by Ron Begley, LCSW
“How can you stand to listen to people’s problems all day?” It’s a question we are all asked at some point. I answer by patiently stating that I see my role not as listening to venting, but of helping people to make positive changes in their lives. But if I’m honest, there are times when I do start to feel like I’m just listening to people’s problems all day. That’s a clear sign that I’ve over-extended myself and not taken enough time for self-care. When that happens, I can’t be effective with my clients, or in any other part of my life.
My first line of self-care is being clear with myself about my role. I am not truly the friend, let alone the parent, of my client. I can’t take them home and re-parent them. I can only spend one hour a week trying to help them find their way toward the goals they have set for our work together. That is, THEIR goals, not mine. I might feel for them for the abundance of troubles they are carrying, but what are THEY choosing to work on at this time?
We lose clients and burn ourselves out by imposing our agendas, however well-meaning, on them. I hear that from my clients who left a previous therapist because they didn’t share the therapist’s insistent belief that they must leave their romantic partner or confront a difficult parent. We all deal with resistance. But I remember a clinical supervisor who, upon hearing about a seemingly unmotivated client, would ask, “Do you actually have a client?” Part of my self-care draws on the wisdom in the joke, “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? The light bulb has to want to change.” I stay grounded and connected with my client by being clear about what it is they want, and keeping my focus there.
My second line of self-care is to get a life. Being a clinical social worker is an enormously important part of my life. But it can’t be my whole life. I work long hours and give my all to my clients. Then I go home. I have interests, hobbies, friends, and loved ones, all of which I make time for every week, if not every day. A few years ago some wonderful colleagues asked if I wanted to meet with them on an ongoing basis to watch and discuss the HBO series “In Treatment.” My answer: Heck no. I have no doubt the series was terrific and that the discussions were fascinating. But no. At that time, I needed “extra-curricular” activities that take me beyond my work. Our clients can tell when they are talking to a social worker who doesn’t have a life. That makes the client doubt that we can understand them. I need to have a life so I can better relate to my clients’ lives, and to help us both stay enthusiastically focused on the road ahead. Take care.
Ron Begley is an LCSW in private practice in Cary, and is Vice President of NCSCSW.
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