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Personal Reflections On Becoming A Social Worker
In this assignment I am going to explore the reasons and motivations that inspired me to redirect my life and enter the social work profession. I am going to reflect on my life, so that I am able to realise the probable impact of my experiences on my professional life.
My story begins with my grandparents, both paternal and maternal, who were working class, suffering disadvantage and poverty. Both my grandmothers worked in the mill doing piecework to try and keep their families afloat. My maternal grandmother was always in debt, borrowing on HP to buy goods, and my paternal grandmother was a widow who brought my father up alone.
There was no benefit system then, therefore, she had to work to survive. My father passed the grammar school exams but was unable to attend, as my grandmother could not afford for him to go, hence he had to seek employment instead. My father worked hard and eventually acquired his own business.
As I grew up I became aware that my father was very thrifty, a consequence of the hardship he suffered as a child and not wanting to return to this state, which made me very aware of the disadvantages of poverty.
My father and grandmother brought me up, with my brother. We lived in a terraced house, in East Lancashire, with no bathroom and an outside toilet. I do not remember life as a ‘normal’ family as my parents divorced when I was young. My grandmother was upset by the divorce, inducing her to ‘split’ (Klein identified this process as a defence) favouring her son. She idealised my brother, and I was left to my own devices, (I was denigrated, I assume because I resembled my mother) often playing with friends and joining them on family outings.
I felt isolated and as though I did not belong anywhere. I promptly adapted my own survival techniques by splitting; becoming a ‘free spirit’, and pretending I belonged to the families I joined on outings. ‘Splitting’ being the “most primitive of the defences” (Froggett, 2008).
Growing up I remember there was not much money, my grandmother buying clothes from jumble sales, and I only remember getting new socks for Easter. I was not particularly aware of my socio-economic position, however, I did recognise that we were different from other families. Although people no doubt did feel sorry for me, I used my personality to gain recognition as an individual. This, perhaps, was the beginning of my interest in less fortunate individuals, influencing my decision to enter social work.
I was unaware, at this time, that I had a mother but I did have contact with my maternal grandparents. My father was not particularly political, however, my grandparents were very much of the labour mindset, having split, and adapted a ‘them and us’ mentality regarding their status of working class.
My maternal grandmother was involved with the Catholic Church and helped others less fortunate by knitting clothes and baking cakes. She was very kind and caring in one way, but to a lesser extent if people were of a different religion. During that time the community relied on their faith and helped their neighbours, seeing it as a Christian duty. My grandmother was a respected member of the community who was aware of, and took responsibility, showing empathy and compassion for those less fortunate than herself.
She believed that she was improving their lives, but was realistic recognising that she could only assist them with emotional and practical needs, not material wealth. Hence, she was not alleviating their poverty but making it more bearable, and it could be said that she acted as a ‘container’ for others. Containment (Froggett, 2002, pg 13) “refers to the capacity of an individual, ….., to mentally receive and hold the disorganised or troubling psychic material of another, rendering it more bearable.” This resulted in, according to Klein, her realizing the ‘depressive position’ (seeing the other as whole).
Looking back now I believe this is where I gained my values and beliefs, my grandmother being an important role model. Her influence was the beginning of my need to enter a caring profession, feeling a sense of obligation to support and care for others.
My grandparents often talked of wartime, the struggles and hardship, remembering rationing and institutions. They welcomed the new welfare state, seeing it as an end to their struggles providing benefits, healthcare and education. I grew up not knowing anything other than a welfare state, accepting it as a right for everyone; however, I can imagine how difficult life was for them and the disadvantages they suffered as a result of their social position.
Prior to commencement of this course I have criticised welfare for creating a ‘dependency culture’ and demonised those who could work and never tried to find employment. At the time I was suffering hardship, being widowed and pregnant at the age of 27 with 3 boys already aged 18 months, 3 and 5 years respectively. I received widowed mother’s allowance but also worked part time to support my family.
