By Richard Devine, Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council (03.07.20)
This was the perspective of my dad at one point during my childhood. He died when I was 16 years old after he spent most of my adolescence using drugs and alcohol or in rehabilitation treatment centres.
Whilst in rehab my dad wrote about his life, which would have been an exercise to help him make sense of experiences. I read this after he died, and he wrote that I was his first child born into sobriety (I am the youngest of 5). I can only assume he was proud of this fact. In his mid-30’s and for the first time in his adult life he achieved sobriety. Subsequently, he attended college, university, and worked as a social worker in child protection for a few years. Fortunately, this provided some stability during my former years. When I was 8 or 9 years old he resigned from work on health grounds, in part as a result of working excessively long hours, and he relapsed into drug and alcohol use. After his death, my mum told me that he became a social worker, so he could prevent what happened to him, from happening to others. When he was a child my dad was removed from his parents’ care, separated from his siblings, and placed into different foster homes and residential homes. In one religious residential home, he was abused by those employed to care for him. He didn’t want others to have the type of experiences he had. When I heard this, I decided that I would become a social worker, and subsequently enrolled in college. I thought to myself, ‘I will finish off what he wasn’t able to’.
During my social work training and throughout my post-qualifying years when I was asked ‘why did you become a social worker?’ I would tell people that I wanted to work with children in a way that made a positive difference. This is true. But, it is also a superficial and socially acceptable answer. My desire to present as a selfless and virtuous social worker conceals the complexity and awareness to myself and others of the more candid self-serving reasons to do the work I do. As pointed out by Goffman (1959: 56), we ‘tend to conceal or underplay the activities, facts, and motives which are incompatible with an idealised version’ of ourselves’.
This was first brought to my attention during a conference I attended in 2012. A psychotherapist explained that many of us in the helping profession often attempt to rescue our childhood selves vicariously through helping others. Suddenly, what my mum had told me about my dad’s reasoning for becoming a social worker several years prior had new meaning. My dad was attempting to rescue his childhood self. It also occurred to me, that I was attempting to rescue my dads’ childhood self on his behalf.
Over the years I have realised other connections between my childhood and motivation to be a social worker. This has been aided by my fascination with attachment theory, in particular, Patricia Crittenden’s Dynamic Maturational Model (DMM). The DMM helped me realise that I had developed a coping mechanism, or in DMM terms, a ‘self-protective strategy’ to handle the experiences afforded to me in childhood. Returning to my dads’ life story he wrote in rehab, he described the period in which he relapsed during my middle childhood:
‘…after I left my job I took one pill and within a short period I was a fully fledged alkie and drugie, my son Richard saw some of the old behaviour that he had never experienced before and now I feel this has contaminated him…this disgusts me’.**
As a child, I experienced him as increasingly unavailable. He was emotionally unavailable because he was preoccupied with obtaining and consuming substances and/or was under the influence, but he was also physically unavailable during lengthy stints in rehabilitation centres. Simultaneous to my fathers’ substance misuse my mother became depressed and developed chronic fatigue syndrome.
I wouldn’t have had the language or the knowledge at the time, but through learning the DMM, I have come to understand that instinctively and without awareness, I learned ways to adapt to the parents I had during this period. To deal with the rejection and utilise what limited availability they had to attend to me, I dampened down my dependency needs and suppressed and hid feelings of sadness or anger, having learned my parents were not able to deal with such feelings. A rule I established was ‘don’t express feelings’. Furthermore, I sought to please and placate my unwell mum because when I did this I elicited a more favourable reaction. I established a second rule, ‘constantly think about and anticipate my mum’s needs’. The two rules combined led to the development of a largely unconscious strategy of (1) minimising my own needs and (2) anticipating and meeting the needs of others (This is a ‘compulsive caregiving strategy’ in DMM terms).
By the time my dad died when I was 16, I was unable to acknowledge let alone process any negative emotions about the experience and dismissed away the significance of his death (In DMM terms, unresolved loss in a dismissed form). At the same time, and not in-coincidentally I developed asthma (i.e. pyscho-somatic illness). During my late adolescence and into my early adulthood, I grew familiar with a pervasive sense of inadequacy and worthlessness that derived from having my emotions unintentionally yet persistently ignored or devalued by my parents. My child self could not separate the rejection of my feelings from rejection of my fundamental self.
