What is the truth about social work? In her new book, On Clinical Social Work: Meditations and Truths From The Field, clinical social worker Danna Bodenheimer, explores this question with grace, clarity, and insights that are as inspiring as they are clarifying.
“We rarely hear about clients who come in and ask for the newest social worker. And that’s too bad because new social workers are a gift,” writes Bodenheimer.
While an experienced social worker may convey confidence and wisdom to clients, they are seldom inventive. But in many ways, social work requires invention. Clients can be so easily reduced to their diagnosis so easily, their intricacies and idiosyncrasies missed, and their humanness lost.
“To render social work clinical, we listen for more, and think about what is behind the scenes of what is said,” Bodenheimer writes.
The past may be making itself known in the present, the client may be displaying symbolic symptomatology, or an attachment style may be influencing the transference between the social worker and the client. And yet, clinical social work is only made clinical when we refuse to divide a person up according to their diagnosis, behaviors, socioeconomic realities, racial identity, job status, or sexuality.
Social work can be both messy and magic, and Bodenheimer encourages her readers to think more deeply about both.
“I have a question that I ask most supervisees: Which clients are you brushing your teeth with? It is a strange question, but what I am aiming to discern is which clients are most deeply penetrating the psyches of my supervisees,” Bodenheimer writes.
While schooling for social work is invaluable, argues Bodenheimer, it is also too short, too general, and too often afraid to discuss issues like how to integrate race and oppression, identity fluidity, and how to ask for a salary that reflects what is needed to live reasonably well.
The result is that many social workers have somewhat conflicted relationships with their jobs.
“This is often because the ways in which we work in America are inherently burdensome and overwhelming,” explains Bodenheimer.
Social work is a job that leaves people breathless at the end of the week, doesn’t pay the bills, and yet requires vast amounts of empathy.
And many social workers operate with questions about their own sanity – especially if they have been traumatized – the efficacy in their work, and the shame of a traumatic history. Yet Bodenheimer offers another perspective:
“There is something quite magical and painful about the traumatized mind,” she writes.
Social work is haunted by relationships, interactions, and patterns that repeat themselves, yet requires a professionalism that must transcend the personal troubles that social workers can find themselves in.
“I have come to strongly believe in the healing power of one daily practice. I am not referring to something complex, expensive, or inconvenient. I am talking about making an inarguable pact with yourself to do one consistent thing daily. Part of the reason I suggest it is that when this daily practice is something you can’t attend to, you can have a way of recognizing how much you are struggling,” writes Bodenheimer.
The work of helping people recognize themselves as cohesive wholes, maintains Bodenheimer, is tremendously important, especially in a society structured to annihilate the evolution of authentic equality and ignore the psychological ramifications of issues such as racial inequality.
“Clinically, our work comes down to the provision of an emotional acre of land for each of our clients,” writes Bodenheimer.
She asks: Can we ever diagnose someone and return to thinking of them in a way that is free of that diagnosis?
And yet, the notion that social workers are any different from their clients, Bodenheimer tells us, is a false dichotomy. Social workers can struggle with a false sense of professional self, fear of their feelings, anxiety about the right theory to use with clients, and anxiety about whether or not what they are doing is actually therapeutic. The work, however, reflects that less is more.
“Essentially our work is to help clients say more. This often requires moving out of the way,” writes Bodenheimer.
When therapists can join their clients’ chorus, celebrate their victories, and abate their fears of becoming transgressive, a clinical dyad can form whereby a mutual psychological experience is shared. It is in asking deep questions, considering psychological and neurobiological impact, avoiding an overly knowing stance, and deferring to the client’s experience that social work becomes so powerfully healing. In essence, social work is about crafting interventions that lead clients to their own inner wisdom and instinct.
“When we provide individuals with the space to think, to broaden their emotional literacy, to feel what feels un-feelable, we send change agents out into the world – agents ready to share these morally just acts of interpersonal love and relatedness,” writes Bodenheimer.
Filled with poignant questions, thoughtful insights, and pearls of wisdom, On Clinical Social Work speaks to the soul of social work, in ways that inspire, encourage, and challenge social workers to think more deeply, about what it means to be therapeutic. For any social worker, new or seasoned, Bodenheimer’s book should be required reading.
On Clinical Social Work: Meditations and Truths From The Field
Dana R. Bodenheimer
The New Social Worker Press
Softcover, 225 Pages