I was not in receipt of any other benefits, free school dinners or free school uniforms. I would have been better off on benefits but chose self-respect, not wanting to be a burden, and I feel this has made me a more independent person. I realise now that others lives are more complex and involve other issues, nevertheless, by working I was not allowing myself time to grieve and by demonising others I was blaming them for my situation.
Now I can see all angles and have reached the ‘depressive position’, having mourned and can feel compassion for those on welfare. The ‘depressive position’ being a “… selfless capacity to acknowledge other people for their unique qualities and moral worth.” (Froggett, 2002, pg 45)
I have always wanted to enter a caring profession; when I was younger people would comment on how I would make a good nurse, but until the death of my husband I did not pursue this, as life had presented me with other obstacles. It was due to my own lack of support after my husband’s death that I became more determined to help others who could not help themselves. However, during the process of becoming a social worker I have become aware of and welcomed the help I am also giving myself, resolving hidden issues from the past.
Being abandoned by my mother left me feeling rejected, isolated, and feeling of no importance to anyone. The experience made me a very independent and untrusting person, making me feel as though I could only rely on myself, and this remains with me to this day with exception of the ‘untrusting’.
As I matured and formed a relationship with my mother, albeit a fragmented one, I now understand her reasons for leaving, (a characteristic of the ‘depressive position’), although, having been widowed with 4 children to raise in later life, I cannot condone her actions. She has expressed guilt and sorrow, and felt that she was doing the right thing at the time, reasoning with herself that I was better off with my father and stability.
She entered a new relationship, having a second family and ‘split’ her feelings for me as a response. I ‘split’ in a way that I denied I had a mother, repressing her into my unconscious, and erased her from my memory. I remember at the age of 6 coming home from school to find my mother with my grandmother and not knowing who she was.
From the age of 7 I moved area to live with my mother and new family and felt like a prisoner. My anxiety caused me to demonise my mother as I blamed her for taking me away from my father and for trying to indoctrinate me to have bad feelings for him. I could not see any positive qualities about our relationship (Froggett, 2008).
Consequently my relationship with my mother was never a good one, and I constantly challenged her attitudes, and beliefs. The challenges were sometimes in my actions, but mostly within my thoughts as I was too scared to challenge her directly as she was manipulative and controlling which in turn made me split and become more independent, refusing to ask for help. I felt I didn’t need anyone and could manage on my own.
The contemptuous relationship with my mother was a result of a damaged transition into ‘twoness’, (separation from my mother) which made me, at times, mistrustful and uncertain of relationships in my adult life, fearing rejection and unreliability (Froggett, 2008). My childhood experiences meant that I lost confidence in ‘the reliability of the social world’ (Honneth, 1992, p133) and was insecure.
My life changed dramatically when I was 13 and my mother was diagnosed with cancer. It was at this time that integration became apparent, and I was able to forgive and re-build our relationship, achieving a ‘depressive position’. I felt needed, and guilt at the same time regarding my feelings for my mother. She was very ill and I was expected to become an adult and run the guesthouse we lived in.
I felt very isolated; I no longer saw my friends from school as I looked after my family, did the household chores, paid the bills, did the shopping, visited my mother in hospital (before I went to school) and had no spare time to socialise. I managed to cope with the extra responsibility but experienced loneliness at home; and at school where I was bullied for a time because I was permitted to enter school at 9.30.
Other children recognised this as being given special treatment, whereas, it was ‘misrecognition’, as I had chores to complete before school, which was difficult, “…. misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted and reduced mode of being.” (Taylor, 1995). However, my relationship with my mother had changed and I was able to convey my feelings to her and contain my anxieties.
This new found desire to help led me to become involved, as a teenager, with helping children and committing to some voluntary work at a psychiatric hospital. Identifying with similar people was a form of release, helping myself by helping others, allowing me to deal with my feelings of abandonment, exclusion and isolation. I developed this further when I later became involved with Home Start, as a volunteer, which was the determining factor in my decision to become a social worker.
