Empathy as an Asset and Liability

Social workers are generally highly empathetic individuals who have been attracted to the work because they want to make a positive difference in other people’s lives. Being highly empathetic can be both an asset and a liability for social workers and others. It is an asset because we need more caring individuals in society who think beyond themselves and can appreciate the suffering that others go through. It can be a liability, in a way, for social workers as well because empathetic individuals can become emotionally drained and depressed by the suffering and injustice they encounter. Social workers can develop feelings of inadequacy or helplessness if they are unable to help specific clients or change a policy they view as unjust. They are susceptible to developing compassion fatigue, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress.

One of the primary things social workers can do to care for themselves as empathetic individuals is appreciate the fact that empathy is a gift. They can reframe their feelings of helplessness by appreciating ad recognizing that it is a gift to care for people. They should feel grateful that they can care and make a difference and are in a position to help. They might try to view this as a spiritual gift, a set of traits they’ve worked to develop or were born with, or that they’ve simply chose to help and care.

Social workers can also recognize their choice to enter into the field as a conscious choice to help people, some of whom are experiencing the most challenging days of their lives. At that time of need, they may be their clients’ lifeline, and clients and families will never forget that caring work that was provided. They may think about their choice to enter a caring profession and their time in that profession as a personal journey of growth.

A Spiritual Path, Meditation, and Mindfulness

Another method of self-care is to engage in a spiritual or religious community or read spiritual books. Spirituality and religion can help social workers deal with issues of victimization and injustice. A spiritual or religious practice can help social workers investigate difficult questions about life and provide a foundation of belief in justice, care, and compassion.

A spiritual or religious path can also provide social workers with tools to care for their minds. Meditation is a well know tool for quieting and clearing the mind. It is widely practiced among Buddhists, but is also practiced by Christians, Jews, and other religions. Prayer is a form of meditation. Meditation can help social workers calm their minds at the end of a stressful day of caring and keep the mind healthy, focused, and free of repetitive negative thoughts. Numerous apps remind a user of meditation and there are many meditation exercises online.

Mindfulness is another meditative technique that can help social workers go about their life in an open-hearted and conscious manner. Mindfulness can help individuals go through life with appreciation. A mindfulness practice can help social workers develop a healthy detachment from distressing situations and the pain of others. This does not mean the social worker has less empathy or compassion, but rather mindfulness helps them see their place in the larger scheme of things. It can help a social worker see that they are in a unique position to provide care and that healthy detachment helps them do their job effectively. Mindfulness is a common element of many cognitive behavior therapies. There are numerous books on mindfulness many of which include mindfulness exercises.

Besides meditation and mindfulness, other forms of taking care of one’s mental health are important as well. This includes recognizing and admitting that symptoms of depression or anxiety are present or getting worse. Social workers should encourage a colleague to see a fellow mental health professional if they think it’s needed. Some social workers may feel that they are supposed to be stronger than their clients, but they should know better than others that seeking mental health care is a sign of strength. Social workers should also not feel any stigma around being prescribed and taking medication if it is needed.

Physical Self Care

Physical self-care is critical for social workers as well. Physical self-care may include exercise, regular medical check-ups, eating well, and getting enough rest and sleep. Now, many of these things, including getting enough sleep and eating well, are easier said than done; however, making a concerted effort to do these things for yourself is important. Every goal may not be perfectly attained, but social workers can increase their confidence and well-being if they take small steps to improve certain habit such as: committing to not doing a certain amount of work at night or in bed, incorporating exercise into daily life such as taking a twenty-minute walk at lunch or opting for public transportation, and incorporating more vegetables into the diet. Getting into the habit of learning one new vegetarian recipe every two weeks might be a fun way to increase healthy dieting. Subscribing to a meal delivery service may help as well.

Positive Relationships

Finally, one of the most important components of self-care is maintaining positive relationships. Social workers must support each other. Friendships with others in the helping professions can be key to self-care. Social workers experiencing burnout or vicarious trauma can find solace in the experiences and advice of other helping professionals. Colleagues might decide together to establish self-care tools at work such as desk yoga, walking groups at lunch, or recipe exchanges.

Social workers may feel alienated from long-time relationships if their partner or close friends do not understand a change in worldview that can come from working with oppressed and suffering people. Social workers and other helping professionals should seek supportive relationships with people who do not question their sensitivity to the suffering of others or their philosophy of “not sweating the small stuff.” Partners especially should take symptoms of a partner’s vicarious trauma seriously and not just suggest they be less sensitive or detached; the partner but will need tools and support to cope with the daily stresses of being a caring professional.

Social workers may want to think about spending less time on social media and instead make plans to see friends or family in person. Binging on social media or even entertainment such as television series or movies may likewise be unhealthy. Isolation should not be a regular practice for a person who spends their life helping others.

Finally, social workers need a sense of normalcy in their personal lives and to feel that not all aspects of life or society are dysfunctional or unjust. A regular dose of normalcy and routine is critical to self-care. A social worker should recognize if they are feeling guilty for having a normal and happy life when so many around them are suffering. Again, they should simply feel gratitude in knowing that their own personal happiness makes them more able to help and serve others.

Stephanie Bosco-Ruggiero

B.A. Political Science| Vassar College

M.A. Urban Affairs | University of Delaware

Social Policy | Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service Doctoral Program

October  2019

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