SW Practice haiku, I

How many shots can 

a social worker take in 

the course of a day?


Status: Emotionally labored

When rules about how to feel and how to express feeling are set by management, when workers have weaker rights to courtesy than customers do, when deep and surface acting are forms of labor to be sold, and when private capacities for empathy and warmth are put to corporate uses, what happens to the way a person relates to her feelings or to her face? When worked-up warmth becomes an instrument of service work, what can a person learn about herself from her feelings? And when a worker abandons her work smile, what kind of tie remains between her smile and her self? – Arlie Hochschild

Consider the waitress that must smile and be upbeat with each customer.  How does she feel at the end of the day?  What emotional price has been exacted so she can earn her wages?

Emotional labor has been studied in a variety of fields since the term was first coined by Hochschild in 1983.   The emotional component of service work includes the need for workers to figure out the “emotion rules” in the workplace, to learn to how to regulate their emotions in order to follow the rules through “surface acting” and “deep acting.”  Surface acting is akin to plastering a smile on your face.  The toll of emotional labor and its role in worker burnout has been correlated with emotional dissonance.  Emotional dissonance occurs when the emotion rules of the workplace require us to go against our genuine feelings.

In social work, emotional dissonance frequently occurs when our values of social justice, integrity… dignity and worth of a person clash with our employing organization’s demands.  I practice social work because it reflects my heart.  I do the work I do because I believe in it.  I go above and beyond because I believe in helping people.  However, sometimes my efforts go against the bureaucracy of my organization.  Or I simply cannot do the “right thing” because people in power do not agree with me.  An example would be feeling pressured to discharge a patient you know is not ready for discharge…or who doesn’t have a stable place to go.  The emotional dissonance in social work goes beyond the bounds of an agency, however.  When the social infrastructure limits our ability to do the right thing, we feel stymied by gargantuan forces.

We are called to social justice, and yet social change on a macro level feels like an incredibly heavy burden sometimes.

Today I doubted myself.  I felt like my heart was too much into my work.  I wondered if I was wrong to feel so much and so deeply when vulnerability is equated with weakness.  In over 10 years of clinical practice I have never become callous.  I have left high paying jobs that required me to work without my heart.

Today may have been a tough day for my tender heart.  But I have more than heart.  I have strong hands and a nimble mind.  Together, all three allow me to do the emotional work I do.  I know the rules.  I also know how to break them.  Sometimes letting my emotions show is the greatest act of rebellion.  And despite the emotional demands of my work, I will not stop being me.

Confession: I have been blind to my white privilege

“The engaged voice must never be fixed and absolute but always changing, always evolving in dialogue with a world beyond itself.” (p. 11) -bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom

Today in class we participated in an exercise on race, social class and structural determinants of privilege & discrimination. In the discussion afterward, I made a comment about how race was not as relevant as the intersectional paradigm in understanding social class.   My argument was the reality in America today is that people experience multiple and overlapping marginalizations on individual, social and institutional levels.  An intersectional perspective for analyzing complex social issues demands a broad, community-based approach.  I continued to stress the point that it is simpler to view populations as homogenous—the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill—but this is a simplistic approach that thwarts creativity to solving the problem.

As I spoke, I looked over at Sarah, my friend.  She was shaking her head. She said, “It’s all about race. It’s still about race.” I tilted up my chin, gave her an uncertain smile, “So it’s black versus white? I just can’t believe it’s that simple.” She looked at me square in the eye, “You mean to tell me that slavery wasn’t real?”
“Maybe it is about color,” I responded.  In Peru where I was born, it’s not black versus white. The dichotomy is European descent (white skin) versus Indio (yellow skin). However, the color dynamic is the same. In my family, I was the favorite because I had the lightest skin.  I remember being 4 and experiencing my blonde hair darkening as a fall from grace.
“I have to admit, Sarah, I did have a privileged status growing up because I was pale skinned.” Sarah fixed her gaze on me again, “You don’t have to tell me about skin color and privilege! I’ve been living in this skin my whole life…” She points at her arm and mouths, “Midnight.”

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Two Philosophies

For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson is not a social worker. He is an astrophysicist. Yet two main driving philosophies are mine, too. I have organized my life around both. They are my aspirations and my daily practice. At the end of each day, I consider myself accomplished if I’ve learned something new (or challenged myself) and if I’ve helped someone in need. I am infinitely fortunate that my profession gives me chance to do both (almost) every day.

On Building a Social Work Consciousness

My perspective on social work has been shaped by my work roles, the agencies where I have worked and primarily, the clients I have served.

My first real job after my Bachelor’s degree was a Head Start teacher. I learned from 3 and 4 year olds that I could not teach if I couldn’t connect with and engage each child in my class. I learned to create an environment of collaboration so my classroom was supportive and fun. The Head Start model also includes the concept of “shared governance.” I learned from the parents–housekeepers, migrant farmworkers, people living in deep poverty–how to organize, lead and create a sense of community.

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Trauma-Informed Practice

“The brain-disease model overlooks four fundamental truths: (1) our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being; (2) language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know, and finding a common sense of meaning; (3) we have the ability to regulate our own physiology, including some of the so-called involuntary functions of the body and brain, through such basic activities as breathing, moving, and touching; and (4) we can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive.”
Bessel A. van der Kolk (The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma)