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Stumbling on: They call me Grace!

For several months, after my cardiac by-pass surgery, I slept on a recliner rather than in my bed. Not that I enjoyed sleeping in a common room on a velvety chair. No, it was more of a necessity. You see, sleeping on my side caused residual pain from the surgery and I could not sleep comfortably flat on my back in the bed. (Eventually, an adjustable bed was purchased, which was heaven!)

Sleeping on the recliner, while not ideal, did allow me to rest without pain. In my home in Birmingham, the reclining couch worked well. However, when I stayed in Gulf Shores, for a few weeks during the summer, the recliner in that house left a lot to be desired. First of all, it was not as comfortable as the Lazy-Boy I had in my home. But even more inconvenient, the recliner sat in the sun room, far from the sleeping areas of the house and the bathrooms. Each night if nature called, I would have to go to the other end of the house, in the dark, navigating the three steps up to the other living areas. (The sun room also sat on a lower level).

One night, on the 4th of July, I woke up around midnight with the need to visit down the hall. I groggily got up and navigated my way. Upon my return, still sleepy and not paying attention, I headed back to the sun room, having forgotten that it was on a lower level. I missed the steps and went sailing into the air and landed on my back. The pain was excruciating, but I did say a silent prayer that I had not landed on my chest. Nothing was broken, but the back was bruised and sprained. When asked by the doctor how I came to fall, I felt embarrassed recounting how I forgot that there were steps.

The experience taught me three valuable lessons.

  1. I'm not as young as I used to be and falls can be more serious. Therefore..

  2. Before going to bed, look around and remove stumbling blocks like shoes, clothes or purses. I am often clumsy when waking from sleep and don't always pay attention to where my feet are going.

  3. When visiting away from home, turn on a light, before I venture off and don't rely on my memory of the home layout.

Now those two rules sound so ridiculously simple. However, they have kept me from stumbling and falling on my face.

But what about the times I have stumbled as a social worker? I can assure you that in three decade, I have made mistakes. I wouldn't be human otherwise. And while I thank God that none of my errors resulted in further abuse of a child, I felt shame and self-blame for each time I stumbled as a child welfare worker.

And looking back at the mistakes I made, I came to very similar conclusions to the ones I adopted after my fall. Most mistakes were made when I was not paying attention. For example, when the emotional impact of a situation captures your focus, even a seasoned social worker can miss some viable clues. And those clues might have led them in a different direction than the emotional impact did.

A stumbling block I see all too often is the unpleasant client. As a social worker, you want to help all of your clients to work through their crisis. So, it is off-putting when you have a client that is surly, argumentative or downright ugly in your caseload. They criticize everything you are trying to do in order to help them, and sometimes can be actually belligerent and threatening. Focusing on the unlike-ability of these clients can be a huge stumbling block to assessing their underlying needs. You dread spending time with them; in fact spend as little time as you can in their presence. Your assessment of their underlying issues becomes tainted by the way that they make you feel. Sound familiar?

Chances are that you will not invest the time and the resources necessary to really help unpack their issues so that a true intervention can be developed. But what can you do?

First of all, acknowledge that their attitude and behavior causes a stumbling block for you. then work on removing the barriers before you actually meet with them. Realize, like with my night walking, that unless you address the barriers and mind-set going into the meeting, you are likely to misstep and stumble. Take the time to go back over their history and the reason you are working with them.

Look for the "why" of the behavior instead of focusing on the behavior itself. Focusing on the "why" can give you insight to avoid the pitfalls of a closed mind. What is the emotion behind the surliness? Anger? Is he angry at you? At his situation? At his self? At his failures? Or is it Fear? Fear that you will find out his trauma that has been a coiled secret snake inside of him for years? Or is the behavior a proven method he has used to push away helpers for his entire life?

By being open-minded to the why behind the behavior, you can remove some of the barriers that clog your understanding and assessment.

If you are not sure of the why"s behind the behaviors, try turning on a light. Dig deeper by approaching him in an engaging and sincere attitude of wanting to know his side; wanting to know about him. Trust is earned. Persistence and patience is key. If you steel yourself to be engaging no matter his behavior, more insight will come. Leave judgement at the door, and they are more likely to tell you more. You will be surprised at how by shining a light on a behavior or a situation, the truth emerges.

You will still make mistakes. As I said, we all do. But if you can control the path, by removing the things stifling your ability to connect, you are more likely to see clearly enough to assess the truth. Making those simple adjustments before your session, can be one way to find your way without stumbling and making a misstep that you will regret.

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