BY JAYNE WANG
Before I started my Master of Social Work, I had never heard of the term “self-care”. I thought it maybe had to do with self-help, which I strongly associate with the cult-like wisdom of The Secret.
However, “self-care” seemed to encompass much more than that. We had pub nights, lunch-time meditation sessions, lectures, and essay topics – all in the hopes of facilitating “self-care”.
And yet, one of the branches on the self-care tree seemed to get little attention. In all of my courses, scintillating classroom discussions, and practicum team meetings, there was never a mention of counselling or therapy for social workers.
Why is that? Do social workers not go to therapy? Do social workers not need therapy? Are we angels of emotional regulation with ample tools and knowledge at our disposal? Are we our own therapists?
My own adolescent experience with a psychiatrist was an antidote to seeking professional mental health for a while. The first time I ever saw a psychiatrist, I was a 15 year old alumna of Sick Kids, with a very special diploma from their psychiatric department. When I walked into the psychiatrist’s well-plaqued office that week, I presented my referral letter to the receptionist with the nonchalance of a movie ticket-holder.
I don’t remember what my new doctor and I talked about, but I do remember walking out of his office with a prescription for some pills with an obscure scientific name and a defiance for labels. Nothing seemed to be actually wrong with me; there was never a diagnosis, and yet, I still had to take pills?
I never returned to therapy after that until, ironically, the stress of my Master’s program and the transition to the fast-paced lifestyle of Toronto encouraged me to re-consider therapy. And this time around, I found that it was the skills and knowledge I was learning in Social Work that kept me going to therapy.
How is therapy different when you’re a Social Worker?
Despite a dismal Google cache, a social worker going to counselling is not completely unheard of. My experience, and the experience of a few other social workers that I chatted with, always came back to the fact that it is still a therapeutic relationship. This means that there is a lot of talking, empathetic listening, challenging and goal-setting. The dynamic, however, is different. Sometimes it feels like a conversation between equals with whom knowledge and values are shared.
One of the perks of a social worker-practitioner relationship is the mentorship. When you have a common knowledge base of therapeutic practices and theories, there can be an ease to discussing and trying new and different coping techniques.
One of the social workers I chatted with found that her own therapy was bringing her insight about how therapies and tools can be used in her own practice:
“I find they are genuine in letting you know where to find out more about this technique…so that you can find the resource yourself. I find myself looking things up for my own benefit, so to improve my knowledge on the concept/theory being used in therapy to help myself. But to also keep the technique in mind to apply to my clients.”
For me, part of my trust in the therapist comes from a trust in therapeutic practices overall. I’ve grown familiar with the intentions and potential effectiveness of different tools and practices after countless hours of pouring over case studies and theories. And while I still have my reservations about some therapies – there’s no one fix-all solution – I’m open to them all. What’s the harm in trying? And often, I find there’s something to be learned. In fact, keeping up with my toolbox of coping strategies actually helps me to be better prepared to cope with the uniqueness of each challenge
Self-reflection was also a turning point in my therapeutic journey. A pivotal part of our education is developing self-awareness and self-reflection. And while social workers are still human, we nurture self-reflection to better our practice. We nurture our ability to check-in with ourselves and to be aware of the impact of our values and assumptions. Self-reflection helps social workers to maintain boundaries with clients, to “check our privilege”, and of course, to be able to emotionally regulate when triggered.
Self-reflection creeps into my therapy sessions when I least expect it. The first time I met my therapist, I snickered internally at the stereotypical figure that stood before me – a middle-aged white woman with thick-rimmed glasses, big, curly hair and boho-chique clothing. I thought she would be conservative and out-of-touch with the experiences of a Chinese young adult who grew up in the new millennium.
But then I stopped and caught myself. I was judging her ability to relate to me – to help me – based on her appearance.
Now, whenever my therapist points out when I’ve used a technique or where I could use a technique in the future; I stop and think. I take the time to reflect on how I felt about the situation and how I reacted to it. I use that information to plan how I can react differently next time.
Therapy can also be a safe space for social workers to open up about career challenges and the stress of the job. As a social worker, especially a new graduate, there’s a fear of appearing incompetent before your clients and colleagues. When you can have an honest conversation about your feelings of self-worth with another therapist, whether they have shared the experience or not, it makes you feel validated.
So, should all social workers go to therapy?
While I personally believe in the benefits of therapy, and some of my colleagues share that opinion, therapy is an individualized effort. It is but one “self-care” strategy to draw from.
Whatever your reason for therapy may be, it sure does feel nice to have somebody in your corner, cheering you on.
Jayne (or Jane) Wang is a 20-something-or-other year old living in Toronto, Canada. She has a proclivity for making up nicknames and odd noises when frustrated. A recent graduate of the Master of Social Work program at the University of Toronto, Ja(y)ne has fallen into the world of freelance researching. She is currently a research assistant at the Youth Research and Evaluation Exchange (YouthRex) and the Wellesley Institute. In her spare time, Ja(y)ne enjoys meditating, running, writing, and binge-watching bad TV while eating Sriracha-flavoured snacks.