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The danger of denying emotions in our work

“I visited her just before I went (home for Christmas)... I brought her some food and stuff, I found her in a horrific condition… I had to go back into the office and contact [the hospital]. She came into the office yesterday, she said she hates my guts but she appreciated that visit and she felt that I kept her alive over Christmas (heavy breathing). I am just thinking now of all these parents and all of their needs (sighing)… I’ve got about five parents now who are on the edge. I feel like I have all of the children and I have all of this and nobody else knows about them… I just feel the burden of having that on myself. It is too much, I am spread too thin.” (crying) – Chloe

How do social workers like Chloe make sense of the emotional experience that comes with the reality of the practice encounter she describes?

It is their task to take in and attempt to contain what is projected by families and to make efforts to understand this. In the exchange of these intense emotions, social workers may have feelings themselves. If these feelings can’t be registered and processed they’ll remain with the worker.

Such frontline work leaves social workers bearing the full, raw impact of the stresses arising from it. They’re expected to do more with less under increasing media and public attention, and face pressure to meet procedures and targets.

This work is considerably anxiety provoking, in both the painful nature of the work (task related anxiety) and the climate in which it happens (organisational anxiety). Individuals and organisations can end up deploying defences in response to such mental pain.

Increasingly, social work is less to do with helping families  and more to do with managing risk. Consequently, the primary task becomes partially about social workers’ own survival in relation to the demands of the organisational and socio-political environment. Less attention is given to particular characteristics of a family’s case and the impact of those characteristics on the social work practice.

And yet it is these very characteristics that are thought to contain significant clues about the family and the workers’ own sense of themselves within the work. With the benefit of hindsight following the death or serious injury to children or parents, these complex case particulars become surprisingly more visible and are reduced in an effort to simplify and rationalise them. This creates the illusion that social workers should have been easily able to pick them out and act accurately upon them.

In this intense climate, vulnerability and the need for containment and support is often denied. Workers are vulnerable to developing defensive practices, including only showing certain aspects of themselves in the work and denying others, especially intense emotions which might reflect badly upon them. This creates distance between workers and families as they struggle to maintain a rejection of the human experience of social work in order to be seen as coping.

This can leave workers with an internalised sense of themselves as being inadequate rather than questioning the sensitivity of the organisation. More concerning in my view is the workers’ susceptibility to being anaesthetised to these feelings and to venture into omnipotent practice.

Experiences and emotions such as those Chloe describes are waiting somewhere inside the worker until the right container is available. They smolder away, unravelling the workers’ capacity to think about and do the job. 

Child protection social work is complex and demanding. It presents social workers and parents with a number of emotional, psychological and relationship demands. The experiences Chloe describes arouse anxiety in most people and it is extremely difficult to contain and manage this. 

For social workers to have the best chance of processing it, they need to be in a depressive mode, at least some of the time, in order to get in touch with the families’ feelings.

If social workers are not offered a reflective space that allows a depth of engagement for these intense feeling to be tolerated, then workers may face a psychological predicament: do they emerge from positions of distance from families’ experiences to consider them, or do they remain at a distance, with defences up?

Dr Nicola O’Sullivan is a mental health practitioner. Her latest research with social workers can be read in the Journal of Social Work Practice