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When You Feel 'Too Broken' to Be in a Helping Profession

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After weeks like this one, I cannot help but question whether I am in the right field or not. Despite the fact I have never once actually regretted my decision to pursue social work and cannot even slightly imagine doing anything else for a career, I have left the office most days this week wondering to myself, Am I too broken to do this work?

There are tough weeks like this one where it seems like I am just a little too fragile and vulnerable to interact with patients who are incredibly fragile themselves and I sometimes wonder what makes me any more competent and capable to be sitting on the practitioner’s side of the couch or my end of the telephone than the patient. Weeks like this one are ones in which I seem to be triggered by anything and everything and my past comes flooding back to me with a vengeance.

I wonder how I am supposed to reassure a kid that everything wrong in this world is not his fault when there are days when I feel that exact same way. I wonder how I am supposed to tell a young woman that eventually she will be able to think about things beyond her trauma when it is hard for me at times to stop ruminating on painful memories of my own. I wonder how I am supposed to offer hope to patients when there are moments when I cannot even find any within myself. How can I ever be a good social worker if I still have so many personal issues I haven’t quite managed to rid myself of yet?

It is weeks like this one when I need extra reassurance from my supervisor and peers what I am doing is right because my anxiety is off the charts. Most of the time when I voice this need for reassurance, my colleagues and supervisor have not even noticed I am having an extra rough week. They have no idea I’m internally questioning every little choice I make, from the simplest things of how I greet a patient, to the way I type up progress notes.

My inner self-critic is absolutely out of control. It is times like these when I need a little extra space from people too. I need to be able to go into my metaphorical hole, do my work, get through my day and leave. I do not have the energy to engage in small talk or even meaningful conversations because it is at any point I feel vulnerable of breaking down and crying for no reason. It is hard to be around others in general when I am in this funk because the things that are important to you are not as important to me – I am simply trying to survive my day without a flashback or panic attack. Because I care about my job as much as I do, I need to put all energy I have left into working with my patients.

Ideally, I would have enough mental energy to go around, to be able to engage in playful banter with my colleagues and meaningful work with my patients. But during these weeks, I just can’t. We preach in social work that we need to meet our patients where they are and I need the same.

One day, I hope not to have weeks when I am in this funk, but for now, that is where I am. None of this is easy for me to admit. I am a perfectionist and people-pleaser, but I am slowly learning I need to listen to my own needs and this is OK. For it is when I listen to my own needs I can survive. It is when I listen to my needs that I am able to be triggered but still be able to cope in one way or another, so that I don’t have to leave work in the middle of the day.

I have been able to hear stories incredibly similar to mine and not only listen without breaking down in front of the patient, but also professionally and appropriately empathize in a genuine way. When I really stop to think about this, it is amazing progress for me. I’ve realized although the time and energy I put into treatment certainly did pay off in helping me to learn coping skills, I cannot put my life on hold forever to deal with my issues. Eventually I needed to jump back in and work through it all.

My past is always going to be with me and there are unforeseen things that may trigger me for the rest of my life. The closer I can get to accepting this and listening to my needs, the easier it will be for me to live my life with increasing self-compassion and decreasing self-judgment. No doubt there will be more weeks ahead like this one when I feel completely incompetent due to various triggers, but I am slowly understanding what I need to get through these weeks. I am slowly becoming ever so slightly more comfortable in asking for what I need.

So going back to the question of trying to decide whether I am too broken to do this work. Yes, I am broken, but I have decided this doesn’t mean I can’t go after my dream of making a difference in the lives of kids and being an incredible social worker.

Admittedly, I do not feel completely whole right now but I have moved beyond the days of feeling completely unrepairable. I know there will be more days when I have a hard time holding any and all belief in myself and my abilities, but it is in these times I must remember how far I have come and that next week will be better.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via berdsigns.

Originally published: March 6, 2017
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