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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?

How the “Genius Composer” Myth Hurts Everyone (Especially Women)

Many people bemoan the fact that women remain a small minority in the field of music composition. This has changed, and continues to change, for the better, but we have a long way to go. In this blog post, I’m going to make a concrete suggestion about how we might engage more young women, especially teenagers and college students, in the field. 

In this post, I will argue that if we actually want greater diversity in the composition of contemporary music, we may need to change the way we talk about composition. In particular, we may need to give up some of our ideas about genius composers.

I’ll start with a brief story. Two weeks ago, I was part of a residency with AnyWhen Ensemble at Oregon State University. My colleagues worked with jazz students and ensembles, while I taught a career workshop and … wait for it … guest-lectured at a composition seminar.

To find myself standing in front of a composition class (with my friend Doug, a legitimate professional composer) was startling, to say the least. After all, I purchased Finale just six months ago, and recently wrote my first fully notated works for ensemble. I primarily think of myself as a violinist and songwriter, not a composer. Yet there I was, standing before a group of eager and open-minded undergraduates.

While I was delighted to talk to them, what I really wanted to do was sneak around to other classrooms -- the violin studios, the choir sectionals, the music education seminars -- and whisper: Psst! Have you ever thought about making your own music? Want to talk about it? I wanted to talk to everyone at Oregon State who, like me, doesn’t identify as a composer, but who creates, or aspires to create, original music.

I believe there is a great deal of untapped musical creativity in these “non-composer” spaces at our schools of music. Why? Because for a very long time in classical music, labeling yourself as a composer has meant entering an intimidating and highly gendered (masculinized) space*. Looking around at the composition seminar at Oregon -- which is taught by a woman, but had only 1 woman out of 10 students -- I wondered about all the people who weren’t in the room, simply because of preconceived notions about what composition is or must be.

Here are some of the notions I had about composition throughout my twenties:

  • It is inherently complex, theoretical, and mathematical

  • It requires rare brilliance and genius

  • It involves technology and software and stuff that is over my head

  • Being a composer requires engagement in philosophical and aesthetic pissing matches

  • If you write easy or pretty music, you are a wimp/probably a girl

  • … therefore, it is not for me, because I am a woman and a Pisces and an ENFJ and I have a lot of feelings and I don’t know how to use Max MSP.

As you can see, these preconceived notions echo the hesitations of many intelligent young women who feel unwelcome in male-dominated fields like technology and philosophy*. Because of gender socialization, young women in particular may have a difficult time embracing the identity that classical music has historically constructed around “the composer.”

A 2015 study, done by an interdisciplinary team from Princeton and Urbana-Champaign, found that a field’s “perceived importance of brilliance or genius” was the single biggest factor that lowered women’s involvement in said field. “The argument is about the culture of the field,” one study author explained. “In our current cultural climate, where women are stereotypically seen as less likely to possess these special intellectual gifts, emphasizing that those gifts are required for success is going to have a differential effect on men and women.

Translation: if we want to get more women involved in composition, we may have to stop acting like composing requires particular genius or brilliance, and instead invite a wide variety of musicians to learn, work hard, and get their hands dirty in order to improve.

I imagine many people would resist this idea of demystifying (even democratizing?) composition. When I look at how composition is taught, and the division of labor in schools of music, it’s almost like we’re making composition seem super hard, remote, and specialized on purpose. It’s almost like we have a need to justify the continued existence of composition departments, in an increasingly corporatized university system that is hostile to the arts ... 

This is why it feels like sacrilege for me to write a post saying, “We need to stop acting like composing is this special thing, only reserved for certain people.” Because when I say that, it may sound like I am threatening one of the last remaining bastions of respect and financial stability and support for the creation of new music, which I totally don’t want to do! But I do want to acknowledge how, by protecting notions of genius and difficulty around composition, we are keeping a lot of people away from the field.

Let me clarify what I am NOT saying:

  • I am not saying that composing is easy.

  • I am not saying that composers are not brilliant.

  • I am not saying “everyone can do it” equally well.

  • I am not saying we should dismantle composition departments because they are elitist and patriarchal … although they often are.

What I AM saying is simply that our field should acknowledge ways in which the traditional definition of “composer” may exclude, intimidate, and alienate. What I am saying is that we would benefit from talking about composition in a way that explicitly welcomes those the field has traditionally left out.

The de-mystification of composing could have a ton of positive ripple effects. Chief among them, of course, is that more women, people of color, and self-trained/outsider musicians might actually consider walking into a composition seminar room.

Another big potential benefit? If composing was something everyone did (or at least tried), performers would have a better attitude about playing new music. This is a big one. I really think, if we made composition study more commonplace, we’d see a big reduction in anti-composer snark. Part of (some) performers’ bad attitudes towards composers is actually a reaction against this idea of superiority and genius. Performers are all like, “You think you’re Beethoven!? Well then, why did you write XYZ dumb thing?” It’s not pretty.

All performers should experience the difficulty of conceiving a musical idea, putting it on paper, and watching another human being grapple with it. It is hard, humbling, and exhilarating, and they’ll never look at scores the same way again.

What do you think? Could a deliberate de-mystification of composing help our field?

* Anytime anyone says anything about women in any field, the following disclaimer is often required: Yes, there are tons of accomplished women in science, technology, philosophy, and music composition. Even so, women remain in the minority. My operating assumption here is that women successfully enter the field in spite of these challenges and barriers, and that more women would participate (i.e., women would no longer be such a small minority) if said barriers were removed.