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And What if the Pothole is...


Welcome to number three of my series on the bumps we encounter as we navigate our journey through life. In the first installment of the series, we discussed the important work that you perform with hurting people. We specifically focused on the emotionally and physically exhausting tasks involved when helping people in crisis.

In the second installment of the series, we discussed the dangers of a toxic work culture. To make progress on our journey, we looked at the importance of becoming an active member of a positive work culture, which could increase your ability to manage the stress of working with hurting people.

Today I want to offer you a mirror in the hopes that you can honestly assess the reality of the times you might get in your own way, when it comes to walking the career path of a helping professional. And when I say you, I mean me too. From decades of working with caring professionals, I can easily say that we all get in our own way sometimes. In this last installment of the pothole series, I would be remiss if I didn't point out the self-inflicted barriers that can derail our walk.

Although there are many ways that we are first responders, social workers, caregivers and helpers get in our own way, for the purpose of this series, I am focusing on three.

  1. Taking it Personally.

  2. Listening to the opinion of others.

  3. The hero complex.


Social work is not for the faint of heart. As we give all we have into helping families in crisis, we can sometimes be shocked at the way these families respond to us. It happens to all of us, believe me.

I remember a case where a mother finally given unsupervised visitation, had no way to visit her daughter, who was in a foster home. The visit was to be at the park on a Saturday due to the child's school schedule. I offered to pick her up on the weekend to transport her for the visit. Mom had seemed so grateful. On the day of the visit, I knocked on her door at the allotted time. Mom opened the door sleepily, having "forgotten" about the visit and screamed at me for waking her up, and yelled at me to get out of her house.

At first, I will admit, I was furious! How dare she not recognize the sacrifice I made to use my weekend to help her! I drove home fuming! At least for a few miles. Then, I began to think of how hurting or fearful animals (whether human or canine or ursine) will often attack those trying to help them. So why did Mom lash out at me?

Fear. Plain and simple. Mom was terrified of this visit.

As I applied what I knew of this mother, it made some sense to me. She had lost custody of her daughter due to drug use. Despite her battle to become clean, relapses were often. This same daughter had lived through them all and made no bones about the fact that she didn't believe her mom would ever change. Mom had just obtained 6 months sobriety and it was their first unsupervised visit in as many months. I was to only provide the transportation to the par and come back in a couple of hours.

Mother and daughter were to be alone in their visit. And mom was terrified. She didn't want to face the doubt and mistrust of her little girl. She didn't want to give false hope to her daughter or even herself that her sobriety was permanent. Ever in her mind lingered a constant fear of relapsing. She was afraid to succeed and afraid to fail. She was afraid.

So, she lashed out at me. That was her coping skills for pushing away the one who could facilitate that next step. If I went away angry, she could use the lack of transportation as an excuse to postpone that visit. In her mind, if she pushed hard enough, I would give up on her.

I decided not to take it personally, but to use it as a tool to begin that conversation with mom about her fear. It would give us a chance, in a safe way, to examine that fear of failure and acknowledging her progress so far. Allowing her freedom to discuss what she was feeling would open the door for her to work through those feelings and keep moving forward.


We all have them in our circle: family members, office mates, friends. And they all have opinions. They don't "get" what we do and they are very glad to offer us their opinions of how we handle our potholes. Do you know how many times I have heard the following opinions?

  1. They don't appreciate you, you know that!

  2. There are jobs out there where you don't have to work as hard!

  3. You are never going to change those people, so why do you try?

  4. No one is going to help you!

  5. You will get blamed for anything that goes wrong.

  6. You should just quit!

Like constant biting gnats, the negative opinions are just a nuisance most of the time. Your pat response goes something like this. "You could be right, but this is what I was meant to do." But over time the constant biting remarks can take their toll. You start to allow them to sink in. You began to doubt your calling and the feeling of discontentment grows. Unless you have the coping skills, such as self-talk, meditation, vagal breathing etc, the nagging gnats can infect your self-worth. Burn-out is not far behind.

To combat the gnats, make sure you surround yourself with a supportive tribe that does "get" what you do and why you do it. A mutually supportive tribe can be gnat repellant when you need it.


Calling something a hero complex sounds like an egomaniac way of thinking. But it is not meant like that. You came to this career of service provision for a reason: To make a difference in the lives of others. What better definition of a hero than that? Unfortunately, unlike in the comics or the movies, real heroes are not 100% successful in changing lives. There will be those who just (for this period of time) cannot make the needed change. They will fall. And you will feel like you have failed.

You did not fail.

If you are putting forth your very best effort in providing service to families in crisis/need, you are not failing. I am reminded of a bible story (wildly paraphrased) that talks about one who tills the ground, one who plants the seed, one who waters the seed. Without the one who tilled the ground, no seed could be planted. Without watering, the seed would not grow. When I have an unsuccessful outcome with a case, I try to remind myself that perhaps my role was to till the ground. Someone else could come by with water.

If you expect yourself to achieve a perfect rate of success with your families, you will set yourself up for self-doubt and self-blame. Instead, hold on to the families who have been successful. They may be fewer than the non-successful ones, but in that family, you were a hero.

Remember the story of the man surrounded by washed up starfish on the beach. He picked up one at the time and threw them back into the sea. As he prepared to toss another one in the sea, a boy passed by. The little boy saw the vase number of stranded starfish and said to the man. "There are too many! You will never make a difference!" Tossing the starfish into the water, the man replied, "Maybe not. But I made a difference with this one.

Believe in yourself. You make a difference. Don't let yourself become a pothole that causes you to veer off of your chosen path. Make a Difference with this one.

**For installments one and two of the series go to

Angela McClintock

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