Fairly early on in my graduate social work program, our program director sat down with my cohort and talked to us, pretty frankly, about the burnout problem. Some fairly ridiculous percentage (like, 21-67% across multiple studies) of mental health workers report high rates of emotional exhaustion and cynicism with the profession, leading to increases in anxiety, depression, and stress-related health issues. She told us, gently but frankly, that in her experience, a significant number of MSW grads end up leaving the social work field, or at least direct service work, within five years.
I remember, distinctly, looking around that room of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed MSW students, and thinking to myself, “Okay, some of us are gonna burn out, but I’m not going to be one of them.”
What’s that saying about famous last words?
When I chose social work as a field, I knew I was getting into a profession with long hours, low pay, and high rates of compassion fatigue. I’ve written before about the struggle I’ve had balancing my own need for self-care with the desire to spend all of my emotional energy on my clients, and in all honesty, it’s something I’ve struggled with throughout my career–and probably always will, regardless of whether I’m in direct service work or not. It’s just another part of who I am, much to my husband’s chagrin.
But as convinced as I was at the beginning of my graduate program that I was not going to be one of the social workers who burned out in their first five years, I’m beginning to admit that maybe I am. It’s impossible for me to ignore that in the year that I’ve been in clinical work, my health issues–both physical and mental–have gotten worse, my stress levels have skyrocketed (despite pretty significant work over the last six months on self-care routines), and overall, may happiness has just decreased. I love my clients, and in many ways I feel deeply fulfilled by the work that I do. But I also feel tired, frustrated, angry, sad, fiercely furious with the social systems I’m forced to work within, and overall, exhausted.
So, as I recently announced to my work colleagues–and therefore now all of you readers–it’s time for a change.
Besides being one of my absolute least favorite things on the planet just on principle, being on the job hunt means exposing myself to one of my biggest anxiety triggers: putting my own future in someone else’s hands.
I spend a lot of time hanging out with my therapist and talking about why this is such a big deal for me, and in all honesty, we’ve been digging around in it for awhile. We’ve spent a while going back and forth talking about how much I love to plan and control things (case in point), and how job searching is basically impossible to plan or control, because all you’re doing is sending cover letter after cover letter out into the void, hoping like hell someone will send you an email.
(Also, can I just say that whoever started the “due to the amount of responses, we will only contact you if you are invited to interview” thing is an absolutely terrible person? Because seriously. Send a batch “rejection” form email if you have to, but leaving everyone else in limbo is awful, and I hate that it’s become the norm.
Anyway. I digress.)
Wrapping my mind around just why it is that this job search thing makes me so uncomfortable–beyond just the aforementioned frustrating limbo–has been an ongoing challenge over the past month or two that I’ve been engaged in this process. I’ve probably spent two or three days’ (or at least nights’) worth of time trying to connect to the feelings of fear and anxiety that come up every time I think about writing another cover letter or sending another email, and each time, I find myself back at the beginning of my thoughts, deciding that this must just be some kind of personal failure.
But help comes through in weird places.
In my post about New Years’ Resolutions, I talked about wanting to make an effort to watch one TED Talk each month. I spent most of January vaguely scrolling through the TED site from time to time and occasionally bookmarking things to maybe watch later, and ended up scraping in right under the wire last night, thanks to a list of 5 Must-See TED Talks for Social Workers that a friend of mine shared on Facebook. The one I picked was “The Power of Vulnerability” by Brené Brown, and you guys, I don’t say this much, but it was actually life-changing.
In her talk, Brown talks about the biggest barrier to human connection is shame–something that each and every one of us feels at one time or another. Shame is that deep, emotionally exhausting feeling of not [blank] enough–not good enough, not smart enough, not worthy enough. And that to overcome this shame, what we need to do is allow ourselves to be vulnerable; “to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen,” in order to embrace connection. And that, of course, is absolutely fucking terrifying.
So Brown set out to do some research, to deconstruct shame and kick vulnerability’s ass, and to figure out just what it is that separated the people who were able to overcome shame and believe themselves worthy of love and happiness from those who couldn’t. What she found, at the heart of the matter, was this:
“There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy.”
Brown wanted to dig deeper, so she sat down with her interviews and did a more in-depth analysis to see what those people with a belief in their worthiness had in common. And she found four factors. The first three, I thought, seemed to make pretty perfect sense. They had a sense of courage, or as Brown phrased it, “the courage to be imperfect.” They were compassionate to themselves. They had connection.
But the last factor, to both Brown’s and my chagrin, was this: they embraced, wholeheartedly, vulnerability. They knew that in life, vulnerability was a necessary, if uncomfortable, emotion–necessary for connection, necessary for learning, necessary for growth.
Brown’s reaction, and mine, was essentially this:
What the hell, research?!
(It was at about this point in the video that I realized that Brown and I would probably get along really well.)
I’m not going to recap the entire video, because you should really watch it–please, please watch it–but I will tell you what I really took away from it. Vulnerability, as awkward and stomach-churning and anxiety-producing as it is, is something that we must connect with if we are to connect with all of the emotions that come with growth and progress. When we close ourselves off from vulnerability in order to avoid the painful feelings that sometimes come with it–fear, anxiety, disappointment–we also lose out on happiness, on personal growth, on excitement.
When I meet with my clients and they bring an uncomfortable feeling into the room–depression, grief, worry, pain–I ask them to spend a moment sitting with that feeling. I ask them where they feel it in their bodies, where they carry it–in their shoulders, in their chest, in their belly? I ask them to connect with the feeling and allow themselves to feel it, rather than instinctively away, because listening to those feelings is part of the process of understanding them. But doing this for myself has always been something I’ve recoiled against, preferring instead to press past vulnerability and project an air of surety or calm.
It may seem strange to bring vulnerability into my happiness project, but the more I think about it, the more I begin to understand that embracing vulnerability is a critical part of practicing happiness. Where my clients need to connect to the feelings they bring into my office, as I prepare to leave that office I need to connect to the vulnerability of allowing others to control where I go next. I need to lean into my discomfort, not push it away, and only through that discomfort and vulnerability will I be able to reach out to opportunities.
As uncomfortable as it is, I don’t know where the next step in my career will be. But I know that vulnerability is part of the journey.
And, strangely, I’m excited to start.