by Dr. Danna Bodenheimer, LCSW, author of Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way
“Could it be,” I ask, “that we aren’t making any of this up—we’re just sensing the very real danger in the air?” I tell her that I think that the world is more than a little poisonous and that she and I were built to notice that. I tell her that in lots of places, canaries are appreciated. They’re the shamans and the poets and the sages, but not here. I say, “We are the ones on the bow of the titanic pointing and yelling ‘Iceberg!’ but everybody else just wants to keep dancing. They don’t want to stop. They don’t want to know how broken the world is, so they just decide we’re broken. When we stop singing, instead of searching the air, they put us away. This is where they keep the canaries.”
From Love Warrior, page 29, by Glennon Doyle Melton
When I thought about writing this week, it was born out of a therapy session of my own. My therapist, a social worker, and I, a social worker, were discussing how hard it is to make friends in adulthood. I was talking about my long summer of visits to the swim club, feeling proud of how many people I know there. Yet, I struggle with how to make conversation, otherwise known as small talk. The ease with which everyone is communicating startles me, as I envy some sort of social expertise they all seem to have. My therapist, social worker, hypothesized that perhaps this is an occupational hazard. And I agree with her hypothesis.
The reason, I think, is that many times, social workers are social workers because they were already empaths. And if the egg didn’t give birth to the chicken, then let’s also say that social workers often become empaths once enough souls have been bared to them.
Empaths are people who feel with exquisite precision, are quite vulnerable to absorbing the energy of those around them, are easily hurt, are often considered “over-sensitive,” cannot easily compartmentalize psychological experiences, are innately intuitive, and have excessive access to the emotional lives of those around them.
Because there is such a high overlap between empaths and social workers, I thought it would be helpful to consider part of how being an empath-social worker has an impact on our overall lives. I also wanted to give voice to the reality of how we, social worker-empaths, negotiate the significant psychological residue of our daily lives.
As social worker-empaths, we take our clients' lives and minds deeply into our own. We often sit with clients and develop the capacity to not only anticipate their feelings, but experience so much of their emotional lives with them. In some ways, it can feel as if our clients live inside our minds. In other ways, it can feel as if we even keep our clients alive by thinking about them, internalizing them, and remaining curious about them. It can even feel like our clients are part of our family - our psychological family, at least.
The weird part about having our clients as tenants in our minds, our family members in our souls, is that this all happens in secret. Perhaps our supervisors know or a few of our colleagues know, but no one really knows the way that our clients constellate in our minds. Because of this, we sift through holidays, dinner dates, even food shopping, in this odd dualistic stance. We are present with the people we are with (sometimes), but are engaged with our clients in a way that can feel invisible and isolating.
The idea of having two families can almost feel akin to having a biological family and an adoptive one. We are fully committed to one, but our mind wanders to the other, quite privately and quietly.
When we ask a client, upon our first meeting, “How are things at home?” we know and our clients know what we mean. We mean: Are you being abused? Are you happy? Are you telling the truth? Do you feel lied to? Do you feel safe? When we are with our friends and we say, “How are things at home?” we usually hear: “Fine. How are things with you?” And the expected response, of course, is, “Oh, good.” The fact that our language can mean such different things across distinct settings is downright disorienting. How can we adjust?
If we are social worker-empaths, the fact is that we can’t. We are much more comfortable speaking a deeper language, a truer language. We feel, often, most at ease with our clients’ complex responses. We feel, often, most at ease with hearing unfolding stories tethered together by intricate traumas and intergenerational patterns of attachment and pain. To function across spheres, we either need to master some sort of code switching or feel lonely a lot of the time. Or both.
The fact is that social workers are not great at small talk. We excel at relationship construction, but the stuff of swim clubs, baby showers, and happy hour can feel excruciatingly elusive and odd.
Of course, another reason why small talk can be so hard is that every time we hear someone say, “I'm fine,” we know how much is being obscured by the niceties and superficiality. Part of the pain of functioning as a social worker-empath in the world is that we walk around with powerful antennae that make us feel what others are feeling, see things that others aren’t seeing, and feel a good amount of what is psychologically disavowed by communities around us.
For example, we have all habituated (at least somewhat) to walking past a homeless person on the street. But when we do it, it certainly doesn’t feel simple. First, we access all of our clients’ stories and see them in that person on the street. Second, we know the socioeconomic complexity of their struggle and understand the way that micro and macro factors have colluded to leave them on the street. We also struggle to bear witness to the others who are just walking by, feeling alone in the depths of our own effort to just move on.
It can feel like our antennae become overstimulated and overwrought. We can tune in to so many signals at one time that it can feel deafening. It can also feel crazy-making when we know that many around us are not perceiving reality in this rough and textured way. We can feel crazy, oversensitive, and frankly kind of ridiculous. We are often left envying the capacity of others to move through the world with seeming ease while we muddle across streets in unsettling dis-ease.
We also can feel burdened by the ways in which our friends and family make use of us, relying on our antennae, to help them self-regulate. The fact is that many share things with us that they don’t share with others. We are often burdened by secret keeping for others, seeing the truth of seemingly simply dynamics, or just knowing that everything happens in systemic contexts, rendering us constantly assessing. We feel left holding an undue amount of information, while others feel the relief of not tuning in.
There is tremendous buy-in to the concepts of extroversion and introversion. There is substantial validity in the fact of these identities. At the same time, the social worker-empath doesn’t necessarily fall squarely under either heading. We find great comfort in being with others, at times. At others, it is incredibly taxing. We find great comfort in being alone, at times. At others, it is incredibly taxing. Our level of introversion or extroversion is really measured by the psychological-mindedness of those around us. If we are around others who seem to really “get it,” the relief is endless and energizing. If we are around others who seem particularly misattuned, our tanks can actually feel as if they are leaking, leaving us solidly empty.
We can feel burdened by even Facebook, as we witness the multiple ways in which people perform “fine” and “good” and “happy” and “perfect.” The fact is that social worker-empaths are often left feeling crazy and tired. The need for self-preservation with others (the right ones) or alone (at the right times) is uniquely essential, given how sensitive our systems are to external stimuli and painful data.
I wish that social workers could talk more openly with each other about all of this. Maybe some of you do. But I don’t think it is easy. We habituate to keeping things to ourselves; the rules of confidentiality support us in doing that.
Perhaps we can all come out as more real, lonely, saturated, and enlivened by all that we do and the elaborate ways in which we experience it all.
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. Read more of her clinical perspective and tips on the most burning questions of developing clinicians in her book, Real World Clinical Social Work: Find Your Voice and Find Your Way.