By: Heath B. Walters
As the child welfare field coordinator at Lewis Clark State College, I have the honor of attending an annual child welfare conference where many of my students present their research on issues that affect child welfare in the State of Idaho. One of my duties at this conference is to introduce our institution’s student presenters, which includes a quick description of their internship placements and a few positive notes on what I have enjoyed about supervising their field placements during the previous year. As I introduced one of my students this year, I praised the student regarding her unique ability to use her personality and sense of humor to set families at ease and to build relationships and rapport with clients. Due to the fact that this student came from a lower socioeconomic background where she had to face many obstacles in her own life before returning to college and getting her BSW, she was able to draw from her own feelings and experiences to develop empathy and understanding for clients and the situations they found themselves in. The student was employing “use of self” in her social work field placement. The term “use of self” is sometimes confusing for both social work students and the discipline of social work at large. Social workers believe they know what it means when they hear the term, but they have a hard time defining and describing the term when pressed. The use of self in social work practice is the combining of knowledge, values, and skills gained in social work education with aspects of one’s personal self, including personality traits, belief systems, life experiences, and cultural heritage (Dewane, 2006). It is the use of self that enables social workers to strive for authenticity and genuineness with the clients we serve, while at the same time honoring the values and ethics we so highly value in social work practice. In an effort to explain the use of self to my child welfare interns and other students, I will often use their micro skills coursework as an example of how use of self looks in professional practice. When I teach interviewing skills, each student is exposed to the same basic skill set (e.g., paraphrasing, summarization, responding to content, feeling, and meaning). However, no student’s use of this skill set is exactly the same, because these skills are manifested through the individual student’s personality, relational skills, and developmental capacity. What I have found in the classroom, as well as when I am supervising field placements, is that successful students have not only mastered the skill set taught in social work practice courses, but have also mastered the integration of their social work skills with their authentic selves.
To integrate the authentic self into the skills required for your social work field placement, it may be helpful to view the use of self from five different perspectives: Use of Personality, Use of Belief System, Use of Relational Dynamics, Use of Anxiety, and Use of Self Disclosure (Dewane, 2006). Through analyzing each of the constructs and their application to your daily practice, you will begin to discover the unique attributes that will enable you to relate to clients in a more authentic manner and contribute to the field of social work in a way that is uniquely reflective of you.
One of the most important aspects you bring to social work practice is your personality. Although fundamental to social work practice, the social worker’s theoretical orientation and mastery of skills appear to have the least impact on client satisfaction when compared to the social worker’s authenticity and how they use personality traits as a therapeutic tool (Edwards & Bess, 1998; Baldwin, 2000). What is important regarding authenticity is to reflect your “real self” at all times. If you accidentally run into your client while shopping for groceries or at the park on the weekend, the client should be able to engage with the same person he or she met during your last home visit. In other words, social workers need to take time to fully understand who they are as individuals, as well as their identities as professional social workers, in order to holistically integrate these two roles.