by Kelly C. Johnson, MSW
Here I am, a 34-year-old woman nearly finished with a master’s program in social work. Walking into my first classes, I realized I would be required to have two different field placements. I thought to myself, “This is going to be a piece of cake. I’m a grown adult woman who is responsible and accountable, and I have been around the block, per se.”
But what I soon realized was that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. The area in which I learned the most about being a social worker was within those internships. Not only did I learn about the skills needed to be an effective social worker, but I also learned about myself and how those discoveries have and will lead me to be a better social worker. There were certain wisdoms that became apparent in my field placements. Here are a few.
It’s Okay To Not Know
One of the most important ideas I learned was that I do not have to have all the answers. I remember when I was at my first internship, and I was co-facilitating a group on substance abuse. I was terrified that one of the clients would ask me a question about substance abuse to which I didn’t have an answer. But then I realized—I am an intern, and it is okay to not know something. A good social worker is not with clients to provide all the answers, but instead to find answers with clients. I struggled with not being able to answer all my clients’ questions; however, what I realized was that sometimes many of my clients do not necessarily want an answer. Instead, they are seeking someone who can listen.
I spent much of my time in my first internship concerned with whether or not I appeared competent, rather than just genuinely being who I was—a first-year intern. As my second internship started, I realized that to be a good social worker, I needed to be human and cut myself some slack. I realized that I will not know everything, and it is okay to verbalize that to my clients by using such phrases as, “I’m not sure, but let me get that answer for you.” When asked a question about how a family member feels, I may comment, “I can’t interpret how a person feels, as their feelings are their own.” It was then that I reached a realization, and it became easier for me to move on.
Do Your Own Work
Another key idea that improved my effectiveness is knowing the value of “doing your own work.” What I mean by that is working on your own issues and vices. How can I expect my clients to do the work, when I haven’t done the work myself? Doing my own work provided me an immense amount of insight about my own behaviors and how those influence my life. But it also provided me with a sense of empathy. I could then begin to understand how my clients felt when they came in for a first appointment. Feelings of apprehension, vulnerability, anxiety, and/or fear about what may occur in counseling can be common feelings.
My second internship involved issues that I had personal experience with, and I was terrified. I realized I had not fully worked on those issues. There was more work to be done. For me to provide for my clients, I needed to begin to resolve those personal fears. If I did not, my fear was that countertransference would develop, and I would be performing a disservice to my clients. I remember hearing one of my clients’ experiences and hearing very much of my own story in those words. It scared me to no end, but it triggered an experience in me—one that I knew had to be dealt with in order for me to be a better professional.
Listen to Feedback
The third most important fact I learned was that feedback is very important for me to develop as a social worker. Not only should that feedback be from supervisors, colleagues, and professors, but it should also come from clients. At my first internship, I asked a client for feedback on my performance. The client thought I was condescending and somewhat callous. I thought to myself at this point that I had done something terribly wrong. With the help of my field supervisor, I decided to speak with the client and investigate why the client had these feelings. Afterwards, my field supervisor and I processed this situation, and I remember being in tears, because I thought I had harmed my client. I realized that because I was so nervous, I came off to my clients in a different manner than I intended. If I had never asked for that feedback, I would never have known.
I also feel it is important to get feedback from clients so you know whether or not you are meeting their needs in therapy. In my second internship, I asked my clients which activities they enjoyed, which they did not, and which they would like to do. This way, I could meet their specific needs, which may have been different from those of another client. My first internship taught me that asking for feedback would be crucial to my development. I guess in some ways you can consider it to be constructive criticism from your clients. Take that criticism and learn and grow from it.
This leads me to the fourth important idea I learned: RELAX! During my first internship, I was so worried about everything that I was not really able to recognize what I was doing correctly or incorrectly. I was so anxious that sometimes I was not hearing everything my clients were saying. I just kept thinking about the skills we had learned in class, and that was all that kept running through my head. I had the goal of perfection, but I learned that perfection will never happen in social work. Frankly, perfection in and of itself does not happen. What sort of standard was I going to hold myself to? Compare myself to other social workers? No two social workers are made alike, so how could I compare? I needed to be comfortable with myself and comfortable with who I was as a person and a social worker.
After what I learned at my first internship, I decided to take a different perspective and approach on the work that I was doing. I decided to relax and be the social worker that I knew I could be. This approach helped me tremendously. Not only did I really begin to enjoy the work I was doing, but I was better able to perform my social work duties. I didn’t worry so much about knowing everything and doing absolutely everything to perfection. Being a social worker is not about perfection; it is about doing no harm to your clients and joining them on their journey. I see it as a path that you follow with your client with many forks and turns in the road. Each turn and merge leads you to a different path.
The Importance of an Apology
Another concept that was significant for me was the importance of an apology with your clients. When I got less than desirable feedback from my client in my first internship, I listened to the client’s concerns and followed with an apology. I told the client what my true intention was and that it was not my goal to make my client feel that way. I then followed with an apology. With that apology, the client visibly relaxed, and it was genuine. I realized that while I am a social worker, I am also human. I will make mistakes, even with the best intentions.
The Importance of the Relationship
Finally, the relationship you have with your field supervisor in your placements can have a huge influence. In my first internship, I had a supervisor who really forced me to look at who I was and why I decided to get into social work. She challenged me and pushed me to go farther, but she cautioned me when I went too far. In those many hours of supervision, I realized how much of myself is projected onto my clients. I began to see how my values and beliefs about life influence how I practice social work.
In my first internship, I was counseling perpetrators of domestic violence. It can be very intimidating to be in a room full of men and be the only woman. My field supervisor guided me in modeling correct behaviors for these men. I began to notice that they respected me and enjoyed having me in the group, for not only my perspective but also for my presence. When I had a rough night with that group, the group and I talked about it. We figured out together what was influencing me the most. In some ways, it terrified me, because it was about self-discovery, and those issues were buried. With my supervisor’s help, they were brought to the surface to be dealt with.
In conclusion, field placements are hard. Not only are they difficult for your clients, but they are difficult for the intern. There is so much to learn and so many revelations to be had. Looking back on it now, when I am only a month away from being finished with both field placements, I wonder where all the time went and whether I really learned everything I needed to learn! Yes, but there is always room for more growth and learning. Welcome to a lifetime of learning.
Kelly C. Johnson, MSW, received her degree from the University of St. Francis. She also has a Bachelor in Organization Leadership as well as an Associate in Applied Science in Culinary Arts. She has counseled victims and perpetrators of domestic violence and counseled individuals with substance abuse issues. She spends time with her husband, Andrew, cooking, baking, and relaxing with her two English bulldogs and boxer.