job.
Ultimately, being happy in your job requires you to understand that happiness comes from your perspective. We teach our clients coping skills all the time. Some of us are great at applying those skills to ourselves, and some of us need reminding. Happiness is just being content with what you have and acknowledging that sometimes you may want more. When you are feeling stuck or unsure of whether you are happy, try applying some of these questions. Most of us got into the social work profession to help others. How we go about helping others will look very different. Look at how you are helping others—a shift in your perspective may be needed to be happy. Once you are happy or content, both you and your clients will benefit.
Michelle Cowden, LCSW-Sup, has been writing and advocating for a healthy lifestyle through her work at ACH Child and Family Services and in trainings and writings. As a licensed clinical social worker supervising prevention programs, she knows all too well the importance of finding a healthy balance in life. Michelle believes that to live a healthy life, you must embrace the whole person, not just your mind or body. She has facilitated trainings on the effects of food and behavior, and balances her work life with spending time with her husband and dogs, rock climbing, cycling, and other activities.