When reading admissions applications for master’s level social work students, a common answer to the question why do you want to be a social worker is, to fix other people’s problems. It only takes a few introductory classes and their first year field practicums for those students to learn that they cannot fix other people’s problems! They can be helpful in assisting clients to find their own solutions and paths to remedies, but neither the intern nor a seasoned social worker can make that change for any client.

It is that erroneous thinking that the social worker is responsible for repairing rips in a client’s life that leads to worker burnout…that feeling of exhaustion that comes when a social worker feels responsible for every outcome in a client’s life. Pouring blame on oneself for clients’ behaviors and choices is the worst kind of self-care social workers can experience.

The Social Work Code of Ethics clearly states that social workers respect and promote the right of clients to self-determination and assist clients in their efforts to identify and clarify their goals. Beginning social workers are often surprised to find that when they focus and identify not with the clients’ problems, but rather with their own function, the implied boundary allows the clients to become more open. This is sometimes called “difference without distance.”

It sounds simple in theory, but the skill kicks in by knowing how to help clients identify and clarify their goals. Social workers must learn the ability to recognize the limits of what they can do and honor the client’s right to make decisions…whether they agree with them or not. A first year intern expressed frustration in a direct practice class, about how she had mapped out a plan for her client who refused to follow through. The student was so proud of herself for assessing what the client needed and giving her resources. But that pride quickly turned to anger when she learned that the client had rejected her resources and implemented a different course of action. This young intern had not yet learned that being responsible for a client doesn’t mean doing the work for them.

Being responsible for the client entails a slew of social work skills! The first and most important is the ability to establish a relationship with the client. In his book Giving and Taking Help Alan Keith-Lucas examines what is involved in the helping process in social work – giving and taking help. He states that helping is characterized by three fundamental dimensions – reality (what we’re up against), empathy (an act of the loving imagination), and support (I am here to help you if you want me and can use me).  Keith-Lucas draws a strong contrast between helping and controlling. He distinguishes the role of choice and responsibility and that helping is not preventing choices or shielding from the consequences of choices.

Unlike some incoming social work students think, our job is not to fix clients’ problems, but to help them learn how to fix their own and to make room for them to choose how they want to do it.

In the world of self-care exercising, eating healthy, and taking restful breaks are important, but for the clinical social worker, the best kind of self-care is to realize the boundaries of giving help and accepting clients’ choices.

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