by Dr. Danna Bodenheimer, LCSW. author of Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way
I often think about the many ways that our psyches are constrained by the constant offering of false dichotomies. Social work is filled with them. For example, the notion that we are any different from our clients is a false dichotomy. There is also a false dichotomy between ethical and unethical. While there are certainly clinical decisions that clearly fall under each heading, many of our choices are more muddied than we would like. Perhaps most frustrating, to me, is the false dichotomy that is positioned around the supposed distinction between our professional and personal selves. We are asked, often, to keep our work at the office. We are also asked to somehow keep our clients in a very specific part of our psyche, as if thought and feelings actually have specific storage bins (perhaps sold at The Container Store).
I was thinking about this issue quite a bit over Halloween when something very strange happened to the families I was trick or treating with. A young boy was dropped off on the corner of my city street in Philadelphia by his caregiver to go trick or treating. He asked if he could join us. We had never met him before, but the kids I was with accepted him readily. His caretaker followed up in her car until she came to a stop sign and said that she was going to park. Several minutes later, it became clear that she had disappeared. As time passed, the boy became more and more integrated into our little group of families. The moms I was with started to get worried about what was really going on. Everyone was talking about what to do. I easily launched into an effortless assessment with him based on the rapport that we had built over the last block. I asked him about his phone number, his address, where his mom might be. He told me that he needed a GPS on me so that he couldn’t lose me, evidencing some complicated attachment tendencies on his part.
Honestly, the situation was heartbreaking. He told me that he is 5. He didn’t know his phone number. He hadn’t had dinner. He told me that his mom needed to go to Target because there was a sale on paper towels, and that is probably where she was.
It became clear that there was nothing benign about this situation, and all the parents agreed. However, I was clearly in charge of the assessment and the decision making. I know many of you feel this way a lot. You are a social worker “on the job,” and you are a social worker “off the job.” The reason why is because, in many ways, there is no discernible difference. Where there is suffering, we are on. For starters, we are mandated reporters. So the other parents that I was with actually didn’t have the same level of responsibility that I did. Further, though, we have a skillset that is useful and versatile across many settings, whether we find ourselves on a street corner or in a treatment room.
So, rest doesn’t come easy.
A few days later, I found out that a dearly beloved family friend died suddenly. This was someone that I have been attached to for my entire life. When I got the news, I was completely stunned. My social worker self was nowhere in sight. And I am so glad about that, because it means that I could be authentically present for the grief, sadness, and time with my family.
There is a significant contrast between these two situations, and I think that it is worth highlighting. I think it is worth highlighting because, yes, there is a distinction between our professional and personal selves. But the line doesn’t fall exactly where we are told that it does. I think that we, as social workers, often feel ashamed of just how social work-y we are. You hear it all the time in reductive phrases like, “Oh, you must be analyzing me right now,” or “You must have a real bleeding heart to work so hard for so little," or “You really think you can save the world, don’t you?” These lines suggest that we don’t know when to turn it off, right? These lines suggest that we are addicted to our work somehow and that there is something wrong with us.
The fact is that there are a lot of ways that the world is unsafe and scary, and, yes, we are watching out for others all the time. But when we are called to be vulnerable, human, and raw, we are just as human as anyone else. We don’t take off our hats when some arbitrary rule says that work is over at 5:00 pm, or a session ends after 45 minutes, or discharge should occur within three days. It isn’t that we can never take our social work hats off. It is that we do so selectively, carefully, and when our souls most need us to.
So, as a trick or treating parent, yes, I called the kid’s school. And as a grieving loved one, I am taking care of myself and my family. And this is because I, like you, have the capacity to be many things, even when the division between my different selves is not as obvious and neat to others.
Dr. 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 is the author of Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way.