By Rhian Taylor (19.02.21)
Preface by Richard Devine. This guest blog is by Rhian Taylor, an experienced social worker with over 20 years experience. She has recently left academia after several years as a lecturer in Kent University to work in a specialist CAHMS team, where no doubt her thoughtful, kind-spirited and passionate commitment to improving the lives of children and families will serve her well. Rhian is also an author of a book called, Fosterboy about a young boy who comes into care – a beautiful, highly accessible and thought provoking read. In this blog, Rhian offers a wonderfully rich exploration of the term resilience and the limitations created as result of the term, and how it is utilised in social work.
Four years ago, after the HCPC brought in Emotional Resilience as a standard of proficiency I wrote an article for community care entitled Emotional Resilience shouldn’t become a stick to beat social workers with. I was concerned about the pressure on social workers that this brought and the importance for organisations to play their part in supporting staff wouldn’t be recognised.
Now, looking back on the article I wanted to assess whether my initial concerns about resilience had been realised.
On one level I can find nothing to fault in the literature. Resources like the excellent Research in Practice materials by Grant and Kinman (2019) fully address the need for organisational responsibility for resilience and rightly value the importance of emotional intelligence and self-awareness as key to understanding your needs and looking after yourself in practice. And they are not the only excellent writers on this subject. Yet despite the range of very good input there is still something in the literature that troubles me.
I have thought about this for a long time, and I’ve concluded it is the term resilience is the problem. Resilience is a word which is generally associated with strength and hardiness. We talk about people’s ability to ‘bounce back.’ It is not language associated with sensitivity or, in fact, vulnerability.
The research of the American social work academic Dr Brené Brown, whose work has come to prominence since her viral TED talk, explores the importance of vulnerability. Her research focusses on studying the qualities of people who scored highly on compassion and ‘wholeheartedness.’ She tells in her TED talk how she assumed that the people who scored highly in these areas would be characterised by personal strength but what she found was that what they had in common was vulnerability and a willingness to acknowledge and, feel and find effective ways to communicate about the difficulties of their lives.
The reason this research is important to social workers is that the use of language which is associated with strength and hardiness might mean we are less willing to acknowledge our vulnerabilities. This is important as our ability to tune into our own emotions strongly connects with our ability to tune into the emotions of others. Buddhist teacher Pema Chodon defines compassion in the following way:
‘Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognise our shared humanity. ‘
It is easy to assume that through our training and practice social workers will be encouraged to be emotionally open. However, I’m not sure this is the case. In my experience having spent six years as a lecturer, universities are not easy places to be vulnerable. Practice can be the same. One of the most impressive and committed social workers I know said the following when he was describing to me his seven years working in child protection:
The dismissal of feelings is an understandable response to a job which persistently means putting yourself in potentially hostile situations, and which connects you on a daily basis with the pain of others. It is, of course however, a troubling response.
Dr Brené Brown says you cannot numb emotions selectively. If we are numbing seeing the pain of others, we will also be numbing seeing other more positive aspects of their lives. We could also be missing out on important sources of information for our assessments and practice. If we are numbing our feelings of distress about our work, we might be also be failing to attune to other important emotions in our personal life.
So, whilst detachment from emotions and the development of a ‘thick skin’ might be seen by many as a sensible way of surviving the demands of the work, a way of being resilient, this is not the best our profession can offer. This is not the social worker I want knocking on my door when I am most in need. The words we use are important as we should use language which is precise and is unlikely to be misinterpreted. In writing this I am particularly remembering the misuse of the term of resiliency when working with unaccompanied asylum seekers. The fact that a young person was described as resilient and had demonstrated the ability to travel across Europe was cited as a reason to deny mental health support and resources appropriate to their trauma. Resilience and vulnerability were pitted as opposites, rather than as characteristics that often coexist. That is, ‘resilience’ may in fact be an adaptation to cope with danger that protects the self from being vulnerable, or in need, which is unbearably painful to tolerate when you have no alternative.
As often in life, it is the poets who say things best. In her poem ‘Optimism’ Jane Hirshfield describes how resilience shouldn’t be the bouncing back of a pillow. It should instead reflect how the natural world responds to challenges by adapting and changing. She describes a tree which moves towards the light and seeks new ways to adjust to its changing environment.
It’s a lovely image and reminds me of the importance of people being able change and adapt to situations. Adaptability will always be important in our profession. It has been vital with the huge challenges that Covid 19 has brought and we have seen the incredible and inspiring agility of social care workers responding to people’s needs. Yet, it has also been a period characterised by a collective loss and hardship, demanding sensitivity and compassion from social workers.
In considering this issue I’d hoped I could come up with a shiny new concept or term which would encapsulate both adaptability and sensitivity, but I couldn’t find a perfect word. Instead, the image I keep coming back to is that developed by palliative care expert, Dr Joan Halifax, who talked about the need for ‘strong backs’ and ‘soft fronts.’ I will conclude with her words:
By Rhian Taylor (19.02.21)
Below is a short overview of what I learned reading Rhian’s excellent book ‘Fosterboy’ which can be bought here. I highly recommend it.
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Brown, B. (2015) Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. London: Penguin Books.
Grant, L and Kinman, G. (2014) Developing Resilience for Social Work Practice. London: Macmillan.
Halifax, J (2018) Standing at the edge, finding freedom where fear and courage meet. New York; Flatiron Books.
Research in Practice, Grant, L and Kinman, G (2019) The Social Work Organisational Resilience Diagnostic (SWORD) Dartington: Research in Practice. Available at http://sword.researchinpractice.org.uk/[Accessed 6/11/20