As much as “Kind, Caring, Compassionate” is a motto for social workers and one I try to internalize, I am becoming more and more comfortable with admitting that kindness and patience are not things that come naturally to me.
This isn’t to say that I’m an unkind person. I spend what might be too much time thinking about other people and trying to do as much as I can for my clients and my various social justice causes. But at the same time, I have a lot of inner Gryffindor that needs to be contended with.
When I grew up reading Harry Potter, I always thought I was too smart to be in Gryffindor. “Surely I’m a Ravenclaw!”, I thought. “I’m so clever! And practical! And I always think about things! And I get really passionate about social justice, but I try to be well-researched, and…”
So, here I am, trying to reconcile my Gryffindor identity (which is starting to make an uncomfortable amount of sense with my Leo personality) with my social work career path, which asks, amongst other things, that clinicians be kind and compassionate, understanding and thoughtful, careful with our words and actions, gentle with our judgments, and cautious with our interventions.
There are a lot of ways baby social workers might go about learning the skills that don’t necessarily come naturally to us. Read a book, role-play with a friend or supervisor, seek extra supervision…all great ways of developing those skills.
I decided to get a dog.
(she’s sad because I took her picture instead of cuddling her)
Meet Sammi, my new housemate. She’s a hound/lab mix, with a little bit of Rhodesian Ridgeback thrown in there somewhere (she looks freakishly like my brother- and sister-in-law’s dog, Charlie), somewhere between a year and a half and two years old. She is a cuddly sweetheart who bounces back and forth between “let me lie on your lap and love you!” and “I WILL RUN EVERYWHERE GOODBYE.”
What was that about patience, again?
Here’s the thing about dogs. Dogs are, by nature…dogs. They don’t have the same moral reasoning that people do, and as such you can’t hold them to the same moral standard. If a dog gets freaked out because you’re leaving the house and runs back and forth across the house REALLY FREAKING FAST because they’re terrified that you will never come back ever (even if you’re just, I don’t know, popping out to the car to get the last bag of groceries), they’re not doing it to piss you off. All you can do is remake the bed, straighten the carpet, and go back to your day. If they slip by you on your way out the door to go to brunch and lead you on a wild goose (dog?) chase through the woods around your house for an hour and you only catch them because they’ve decided to become BFFs with the neighbor’s St. Bernard down the road and tire themselves out, they’re doing it because they are dogs, and outside is SUPER FUN, and of course they want to run around without a leash! All you can do is snap their leash back on, wash them off at home, thank your lucky stars individually and by name that they didn’t run into the street, and sign them up for a training class.
And as frustrating as it is, you just…can’t get mad. Partially because they turn those big puppy eyes on you and you melt like butter on a warm pancake, but also because it doesn’t help anything. All you can do is take a deep breath, handle the situation calmly, and come up with a better training regimen or a more careful way to leave the house.
A lot of this comes from the understanding that dogs can’t tell us what they’re thinking. They can’t tell you that they’re sad that you’re leaving because they’ve been bounced from home to home, or that they run when they have the chance because a person was mean to them or they saw something they really wanted to chase. For those of us who adopted our dogs, there are a ton of blank spots to fill in. Who left you so often that you’re terrified every time I leave for work in the morning? Who didn’t train you to wait by the door so that you don’t bolt out if I fail to close it behind me fast enough? Do you bark at any sudden movement because it’s instinct, or because something scared you? Do you bark at me because you need something you’re not getting, or because you want something and aggressiveness was the only way to get it in the last place you lived? TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU SO THAT I CAN FIX EVERYTHING.
(Spoilers, they don’t usually answer that question.)
After awhile, this train of thought gets uncomfortably close to the tenets of trauma-informed care. Which, for someone who is definitely on the struggle bus with the whole “give the benefit of the doubt” thing, is actually pretty awesome, because it slots everything into place. “Oh,” you think to yourself as you sit across from a client who is throwing things against the wall again, “this is how I felt when Sammi was barking up a storm yesterday. Something must have happened that made this the reaction that makes sense to this client in this situation.” And all of a sudden, instead of wanting to bash your head into the wall, it makes a lot more sense to take a deep breath and respond with patience. You can’t undo whatever happened to them before you came into their lives. All you can do is try to be the best person for them moving forward, whether that’s deconstructing and changing negative behavior or reinforcing positive behavior.
Just because patience is not your instinctual response doesn’t mean you can’t become a person who practices patience. Just because your initial response to conflict or aggression is to snap right back doesn’t mean you can’t learn to react with kindness, even if your mind is still mentally listing all the snappy comebacks you could have used. There are times and places for action and debate and all the other fun things we Gryffindors like to do instead of quietly and calmly and kindly discussing an issue (anyone who has ever had a social justice conversation with me knows how low “be friendly” is on my list of priorities in those chats), but there are times and places where patience and kindness are what works better. Are what’s needed.
Take a breath. Flip through your mental Rolodex of kind words and find the right ones for this situation. Handle this moment with kindness and compassion. Finish your session. Finish your walk. Gently disengage your client’s fingers from whatever she is throwing. Sit quietly until your dog understands that barking will not get your attention. Breathe.
And when it’s over, have a nice glass of wine.
(You earned it.)