My relationship with my mother deteriorated again when my brother died. I felt alone again, as my brother had been the one stable element in my life, and my way of coping was to blame my mother for uprooting us and bringing us to live with her. I detached myself and denied my brother was dead for a while by pretending he was away, (he had been in the RAF living in various camps) as a defence mechanism. I had just met my husband at this time and his strength allowed me to deal with my loss and come to terms with it; he became my ‘container’ allowing me to reach the ‘depressive position’.
At the age of 18 years old my mother told me to leave after constant confrontations. We could not live together as we were both finding it very difficult dealing with our own grief, and each other’s. I felt liberated and was relieved as I had always been too scared of my mother before but my husband, my ‘container’, gave me the strength to stand up to her, and I finally found the strength to attain recognition as an individual.
When my husband died I feel I split once more. I no longer felt I belonged, I hated everyone, particularly happy families, and I felt isolated and alone (Woods and Hollis, 1990). This could be defined in Kleinian terms as being the ‘paranoid schizoid’ position (a form of splitting) (Beckett, 2002).
This was the worse time in my life and affected me deeply. I did start to drink at this stage to enable me to experience ‘oneness’, but did not attain this (Froggett, 2008). I was pregnant at the time; therefore, for the sake of my sanity I addressed my negative behaviour to prevent damage to my child. I realised that I had an unborn child who needed me, as well as 3 other children, who loved me unconditionally and I somehow found the strength to resolutely challenge myself not to disappoint them as my mother had me, this being my reason for containment (Froggett, 2008).
During this time I was never asked or given a choice about any form of counselling, and I received very little support. This became my motivation for embarking on social work as a career, as I felt I could do a better job than some; as I had experienced disadvantage, trauma and been marginalized. I felt that I would be committed and reliable to the people who needed my support.
My experiences have given me an inner strength, making me stronger (Hollis and Woods, 1990), enabling me to empathise and show compassion to others, and I felt that I had a lot to offer others less fortunate than myself. I had always been of an altruistic nature, and during this period of my life I realised social work, as a career, would allow me to practice altruism on a larger scale, gaining emotional gratification (Woods and Hollis, 1990).
Hollis and Woods (1990) suggest that ‘motivation is very much affected by hope’ (p274), and although I had suffered traumatic events throughout my life I was able to acknowledge that I could use these experiences for the benefit of others. I had reached the ‘depressive position’, could begin to move forward, integrate the experience, and make sense of everything, the world being a better place (Beckett,2002).
I embarked on a course at college, studying at night while I worked during the day, and continued my development when accepted on this course. My family felt this was an inappropriate choice, as they felt I had enough to do bringing up four children. My mother in particular thought it was a waste of time as she considered social workers to be ‘do gooders’.
I felt that I wanted to give something back to society, and make a difference to those who are vulnerable, oppressed and struggling to cope with the pressures of social injustice and poverty. I wanted to make sure people have basic resources to meet their needs regardless of race, age, sex, or sexual orientation, empowering them to take control of their lives and promoting well-being. My mother’s attitude just made me more determined to pursue this route.
Whilst at university I have developed my practice on placement, learning many new ideas, and realising the importance of social work on peoples’ lives.
“Understanding the impact of transitions within a person’s life course is important for social work practice in order to help us understand other people’s lives” (Crawford and Walker, 2003, p5).
On placement I worked within a family support team, and found one situation, with a young girl, particularly difficult as I identified with her complex situation. The girl had been abandoned by her mother, and was living with her father and stepfamily. Recognising her feelings I assisted the girl to develop an internal container by giving her a secret diary to record her thoughts and feelings, and we would discuss these feelings weekly.
Whilst supporting the girl I experienced ‘transference’, feelings evoked from past attachments with her mother were transferred onto me, (Froggett, 2008)) and she became very attached and dependent on my visits. I was overwhelmed by the strong emotions projected from the girl, however, was unable to reject her, and as a consequence of her actions encountered ‘counter-transference’, relating my own personal experiences (Froggett, 2008).