Is it any wonder therefore that I chose a profession, in which it’s ethos, is to care for others, in particular, vulnerable others? I found a home that would enable the perpetuation of my self-protective strategy. Not only did social work function to address the need to care for others, but it is also a highly demanding, pressurised and extremely busy working environment; a perfect, albeit unhealthy way to avoid confronting my feelings. It also became my identity, an idealised image of myself as a self-sacrificing, hard-working individual within the care profession. Dr. Karen Horney (1945: 112) suggests that ‘a person builds up an idealised image of him[/her]self because [s/]he cannot tolerate him[/her]self as [s/]he actually is’.
Learning about my self-protective strategy was an incredibly agonising process because I had to acknowledge all the painful feelings that I had heretofore denied and inhibited. Bowlby referred to this psychological process of denial and inhibition as ‘defensive exclusion’. He wrote ‘…the information likely to be defensively excluded is of a kind that, when accepted for processing in the past, has led the person concerned to suffer more or less severely” (Bowlby, 1980; 69). What information was I defensively excluding? For me, being rejected by my parents was psychologically intolerable; feelings of shame, unworthiness, and being unloveable were invoked and too much to bear.
I had to recognise that my motivation for being a social worker wasn’t simply a reflection of my intrinsic goodness and/or values, rather a convenient and socially acceptable avenue to enact out my unconscious strategy (It was probably both; but more the latter than the former). Recognising this has enabled me to align my motivation much more with my consciously derived intentions and values.
The introspective endeavour into my rationale and motivation for being a social worker has spanned over several years (and is ongoing). Such a process has facilitated psychological adjustment but has also given me insight into the challenges for parents achieving change, even when the benefits outweigh the negatives. It also influences my practice. Lisa Cherry, in a brilliant blog on emotional intelligence, wrote ‘you can only meet someone as deeply as you’ve met yourself’. This idea parallels with Carl Jung’s view that ‘The analyst must go on learning endlessly…We could say without too much exaggeration, that a good half of every treatment consist of the doctor examining himself, for only what he can put right in himself can he hope to put right in the patient’ (CW XVI, para 239 cited Stevens, 1994: 137: emphasis added).
When we truly understand our reasons for becoming social workers, we decrease the risk of our unconscious rationales unintentionally motivating our decision making and behaviour. Clearing ourselves of our personal pursuits allows us the freedom to change our relationship to our work and detangles us from the natural complexities of our past – or at least, that’s my experience.
**When I read this passage during a final proof check, I unexpectedly felt a tinge of sadness that I hadn’t experienced, despite having read it several times before. He said he felt he ‘contaminated’ me and it ‘disgusts’ him; powerful and evocative terms. I note the word ‘disgusts’ is present tense, rather than ‘disgusted’ which is past tense, indicating that disgust in himself was an active and ongoing feeling. I wish he didn’t have to feel like that. I feel privileged to have access to my dad’s feelings because I would have never known he felt like that otherwise. My dad’s diary and life story provides me a glimpse into his vulnerability, his painful reality, and this helps me understand his behaviour. How many parents do we work with, whose feelings of shame and self disgust, is concealed self protectively by denial, apathy, or anger?
By Richard Devine (03.07.20)
If you are interested in learning about the DMM, which in my opinion is a remarkably helpful framework for helping children and families, then you may want to check out Rebecca Carr Hopkins here. She provides brilliant, highly engaging and incredibly informative training.
If you have found this interesting/useful, you may wish to consider scrolling down further and signing up for free blogs to be sent directly to your inbox (no advertisements/requests/selling). I intend to write every fortnight about matters related to child protection, children and families, attachment and trauma. Blogs I have coming up include one about Crittenden’s idea, ‘the critical cause of danger’ and ‘critical cause of change’ and a book review of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecology of Human Development. Or you can read previous blogs here