If you work in Social Services you’re likely inundated with people constantly telling you their problems. Not many people book an appointment just to say, “Nothing’s wrong at all, just thought I’d like to talk with you about some good things going on of late.”
People I know outside of my job who work in other lines of work sometimes say things like, “It must be depressing when all people do is bring you their troubles”. Funny how I’ve never agreed with them, and I usually go on to tell them what an actual privilege it is to be in this position where I can be of help to those in need.
The guy I share an office with at work and I were just discussing this yesterday. Last Christmas I made a present for him which is a 4′ x 2′ collage of inspirational quotes; all printed off with pictures reinforcing the quote. I turned to it and said that I recalled a quote on it somewhere that spoke to our discussion. I found it in a few seconds, and it went, “Never regret that people only bring you their troubles. Consider yourself the candle that people think of first when they’re in darkness.”
And I thought today that this concept was worth reminding us all about. In this field, (and there are others as well), we interact with a large population of the disadvantaged, the persecuted and the needy. In the case of my colleague and I, we work with people in receipt of social assistance. Many of them present multiple barriers to living happy successful, financially independent lives. Some present with issues of abuse, addictions, low self-esteem, dysfunctional families, failed relationships, depression, anger, criminal records, hygiene and grooming, poor communication skills, and the list goes on.
It’s humbling sometimes to pause and just consider how versatile, patient, skilled and compassionate one has to be in order to best listen to and then act to assist people presenting with various combinations of all the above. In only a few minutes, we’re expected by them to know enough about their plight in order to give them the help they need. This ability to quickly assess what the immediate need is and who we are dealing with, is an acquired skill just as is the way in which to best respond in kind.
There are dangers in this field when you work with such populations. It could be that you get numb to the position you are in, listening all day to these stories, and just as people are explaining themselves, you mentally jump ahead and categorize their problem and the most often correct solution. “Stop talking, because I’ve stopped listening; here’s how you solve your problem”. No one I hope would ever actually say that, but there is a danger that you may think it, and then your actions follow this course. You’ll be wrong more than right unfortunately and lose the relationship of trust with the person that’s so critical in this work.
Another danger is taking on their problems and issues as your very own. You can’t, ‘save them all’. You can’t take them home and turn their lives around. That’s condescending and playing God don’t you think? Oh my colleague was saying this about a client he had just worked with for 5 straight days, but of course neither of us would ever serious entertain the idea of suggesting such a thing. It’s unhealthy to take on all the problems you’ll encounter as your own, for otherwise you might end up with compassion fatigue; and that’ll make you less than effective.
The best of workplaces I really believe has a system in place whereby if you’ve personally just spent a significant amount of time dealing with someone in an extremely rough situation, you can call on colleagues to takeover and debrief if needed. This process gives you the opportunity to step back, share and deal with what you’ve gone through, and then return better prepared to cope with the rest of the day. I call it Mental Health Maintenance. It’s caring about each other enough that you do for them what you’d appreciate them doing for you in return if needed.
If you find yourself constantly frustrated; annoyed more often than you used to with people, ‘dumping’ their problems at your feet, look inward. What’s changed? Why does this frustrate you so much now when in the past you found it energizing, and looked forward to helping? For a variety of reasons you may yourself need either some time to pause and rekindle that mental stamina that’s been overtaxed, or it may actually be your inner self saying it’s time to move on.
Don’t get the idea I’m advising you to quit. There are many occupations where someone with your skills could be most effective; perhaps even within the organization you currently work for. In order for your clients to get the maximum help they need, someone in your position needs to be at their compassionate and caring best however. You’d be doing them and more importantly yourself a favour in either re-igniting your passion or finding it other places.
But I suspect you are pretty good at what you do. You’re here for the right reason. Whether it came as a calling, or it came as a job but you’ve discovered it’s a career, you make a difference in the lives of others. Go ahead, be a problem solver; it’s an honourable profession.