My vision became blurred with my own internal feelings, resulting in my inability to see the girl realistically. I found myself very protective of her, working extremely hard; advocating for her with her father who was oppressive and controlling, as I felt she was alone, and unable to challenge him. Furthermore, I wanted to ‘mother’ the girl to boost her self-esteem, and thus prevent her isolation. After our sessions I would go home mentally drained.
Bion (1977) suggests there are three types of container-contained relationships:
- ‘parasitic’ – dependent and unhealthy
- ‘commensal’ – mutual containment, of benefit to both parties
- ‘symbiotic’ – receiving support to manage feelings, and seen as a healthy relationship.
Fortunately I was able to express these anxiety provoking feelings with my assessor, hence she became my ‘container’. We had a ‘symbiotic’ relationship and she enabled me to disentangle myself from the situation, regain my ability to hold painful feelings, allowing me the capacity to perceive the girl as separate, and re-integrate (Menzies-Lyth, 1988).
I was in a position to reflect, appreciating complexity, achieving ‘3rd position thinking’, ## I became stronger as a result, thus I was able to perceive things from a different perspective. During reflection I recognized emotional factors had clouded my judgement and I reached a better understanding of the situation, realising I had transferred my personal experiences onto the family (Winnicott, 1971).
I acknowledged this intervention had proven difficult, bearing resemblance to my own experiences, and resolved to be more aware, making sure my professional boundaries were firmly established for subsequent visits and for the future (Froggett, 2008). Towards the end of my placement I referred the girl to a counsellor at school, so she did not feel abandoned, making effective use of another support network.
Initially I had been attracted to working with children and families, however, supporting this girl made me realise that perhaps family support is not an area of practice that I should go into, as it may prove too emotional a field for me. Getting too involved with a client could prove ineffective and I could lose my focus.
I have faced many challenges throughout my life but I have always managed somehow to rise above these, drawing on my reserve strengths and becoming a more resilient person. The importance being that I feel I have become self-assured, and can be an asset to the profession of social work.
“The personality traits that I have as an adult are a direct result of my experiences from childhood” (Woods and Hollis, 1990, p34)
Undertaking this assignment has been challenging and difficult, however, I found that putting my life into words was quite therapeutic, releasing certain issues that I had repressed. Freud suggests repression is “the most important of all defences” (Froggett, 2008 pg. 8) but releasing my feelings and thoughts about my life experiences enabled me to understand how I came to develop my own beliefs and values, as Crawford and Walker (2003) inform us “Social workers need to understand their own life course development and the significance that this has had on the values and beliefs that they have developed themselves.” Pg.13.
According to the Code of Ethics, a social workers objective is to support people in need, addressing social problems. Experiences have made me the person I am, and utilising my skills, both personal and educational, will help me perform this duty. I believe my personal experiences changed me, making me more open to new ideas, and although I am very much aware of the past I have dealt with it, and do not dwell, moving forward. I have achieved ‘3rd position thinking’, realising that I can be a ‘good enough’ mother, whilst achieving success as a professional (Froggett, 2008).
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Bion, W. (1977) ‘Learning from experience’, in Seven Servants, New York, Jason Aronson
Crawford, K. and Walker, J. (2003) Social Work and Human Development. Exeter. Learning Matters
Froggett, L. (2002) Love, Hate and Welfare – Psychosocial approaches to policy and practice. Bristol. The Policy Press
Froggett, L. (2008) Psychosocial Theory and Practice for Social Work: A Conceptual Introduction to an Object Relations Approach. Preston. University of Central Lancashire. Unpublished manuscript
Hollis, F. and Woods, M (1990) Casework: A Psychosocial Therapy 4th Edition. USA. Library of Congress
Honneth, G. (1969) Integrity and Disrespect: Principles of a Conception of Morality based on the Theory of Recognition. In: Political Theory. 20 (2). 187-201
Menzies-Lyth, I. (1988) Containing Anxiety in Institutions: Selected Essays, Volume One. London; Free Association Books
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Hochschild, A (2003) 2nd edition The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. USA; University of California Press.
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