by Marilyn Lammert, ScD, LCSW-C
Ours is a rewarding profession—and a stressful one. It can be hard to stay positive, because problems are what we are expected (and expect ourselves) to solve. These expectations take a toll and sometimes result in a process of gradual exhaustion, cynicism, and loss of commitment.
I believe there are ways to become more resilient and flourish. Acknowledging vulnerability and using strength-based approaches are important tools. I hope to identify resources, creative tools, and skills early-career social workers can use. In fact, some of what we know to be helpful to clients can also be helpful to us.
A few years back, I offered a workshop for early-career social workers where I began by summarizing my 40-plus years as a social worker, noting that there were only three years I didn’t like what I did. Two of them were the first two years out of graduate school. The room of a dozen new social workers burst into laughter, one commenting that hearing this was worth the cost of the workshop. Although it’s now been more than two years since that day, I’ve heard from some attendees that my comment is still being talked about—because it gave them hope for the future. Early-career social workers in particular need more help than they are given in school—or as they’re leaving—with finding jobs and thriving in their first few years out.
They, as well as many who have been in the field for much longer, have concerns about competence, have difficulty managing self-doubt, or feel undervalued or helpless in the face of often intractable problems. At the beginning of the workshop, they clearly laid out for me what they needed and wanted:
- to know they weren’t alone in feeling overwhelmed and questioning
- a safe community in which to share these feelings and their values
- support and help so as to have hope for the future
Burnout and Vulnerability
I first became interested in the phenomenon of burnout 45 years ago, although I didn’t have a name for it at the time. As I remember, I experienced it first, and most traumatically, at age 23, while working in a mid-1960s War on Poverty-funded settlement house in a midwestern city. At the time, I was idealistic but soon became disillusioned. I recall feeling helpless, but I didn’t recognize or couldn’t admit my vulnerability. I didn’t know how to take the next positive step. Like many drawn to social work, l liked the idea of fixing people and systems, but didn’t like the feelings about what I could not solve or fix.
Perhaps vulnerability is a no-no for helping professionals, a weakness okay for others—those we are trying to help—but not us. Are we good at giving help, but not so good about asking for the help we need? As a recent graduate told me a short time ago, calm is what is admired. If you’re sad, you can’t express it to your supervisor, and there’s no room for collective support for yourself or others. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is what is required.
We are trained to listen to clients and offer counsel and solutions. At the same time, we are human and therefore experience vulnerability—as true for us as for our clients. Still, we are expected to remain emotionally detached and to be altruistic and cool, whether dealing with clients or with colleagues.
I field-tested this sense of vulnerability recently in a survey of District of Columbia area social workers across the spectrum of experience, asking what was most difficult or stressful, personally and professionally, past or present. Here are a few responses:
- The lack of clarity and confidence that I experience when clients are struggling with life questions or crises that are similar to mine.
- The amount of time it took to feel like a competent and valuable professional.
- I often feel there is more I could or should be doing and worry that my choices regarding what to focus on will not be most efficacious.
- Am I where I belong? Is someone or somewhere else a better fit?
- Being a (barely) “good enough” therapist while trying to recover my health and maintain “good enough” Mom status. I know I'm not unique! How the hell do other people manage to balance these?!
Here’s the bottom line: These feelings don’t go away with experience—we need to recognize and deal with them. If we think they show weakness, then we’re ashamed and unlikely to talk about them. A negative spiral of isolation, more vulnerability, and shame may result.
Self Compassion, Peer Groups, and Positive Emotions
Brene Brown (2012), a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, is a popular speaker whose TED talks on shame, vulnerability, and wholehearted living have been viewed nearly 10 million times on the Internet. She has developed theories about vulnerability based on people’s lived experiences and writes about vulnerability and shame, including her own experience of the same.
Brown’s research found that connection gives meaning and purpose to life and that acknowledging vulnerability is key to authentic connection. We learn early to protect ourselves from vulnerability by numbing our feelings, putting on emotional armor, and acting invulnerable (Brown, 2012). I believe this learning is reinforced in our training as social workers. What to do?
Brown suggests self-compassion and recommends ideas proposed by University of Texas psychologist Kristin Neff (2011), who advocates practicing self-compassion by recognizing our common humanity—because we’re all vulnerable and imperfect. This is perhaps one way out of the isolation we may feel—knowing our sense of personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience.
A more well-known approach is the peer group. In order to be a safe community in which to get support, members must have the courage to be authentically vulnerable. To be connected, we must speak what may feel unspeakable or shameful—and ask for what we need. The experience of feeling known by peers in this way and accepted can be healing (Counselman & Weber, 2004). We develop resilience to shame (Brown, 2012, 2007).
Self-compassion and peer groups are two ways to deal with the difficult feelings that are part of our professional lives—they help us feel better. In fact, recent research in positive psychology shows that happiness (or positive emotions) also:
- broadens our repertoire of how we think and what we do
- increases our flexibility to bounce back
- helps us cope better with negative situations
- motivates us to do new things and have new relationships (Garland & Frederickson, 2010).
Positive emotions build internal resources that produce more positive emotions, leading to an upward spiral—a self-perpetuating system—of feeling good that sustains itself (Frederickson, 2001). Positive emotions help us bounce back from stressful situations—they build resiliency. Focusing on feeling positive rather than what is wrong can be a powerful tool. I believe it provides leverage for change.
