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Good With Color

Growing up a middle child and the only girl (until I was almost 13 and my darling sister was born) I developed a competitive streak with my two brothers. I felt like I had to try harder, do better and achieve more than they did. To be fair, that was not pushed on to me by my parents. Honestly, my parents treated us equally, so there was no reason, other than my own temperament and personality for me to feel that way.

Fifty years later, I now understand that instead of feeling "comfortable in my own skin", as a child; I relied upon my accomplishments to fuel my self-esteem. I wanted to be the best in all that I attempted. And as I succeeded, my confidence grew and would try bigger and harder projects.

It took me many years of adulting to realize that I could accept myself (warts and all) and be proud of who I am as a person. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and tell that little 10-year-old me to realize just how amazing she was even with all her (my) flaws.

Like artistic talent. Yeah, I just don't have it. The talent, the ability or the skill. Why was that important to me?

My mother was a great artist. She had a talent that I still admire today. Imaginative ideas flowed naturally from her creative brain, through her talented hands, until something wonderful took on a life of its own. Then there was my grandmother, who didn't even dabble in art until well into her seventies and guess what? Yes! She had the talent! But my biggest Nemesis (my oldest brother) who I both hated and worshipped, was extremely talented in art as well and always won awards at school.

But me? Nope. Sometimes, when I was really jealous, my lack of artistic talent just further bolstered the belief that I was adopted.

But I kept trying. I drew pictures all of the time for my mom to critique. And she always said the same thing in some form or fashion. I remember her words to this day. "Oh, Angie, you are so good with colors" or "You have such an eye for how colors work together." And I would just beam, my face lighting up and my inner self cheering. I never won an art award, but I figured those judges just didn't understand my genius with colors.

It took me decades to realize that she was trying to find one positive thing about my failed attempt at art.

I say that with complete warmth and appreciation that Mom understood how important it was for me, at that age, to please her with my accomplishments. Instead of telling me all that I couldn't do, she encouraged me to not give up by finding one (true) positive about my attempts (because I was and still am good with matching colors artistically). She didn't hand out "false praise" that could set me up for future failure. She also did not discourage me with negativity. She saw the good in the bad and helped me to see it as well.

As social workers, it is so easy to find failure because you are working with a largely wounded population who have not been encouraged or guided to be successful. This week, I was reminded of the importance of not giving in to the frustration and the negativity. A very stressed colleague told me of situation where she had worked with a mom closely for 6 months. Mom was an addict, but really embraced treatment and had tested negative for any substances since treatment began. However, this week mom didn't show up for drug testing. My friend related to me that watching someone come so far and fall even further is maddening! So, understandably, my colleague wanted to give up on her.

I told her something that I want to share with you :

Social work with hurting families is not a sprint.

It is a marathon.

Yes, in that snapshot of time, mom failed. Much like my attempt at art, she was not able to fully achieve the skills to keep her on the right path. But that didn't mean that she couldn't use help to regain her footing and keep moving forward.

Hearing the story, I was grateful that I had experienced the same situation when I was a worker. I shared my experience and the fact that when my client, who was a recovering alcoholic, fell off the wagon, I was so disappointed and even a little resentful at first. It's a human emotion for social workers as they are invested in helping families heal. My client had come to me to report herself, and I didn't know the whole story. It was important for me to step back and look at the big picture, searching for a positive in the situation. I also knew, that in order for her to feel safe about discussing what happened, a non-judgmental environment had to be created.

I praised mom for being honest and telling me about the fall. She could have hidden it from me, and I wouldn't have known. She was no longer drug testing weekly because of her 6-month sobriety. That positive word of encouragement surprised mom who was battling her own self-loathing. Just by offering up a positive (true) finding, I was able to get Mom to relax and tell me what happened. She had been evicted from her section 8 apartment for allowing her sister (who was homeless) to live with her. Being tossed back on the streets really confused and disappointed her as she knew with no housing her children would not be returned to her. An old friend (drinking buddy) took her in, and mom reverted to an age-old coping mechanism: alcohol.

Isn't it interesting to know that there is usually a "why". A trigger for one person may not be a trigger for you or me. Hence the importance of looking for one positive in a negative situation. I was able to identify a functional strength in mom, which in this case, was integrity. Knowing that she was willing to tell the truth, helped to renew my investment in partnering with her for the rest of the journey. Just to finish the story, she went back to AA that night and we were eventually able to find her more appropriate living arrangements. She ended up being reunited with her children several months later.

My challenge for you this week is to look for the positive; the functional strengths even in those who seemed to have strayed off the path. The definition of "look for" in Angie's dictionary is to actively search for something that may be hidden. Remember that is usually a reason for everything, even if you don't see it at first. By searching, you are committing to that client that you are in it for the duration. You might find a second wind in the marathon of your work with difficult families.

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