In counselling and therapy, the use of the 'self' is often seen as a tool that helps build an effective therapeutic alliance. Dr Harry Aponte, in his book 'The Person of the Therapist Training Model', explains how therapists need to recognise who they are and what they bring of their personal selves when engaging with clients. In their therapeutic relationship with the clients, the therapists' awareness of their own emotional 'woundedness' and the selective use of their emotional vulnerabilities will enable them to empathise and resonate with their client's pains and struggles.
Because social workers also engage their clients in helping relationships, nurturing the 'person of the social worker' (POTSW) should thus be relevant for social work supervisors to pay attention to as well.
Social Workers Need Emotional Resilience
While social work education in Singapore lays the foundation for students to develop their competency in the field, there is also a need to look at how the 'person' of the social worker is nurtured to prepare them for the role.
As social workers, the work that we do impinges on our emotional strength. We are often called upon in times of crisis - dealing with victims of abuse, looking for emergency shelter for the homeless; contracting with the suicidal that life is still worth living; mediating between family members about the care of an elderly with dementia; supporting the grief-stricken, the depressed and the isolated; upholding human rights and fighting for social justice. These are tasks that drain the energy of even the toughest amongst us. When these crises strike a too familiar chord, social workers are sometimes reminded of their own past trauma which may have yet to heal.
In my experience as a social work educator, I have encountered students who had their own set of traumatic experiences. Some are still grappling with life adversities that leave deep scars. Others are in the process of healing. Hence while they prepare themselves to help individuals and families in dire circumstances, they too must be ready to work on their own issues to strengthen their emotional resilience.
Paying Attention to the POTSW
According to Aponte (2016) the past hurt that we carry along in life may hide deep within our subconscious; only to resurface with events that trigger our painful memory. While social workers are expected to practice reflexivity to improve self-awareness, acknowledging and dealing with the 'woundedness' may not be as easy. Just like our clients, we may not be ready to look at these emotional scars. However, paying attention to them will inform us that the journey of healing takes time and effort; a reminder to allow for the same to our clients as well. It also provides us with an opportunity to better connect with the clients' 'woundedness' from within us.
While we continue to work on our own struggles, appropriately and selectively sharing our vulnerabilities and efforts towards healing will allow clients to see how we resonate with their pains and struggles, instilling hope that challenges can be overcome, in time.
How Can Social Work Supervisors Nurture the POTSW?
Social work supervisors will need to pay attention to how the traumatic events that social workers are journeying with their clients may bring to the surface the worker's own past trauma. The following are possible ways to address this:
1. Acknowledge the 'woundedness' as it appears.
During supervision, social workers may begin to share how their client's issues are affecting them emotionally. In a safe holding space, social workers may even bring up their personal hurts that have been triggered. When supervisors acknowledge this 'woundedness, it gives permission to the social workers to speak about their own experience. Be ready to listen.
2. Talk about it and how it is impacting the helping relationship.
While hearing the struggles and emotional hurt that had surfaced within the worker, the conversations must also encompass the impact of these emotions on the helping relationship with the client. Help the worker to reflect if there is any possibility of counter-transference happening while working with the client.
3. Process the hurt and the healing.
Help the worker to see how this past hurt is helpful in developing empathy for the client. What was the healing process like for the worker and how could this be used to help understand the client's healing? How can the worker leverage their own healing journey within the context of the helping relationship with the client?
4. Refer to professional help if necessary.
Supervisors will need to recognise that their social workers may need more than their empathetic listening ear. Some issues will require professional intervention. Encourage them to seek professional help. Some organisations offer external professional development counselling services to help their social workers address such issues. If this is not available in your organisation, advocate for one.
Enabling the 'Person' of the Social Worker
As supervisors, having conversations about the 'person' of the social worker can be enabling. These conversations will serve as a reminder that the social work relationship is not just about problem-solving or dealing with crises. Nor is the relationship just about using techniques and therapy. It is ultimately, a process of helping between the social worker and the client at a very personal level.
Aponte, H. J., & Kissil, K. (Eds.). (2016). The person of the therapist training model: Mastering the use of self. Routledge