6 Hard Things About Being an Empath in Social Work Training

I just finished the first year of my master’s degree in social work. Throughout the past year, I scoured the internet for nuanced, first-person accounts of the emotional impact this experience has had on others. I didn’t find too many. However, as I was preparing this post today, I re-discovered Danna Bodenheimer’s awesome Real World Clinical Social Work blog over at New Social Worker. In one post, Danna writes: “I wish that social workers could talk more openly with each other about [how the work affects us] ... But I don’t think it is easy. We habituate to keeping things to ourselves; the rules of confidentiality support us in doing that.”

So with foundation year behind me and the privilege of a more relaxed summer schedule ahead of me, I wanted to share some of my own reflections. Here are some of the emotional experiences I found most challenging, and unexpected, during my foundation year.  

1. I felt haunted by my clients, especially at the beginning. My internship placement was a group home for teen moms in the foster care system. Some of them haunted me, especially when we first met. I would close my eyes at night and see their faces. Sometimes, I would dream about them. They had faced traumas and challenges that most of us will never truly understand. When I left work, I did not find them easy to forget.

2. The limitations of my field agency were difficult to bear. Everyone in the social service agency where I worked was a caring person, doing their best. I learned so much from each of them, and we did a lot of good. Still, it was hard to bear those times that I felt the agency just wasn’t helping, and was being held back by dysfunction and brokenness. When I finally finished my internship, one of the primary emotions I felt towards the organization was anger. Being an intern involves a lot of smiling, nodding, and keeping things to yourself … and that takes a toll!

 A selfie I took while riding the bus home from my internship.

A selfie I took while riding the bus home from my internship.

3. I was hard on myself as I did the work. My critical inner dialogue was subtle—more like a whisper than a shout. But over time, I realized that I often believed I was failing. Thankfully, my supervisors helped me to challenge those beliefs. It’s pretty difficult to engage successfully with your clients when you’re telling yourself that you suck!  

4. I was working closely with people whose experiences are practically invisible in mainstream society. Most of my friends, family, and acquaintances had never known anyone who became a teenage mother while in foster care. Before this work, I hadn’t either! I occasionally felt like I was living on another planet, far away from the more privileged one I occupy in my personal life. I didn’t want to be a downer in casual conversations, but I couldn’t “un-see” or “un-know” what was I learning.

5. Class, field, and paying my bills made it almost impossible to live a balanced life. Yeah … that about covers it. While professors may encourage self-care, depending on your financial situation, it can be very difficult to carve out time for yourself while meeting the program demands. In my case, even with the support of my wife (and her job, and her health insurance), I would routinely go weeks and weeks without a day off.  

6. When it was all over, I completely crashed. The weeks after I finished my foundation year were full of depression, tears, exhaustion, and disorientation. I found I couldn’t just throw my books into the air and start celebrating. I had a huge stockpile of unprocessed feelings, and straight-up exhaustion, that needed to be dealt with first. And after talking with lots of my classmates, I know I wasn’t alone in this experience.

 

Of course, this post is about challenges. It doesn’t cover all the amazing rewards and benefits I reaped from my program! In spite of everything I just wrote, I would absolutely recommend getting an MSW. Below are a few of the things that I think have helped me bounce back from the most hard-working year I can remember:

1. I made the investment in personal therapy. During the year, I saw a trainee at the counseling center on campus—for free—and it really helped. But you know what? Now that I’m learning how to do therapy myself, it’s time to pony up and pay someone who is seasoned and experienced (and expensive). I’m currently seeing an Internal Family Systems Therapist and it’s making a profound difference in my life.

2. I deliberately cultivated friendships, new and old, with soulful people who can help me process at a deep level. I made a point of texting those friends when I had a rough day in the field. I scheduled Skype dates with friends in other cities who were also training as therapists. It is such a relief to spend time with people who understand the vulnerability inherent in the work! Again, I would quote Danna Bodenheimer: “Our level of introversion or extroversion is really measured by the psychological-mindedness of those around us. If we are around others who seem to really “get it,” the relief is endless and energizing. If we are around others who seem particularly misattuned, our tanks can actually feel as if they are leaking, leaving us solidly empty.”

 Having an amazing partner really helps, too.

Having an amazing partner really helps, too.

Okay, my fellow social workers (and other aspiring world-healers): what have been the hardest and most unexpected aspects of your journey so far?