In self-compassion, a key element is taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions—neither suppressing nor exaggerating them. One of the best ways to cultivate positive emotions is to find positive meaning in a situation. Reframing events positively is one way to move to that balanced approach. How can we do that?
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a modality developed initially in the organizational change field (Cooperider & Whitney, 1999). Jacqueline Kelm, an AI practitioner, extended Appreciative Inquiry for use in everyday life. She developed a reframing process social workers can use to find positives in difficult experiences. It draws on the following core principles of Appreciative Inquiry.
- Constructionist Principle: Words Create Worlds—Reality, whether subjective or objective, is socially created through language and conversations.
- Simultaneity Principle: Inquiry Creates Change—Inquiry is an intervention. When we ask a question, we begin to create change.
- Poetic Principle: We Can Choose What We Focus On—Stories are endlessly open to interpretation like good poems. What we choose to focus on makes a difference. It describes—even creates—our world.
- Anticipatory Principle: Image Inspires Action—Human systems move in the direction of images of the future. The more positive and hopeful the image of the future, the more positive the present-day action.
- Positive Principle: Positive Questions Lead to Positive Change—Momentum for change requires large amounts of positive affect and social bonding. (Cooperider & Whitney, 1999)
These principles, and the reframing process, can help us change the story of something negative to one that has some positive meaning. We become more aware of our internal and external dialogues and intentionally shift or reframe them so that our focus is on what we want more of rather than on what we don’t want. AI doesn’t ignore problems or pretend they don’t exist; rather, it expands our frame, enabling us to find good that is already present (that we may be filtering out). Kelm’s process involves appreciating what we have in the present, getting clear about what we want, and taking action (Kelm, 2005).
I applied Kelm’s process recently with a coaching client, Annie, an early-career social worker I mentored. She was questioning why she went into social work and wanted to move from her first job to one that used her strengths—energized more and depleted less.
She was offered an interview for a job in her current agency but, thinking it was not a job she wanted, thought it unfair to go through the interview. Setting her objections aside, I suggested that she use the experience to hone her interviewing skills and practice asking for what she wanted. Annie was clear about what she wanted—characteristics an ideal job would have—through previous work with me. As a way to get a feel for the job on offer, I suggested she ask to talk to someone who had done the job previously.
Annie ended up feeling like a winner. She came out of the interview feeling more confident about her interviewing skills and how to ask for what she wanted, regardless of what was being offered. She was offered the job but didn't take it, and later got a position in another organization that is a better fit.
She felt particularly good because she learned that her previous employer now asks interviewees to talk to a person who once held the advertised position. Instead of short-changing them, Annie actually enhanced their interview process. She not only gained valuable experience despite her misgivings; she also contributed to positive change in her former agency.
In summary, social work is a rewarding and challenging profession in which the first years are particularly daunting. Knowing ourselves—our strengths, values, resources, and in what situations we work best; having the courage to acknowledge vulnerability and developing the connection and support that results; using approaches that allow us to take whatever comes and positively frame it; and developing our self-care and job seeking/changing skills—these make a huge difference. With help and the right tools, we can use stressful and difficult times to become more resilient and thrive.
Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). Practicing positive psychology coaching. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Berg, J.M., Dutton, J.E., & Wrzesniewski, A. (2010). Job crafting exercise. Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship.
Brown, B. (2007). I thought it was just me (But it isn’t): Making the journey from “What will people think” to "I am enough.” NY: Gotham.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York, NY: Gotham.
Cooperrider, D.L., & Whitney, D. (1999). A positive revolution in change: Appreciative inquiry. Taos, NM: Corporation for Positive Change.
Counselman, E. F., & Weber, R. L. (2004). Organizing and maintaining peer supervision groups. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy. 54 (2), 125-143.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist. 56 (3), 218-226.
Garland, E.L., & Frederickson, B., et. al. (2010). Upward spirals of positive emotions counter downward spirals of negativity: Insights from the broaden-and-build theory and affective neuroscience on the treatment of emotion dysfunctions and deficits in psychopathology. Clinical Psychological Review. 30 (7), 849-64.
Guidelines for Setting Up Peer Supervision Groups. (2005). VCT TOOLKIT: Participant’s manual: Counseling supervision and Ttaining, Family Health International, 43.
Kelm, J. B. (2008). The joy of appreciative living: Your 28-day plan to greater happiness in 3 incredibly easy steps. NY: Tarcher.
Kelm, J. (2005). Appreciative living: The principles of appreciative inquiry in personal life. Wake Forest, NC: Venet.
Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. NY: Harper Collins.
Stavros, J., & Torres, C. (2005) Dynamic relationships: Unleashing the power of appreciative inquiry in daily living. Chagrin Falls, OH: Taos Institute Publishing.
Marilyn Lammert, ScD, LCSW-C, provides mentor-coaching to social workers at all stages of their careers, individually or in groups, in-person, or virtually. She received her MSW from Washington University and ScD from Johns Hopkins University. During her career, she has taught in graduate schools of social work, worked as a community organizer, organization development consultant and administrator, and worked with individuals and groups in private practice. Her practice is in Bethesda, MD, and she lives nearby with her husband and two cats. For more information, see her website at MarilynLammert.com.