by Dr. Danna Bodenheimer, LCSW, author of Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way
Some clients come in looking for an experienced social worker, and I get that. We are so seduced by the idea of experience. With experience comes wisdom, mastery, efficiency. But we rarely reflect on what comes with newness, enthusiasm, and a recent infusion of education. We rarely hear about clients who come in and ask for the newest social worker. That’s too bad because, to me, new social workers are a gift. And I want to welcome you, insofar as that is my job, to the field of social work. I also want to say how lucky we are to have you.
In 1970, Kenneth Fisher wrote in The Iconoclast’s Notebook comparing inexperienced therapists to more experienced ones:
Is it not sadly true that the more precision and confidence an expert achieves as to his work, the less he has to say that is particularly interesting? His drive to teach others may increase but, consolidating what he knows, he begins to repeat himself; in a word, having become an authority, he is now seldom inventive. Conversely, if still bewildered and anxious, uncertain as to what the truth is, or even if there is such, perforce he must experiment. He cannot let his ignorance alone. Just possibly he might evolve something that has not yet been spoken. (1970, p. 56)
There is so much to celebrate in this quote, but mostly I just wanted to share it because it truly captures the transformative power that your raw talent currently holds. With this quote in mind, here are some reasons why I think clients and agencies are lucky to have a new social worker:
1. You are excited for every appointment or meeting.
I remember clearly feeling a rush of excitement before every new session I had at my new job as a new graduate. I would pour over the paperwork, mentally preparing for the entrance of my client. I would think developmentally, diagnostically, and about attachment in advance of nearly all of my meetings. I would anticipate patterns and prepare myself accordingly. Although I still do this, it is much less conscious and more integrated. I don’t savor all of this in the ways that I used to. The way that it lacks effort for me now takes away from a certain intentionality that I brought to treatment.
2. It is really important to you that your clients like you.
Some say it is problematic to want your clients to like you too much. I think that in some ways it probably is, but really it isn’t that problematic. I hear senior clinicians talk about their cases in ways that can feel devoid of attachment, affection, and presence of mind. There is a way in which senior clinicians stop trying to impress their clients. But what this really means is that they are taking their treatment relationships for granted and not working as hard to secure the attachments. As a new social worker, you are seeking the positive reinforcement of having clients return. That means you are working hard to make them comfortable and to create dynamics that are therapeutic and supportive. It means that you are thinking about everything to make the possibility of attachment occur.
3. You are not as likely to reduce your clients down to their diagnosis.
I know that, as social workers, we are all urged to think about our clients holistically. However, after a certain amount of time in the field and work in assessment, the powerful sway of diagnosis can take hold. This is partly because diagnosis serves as a shared language at our agencies. It is also because diagnosis gives us credibility when working in interdisciplinary teams. But when you are first meeting new clients, you will really just see them for who they are. I still have my first client, who I met on my first day at my first job. It is now 11 years past that time, but I know that my initial openness to see her complexity has set the stage for the sustainability of our relationship. Had she walked into anyone else’s office that day, I think she would have been quickly labeled as manipulative, suicidal, and having “borderline tendencies.” And perhaps those labels would have been true. But to me, she was my new client and I was only going to see her in multiple dimensions. In fact, I loved her for just being my first, and I think that still holds true. That kind of energy and passion for our work, for the idiosyncratic way in which each of our clients functions, is hard to sustain over time.
4. You are still in the throes of thinking about the role of social justice in our work.
There are few settings that look more closely at the overlap between social work and social justice than academic institutions. Whether you just took your last semester class on racism or you recently learned about the history of social movements, the awakening energy of social justice is pulsing through you. That is awesome. It can fade, and problematically so. The presence of your social justice ear lens keeps your agencies honest. It also grounds your understanding of your clients in the socio-economic context that they need. The more you remain aware of the systems that imprison your clients, the more you are able to see them as full humans worthy of more in their lives. After many years of agency work, we can start to dis-habituate to the ways in which clients are oppressed. It starts to feel as commonplace as the air we breathe and, therefore, keeps us from more clearly seeing the ways that marginalization and social stratification lead to suffering.
5. You read.
I am not saying that there are any social workers that don't read. I am saying that as recent students, you are in the habit of reading. You are also the person at your agency who has most likely read the most recent research, literature, and thought on any given topic. By having had a password to academic journals over the past two (or more) years, you have information that is vibrant and evolving. Share this information. Share it with your colleagues, and share it with your clients. I recently read a paper by a student who had the same supervisor who had supervised me, more than a decade ago. Reading the student's description of what the supervisor said, it was the same theory and advice that I got exactly 10 years ago. I imagine this has to do with not having read what is currently being written, or only reading the authors and writers who honor the well worn pathways that already exist in our minds. You don’t have those well worn pathways. You are willing to read and consider something new, and you aren’t married to a particular school of thought. The freedom with which you are dwelling in the material produced by our field will enable your clients to dwell more freely in their own minds, too.
6. Your friends are fellow social work graduates, and you hang out together.
I can not stress enough the dual importance of a social work social support network and the ways in which this network can fade over time. The more I hear about my students going out and drinking together, the happier I am for their clients. This is because I know that you are all talking about social work and supporting each other and complaining about student loans and salaries and bad supervision. The more you have social supports to help you negotiate all of this, the more likely you are to be able to be present for your clients. This level of social support is something that seems to be highly present in the years right after graduation and in more advanced clinicians who have time to create societies that they can connect with. Relish this support and know that you are a better social worker because of it.
7. You are in supervision!
First, I am hoping this assumption is true. Second, I am hoping that if you are in supervision, you are finding ways to make the supervision work for you. For more on supervision, visit this blog post on social work supervision. If you are in supervision, your clients are lucky. I am not saying that every supervisory experience is allowing you to grow, but the simple fact that there is a space dedicated to making sense of your clinical work is a gift to your clients. You are largely working with clients who are so desperate for attachment and resources. Few, if any, people are giving them any thought throughout the week. By being in supervision, you are starting to correct the pattern of their erasure from the world. Without even saying a word about the fact that you are talking about them in supervision, this fact will somehow be communicated to them, giving them both life and breath.
Go out there and know that your freshness is what will infuse essential energy into the minds of your clients and your agencies alike. I am so glad you are here!
Danna R. Bodenheimer, LCSW, is in private practice at Walnut Psychotherapy Center in Philadelphia, PA, and teaches at Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. She provides more of her clinical perspective and tips for developing clinicians in her book, Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way.