How can I truly help someone to deal with the same problems I am experiencing?
Various approaches are used in social work to improve practice to be in line with the core values of the profession. One of the approaches is the Trauma-Informed Social Work practice that is strength-based. It seeks to understand and recognise the signs of trauma, the impact and effects of trauma experiences, responds to the impact of trauma on people’s lives and actively prevent people from experiencing further trauma. This approach emphasises on six principles of safety; trustworthiness; peer support; collaboration and mutuality; empowerment and voice and choice; and cultural and historical and gender issues. For example, the physical, psychological, and emotional safety for everyone with the aim of empowering individuals to re-establish control of their lives.
Another approach is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that indicates that the higher the ACEs an individual experiences, the higher the likelihood for them to develop health problems.
Individuals are experts in their lived experiences, and they have the solutions within them. However, due to numerous factors and fear being one of the core causes of human suffering, people are unable to tap into their inner resources to change their unwanted situations. They may need help from others to achieve what they desire. However, they need to be ready to make changes.
The perception of social workers seems to be idealistic – they work as part of a multi-disciplinary system, yet social workers are considered to have answers to most problems. This could be construed from their vast knowledge, variety of approaches, ‘power’ and challenging experiences social workers deal with daily.
Realistically, social workers like every human being have gone through some form of negative experiences with varying intensities and impacts. Some social workers have unresolved and ongoing negative experiences that impact on their emotional wellbeing and relationships. Social workers desire to help people. They know how highly pressured the profession is, and they do their job passionately. They are sensitive to people’s lived experiences and work on building rapport and good working relationships.
Knowing they wear many ‘hats’, social workers develop various coping strategies to deal with their internal struggles and conflicts. Despite the many ‘hats’ people wear, there is a central ‘core hat’ that impacts on every other role we play in life. This is the ‘soul’ which is our essence or being.
Social workers are aware of their own conflicts, and they may understand the impact that has on them, others, and their practice. Some intense challenges may be triggers and reminders of social workers’ unresolved negative experiences and/or trauma. The experiences vary individually from personal history and family circumstances to cultural norms.
Some may remain in denial and not ready to address their issues. On the other hand, some have developed skills to deal with negative emotions with a certain level of stress, but when they become distressed, those strategies don’t work effectively. Whereas others have resolved, accepted, embraced, and converted their negative experiences into gifts of learning for grow and development.
When supporting individuals, social workers may be incongruent, not genuine, and inauthentic. Their internal conflicts may be displayed in many forms such as body cues, tone and volume of voice, choice of words and much more. When an individual feels vulnerable, their inner power is weakened, and they struggle to tap into their internal resources to make effective decisions. Instead, they divert to external powers where they focus on being the authority figure. Their intended behaviours may contradict their actual behaviours because the responses are coming from the unconscious mind in response to perceived threat. Thus, they may exert more power and power imbalanced increases, they may become oppressive, discriminatory, stereotyping, disempowering and this impacts on their relationships with those they are meant to support.
Some of the professional norms, cultures and expectations may also be triggers for the negative experiences that social workers have internalised. Most of the problems social workers experience daily go against the six principles of the trauma-informed practice. For instance, social workers do not feel safe in some work environments, they don’t feel comfortable discussing their struggles with their peers, seniors and managers and feel the need to say ‘Yes’ when they actually meant ‘NO’. Managers mostly get dishonest feedback. Without constructive feedback the management does not get the true magnitude of social workers’ struggles.
To optimise wellbeing and performance, social workers need to be supported with the necessary resources and skills most especially to be aware of and deal with their emotions. However, if their inner conflicts are not dealt with then the recurring pattern will just be a matter of time.
If social workers are unable to manage their inner conflicts and emotions, how will they use the trauma-informed practice to effectively support individuals?