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Returning stronger as a social work student

Social worker and trainer John Lim shares his advice

Photo of article author John Lim

Published by Professional Social Work magazine 3 September 2020

As a student social worker, it can be scary to face the pandemic. You wonder when you will ever get back on placement, if you will ever be able to find a job in this economy, or if you are able to return to university again.

How can you cope with such uncertainties? Wherever you are in your journey, I cannot fully understand the depth of difficulty you might be facing. But I would like you to know that you are not alone on this journey, and that you can grow stronger through this experience. Here are some ways how you can come out stronger.

1. Think about what you have learnt from this experience

Whilst many of us might be excited to come out of lockdown, others might not. Some might have appreciated the longer periods of time they have managed to spend with their family. Others might appreciate the flexibility of working from home. Whatever your experience is, it is useful to ask yourself what you have learned from this experience. What have you learnt about yourself from lockdown?

For example, I used to think that I had to go out often to enjoy myself. But after lockdown, I realised that all I needed to be happy was a good book, a great cup of coffee, and family around me.

More importantly, think about what you want to leave in lockdown, and take with you after lockdown. My persistent desire to know what’s next and to be in control is certainly something I want to leave in lockdown. But this gentler, slower pace of life, is something that I definitely want to keep.

What about you?

2. Ask for help

As social work students who are used to helping others, it’s often difficult for us to ask for help ourselves. Yet besides learning how to help, we need to learn how to need. We need to ask for what we need. Whether that be an extension on your coursework, or advice on your placement, it is never embarrassing to ask for help.

People around you are happy to help. They are not there hoping that you will fail! When I went through two (yes, two!) concerns processes in two months, my personal tutor was always there to encourage me not to give up. He taught me how to be a better social worker, and how to pass my placement. All this started because I was open and honest with him about my frustrations on placement. I even told him how much I hated my placement.

Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.

3. Write a letter of love to yourself

When you are faced with the triple terror of finding a job, completing your placement, and finishing your coursework, it can be overwhelming. It is in times like these that we need to celebrate ourselves. Writing a letter of love to yourself, celebrating the unique qualities that you have, and how you have shown them over your life, can help to build a greater sense of self-esteem in your own abilities.

For example,

Dear John, I love you because you are so resilient. Despite facing two concerns procedures, you’ve never given up. You’ve stuck to your placement, and resolved to finish it well. I admire you!

Writing a letter of love to yourself reminds you of the inherent qualities you have, rather than the inadequacies you feel.

4. Celebrate progress, not perfection

I am a perfectionist. When I am trying to escape the writing of my coursework, I end up adjusting the fonts of my essay, changing the sizes, and seeing which one is nicer. Hopefully, you’re not like me!

But the truth is that deep within us, all of us have a desire to do our best. We don’t wish to do a sloppy job. That’s why sometimes, it can be difficult to get started.

Celebrating progress, rather than perfection, is the antidote to perfectionism. Each day, write down two things you are glad of finishing and one thing you can improve on. For example,

  • I wrote 200 words in my essay! Well done!
  • I put my phone outside my room to focus on my essay – great discipline!
  • But I could have used the two hours spent on social media on my essay instead! Try to limit your time on social media to one hour a day!

5. Start small

When you look at the amount of work that is in front of you, it can be overwhelming to muster the motivation to get started. James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, shares an interesting insight. Most of us tend to think that we need motivation before the task. But the truth is that motivation often begins after you start the task. Motivation is like a snowball, gathering pace as you do more and more work.

Therefore, to avoid being overwhelmed by your work, start small. If you are struggling with your coursework, the smallest thing you can start with is to sit in front of your computer each morning, and write for five minutes. After those five minutes, you can decide to stop. But the tendency is that after starting those five minutes, the motivation will continue.

I hope these five ways help you to return stronger as a social work student, after this lockdown.

Remember, as Theodore Roosevelt said:"The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming."

John writes about how social work students can navigate their academics and placements at www.savethesocialworker.com

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.