I started writing a long blog post about my first year of working in mental health, my first “real job” as a social worker, and I decided to scrap it all. Why? Because it was full of old hurts and old pain, bitterness that I’m having trouble letting go of. Suffice it to say, I didn’t start the year well. The first team I joined didn’t seem suited to me – I barely got any support, I was told that I wasn’t good at working with people, and there was nothing I could do about it – it was just “something about me”. When my case load had been reduced so much that I was barely working with any clients, management shifted me to another team. After two days there, management was advised that I wasn’t suited for the new team either. I was told that I was going to fail my three-month probation and was offered another job in a residential site, and after long consideration, I took the offer to resign instead.
It was an impressionable time in my life. I’d worked so hard to get my first job as a social worker, only to discover that I didn’t have enough street smarts and that I couldn’t work with people (either staff or clients). My confidence and self esteem were at rock bottom, and I genuinely believed in my heart of hearts that I was not suited to social work. I resigned myself to studying librarianship and avoiding people for the rest of my life.
As fate would have it, I ran into a manager the week after while I was doing some paperwork at head office. He said that a team member needed sudden leave and that I could fill in for her for two months if I wanted it. Between the shame of seeing all my former colleagues again after I’d said goodbye and my imminent impecuniosity, I took the job.
The new team was different in all the ways I needed. I liked all of my colleagues, and they all seemed to like me. My team leader put a heavy emphasis on supportive supervision, making time to check in with me every day, and she put my wellbeing as the highest priority. I got on well with the consumers I was supporting and found I could really sink my teeth into the work, focussing on their mental health recovery rather than just surviving day-to-day. I made a lot of friends at the office and started teaching tai chi as one of the daily mindfulness sessions the organisation held. Every week people would be kind to me, they would tell me they appreciated me and that I was doing a good job.
My colleague (whom I was replacing) elected to retire, and I was joyfully accepted as a permanent member of the team. In addition to this, I started working an extra day per week with another team, although I found this difficult and after a few months withdrew from this position. As fate would have it, I was offered a position to join a new project lead by two international mental health wizards, even though I didn’t apply for the job. I was told by several staff members that I was perfect for the team, and after they interviewed me they asked me to join them anyway because they believed that I had something special to contribute.
Along the way I won an award for encouraging new employees, a framed certificate and a cash prize. A few months later, to my great surprise, I was selected as the Employee of the Year over 15 other people, some of which were managers, and certainly all of which who had worked with the organisation for longer than me. Even now, four days later, I’m still trying to wrap my head around what happened. All of this has been very confusing to me, and I’m struggling to accept the narrative that maybe I’m not bad at working with people, that maybe I’m not a bad social worker. This final award, which has never been given to a staff member on the ground level before, is a compelling piece of evidence for an alternate narrative to the one I have been in for so long. So here is my tentative exploration into widening it.
Reasons I’m a good social worker:
- I excelled at university.
- Robyn, my mentor, said she’d draw on my story to inspire her for many years to come.
- My supervisors on placement said they were proud of me and that I’d make an excellent counsellor.
- I am regularly told by colleagues within and without of my team that they appreciate me.
- I was headhunted to be part of this new exciting project because someone saw something more valuable in me than in the people who had applied for the job.
- I am smart. I am thoughtful. I am curious. I constantly want to learn and improve my knowledge and practice, and I am always willing to grow. I have been told on several occasions that these traits are well-suited to social work, and that my colleagues and friends are glad I’ve chosen to spend my time and energy in this field.
- I am humble, respectful and do not have a big ego. I always seek to learn from others, and I am largely open to admitting my mistakes so that I can learn from them. I’ve been told that people feel the difference.
- I am friendly. I am kind. I see the best in people, and practice from a place of unconditional positive regard. I have been told on numerous occasions that I’m “so natural” when meeting new people and helping them feel comfortable.
- I am genuine. I am real. I do not put much emphasis on masks and wearing different hats and trying to control others through my assumed power as a professional.
- I have been told by consumers that I brighten their lives and that I give them hope when it has been difficult for them.
- I use my knowledge of social work theory in a meaningful way.
- I have a strong desire to help people.
- I am compassionate, and this has been called my greatest strength. When I ask someone how they are, I care about the answer.
- I won the Encouragement Award for new employees.
- I won Employee of the Year, over managers and other staff who have worked hard this year and done great things.
- I was told by my fellow students and some staff at university that I would make a great social worker some day. I was told that I naturally embody social work values, a willingness to share my experiences honestly and the ability to understand and empathise with others.
- I am sensitive. I am gentle. I help create an environment of safety and trust. I have been told that I help ground people.
- I am quite good at facilitating groups, even when complex discussions are going on. I am very inclusive in group discussions.
- I have been told by friends, and the mother of a consumer that I am suited for this kind of work. That “the world needs people like [me]”, and that I am”wasted” working in retail.
- I am quirky, different and unique. Some people are drawn to this, and it allows me to work in ways that other people might not have considered.
- I have been told that I work hard, and that people appreciate and notice it.
This list has been the product of over an hour – I had to go through “My Little Book of Big Praise” to find more evidence to support it. I think it would be far easier for me to list all the reasons I thought I was bad at social work, though I’m going to make a deliberate step away from that narrative. From now on, I will strive to believe that I am good at social work and mental health recovery. It’s a foreign thought for the moment, but I will work to push through the doubt, using this list evidence.