Thursday, June 7, 2012

Empathy in social work

Empathy is a very important part of being a social worker. I think sometimes though people confuse empathy with an exact replication of someone else’s experience. This is not the case. In fact, one of the worst things that can be said to a client in distress is “I know exactly what you’re going through….” because well, you don’t. Saying that diminishes their own experience, even if the social worker has been through something extremely similar.

More often than not though, I hear it being used in a completely unrelated context. For example, I have 2nd-3rd degree burns on both of my hands. Burns are painful, no doubt. However, this doesn’t mean that I have any type of relevant first hand experience to be able to tell the client I recently worked with from Haiti whose body was covered 40% by burns from the earthquake that I know the feeling. It would be a terrible mistake to look at that client & say “oh I know how awful that feels, I had burns that took months to heal on my hands.” First of all, I have no idea what it’s like to have significant burns across my body or to spend years in the hospital with countless life saving and reconstructive surgeries. Second of all, I cannot relate to the trauma of going through a natural disaster. And even if I *did*, that doesn’t mean that my experience or reaction would be the same.

This is an example of self-reflection, and a realization as to how my own experience could potentially impact a client if I *think* I know what they are feeling. Self-reflection and empathy are both important in social work in order to check your own biases, values, and practice ethics. Caution must be taken to ensure that the line from empathy to self-righteousness or dogma isn't crossed.

Never, ever tell a client that you know what they are going through. You don’t. Having a similar experience is a good starting point to be able to make a connection – albeit quietly & in your own head – with what the client may or may not be experiencing. Empathy is a good jumping-off point to being able to help a client understand their own feelings, but it is imperative that workers do not confuse this with *knowing* what the client feels. This has the potential to do harm because it relegates the client to a lesser role in their own experience.

One particular population that I've noticed this happens a lot with is the LGBT community. People like to say "well why don't they just live their lives & not worry about what others think?" or the one that irritates me the most "we've all been teased about something". Yes, that's probably true. However, being teased because you wore a certain outfit or something equally changeable is *completely* different than being targeted not only in your immediate peer group but by society as a whole simply for existing. So while you may understand what it feels like to be teased a time or two in your life, & it's good to have an understanding of how uncomfortable that is, unless you have been told repeatedly by politicians, media, religious institutions, legal frameworks, and society as a whole that you are innately unacceptable the way you naturally simply cannot relate. 

LGBT equality isn't about an individual ignoring what a few mean kids at school say or getting over a breakup by focusing on a hobby for a while. It's much bigger than that. It's about changing the entire framework of a society that deems a whole portion of it's members to be subhuman. It's about re-defining everything to include equality at all levels, whether it's marriage equality or simply the right to hold your partner's hand in public without getting dirty looks from people. It's about changing the very perception of "normal" to include a broad spectrum of identities. When LGBT equality truly exists, there will not be questions as to why that boy likes to wear pink or assumptions that a girl with a short haircut must be into other girls. There will not be discussions telling a transwoman to be a man & quit dressing like a woman, or insinuating that there is something "sick" about them when there most certainly isn't. 

The LGBT community is society's largest civil rights fight today. Which side do you want to be on in history? I know for me, I want to be on the side that stood up to speak for justice. And the first step in that is realizing that although I may have common experiences, it is entirely inappropriate to assume that my experience is the same for others. It is my greatest wish for society that we can learn as a whole to look at someone who is different in any way &, instead of judging & assigning value, simply say "I don't know what that's like, will you talk to me about it?" And then accept that their truth is as valid as anyone else's.

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