By Richard Devine, Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council
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Each year, in between Christmas and New Year, I like to reflect upon the previous year and use the time to think and plan for the following year. Last year, I published the review on the blog for the first time, and I am doing the same again this year.
I remain working for Bath and North East Somerset Council, entering my sixth year here and my 11th year of social work. I was fortunate enough at the beginning of the year to get a new position of a Consultant Social Worker. This was a new post in BANES, and is in part, designed to support practitioners with career progression without moving into management. As part of the role, I still complete parenting assessments of children and families. I draw heavily on Crittenden’s Dynamic Maturational Model of Attachment and Adaptation and utilise several attachment procedures, including an Adult Attachment Interview, Parents Interview, School-Aged Assessment of Attachment, Child and Play Assessment of Attachment, and CARE-Index. Without a doubt, the DMM and accompanying assessment procedures are the most valuable tools I have yet to encounter in my endeavour to help children and families.
Another part of the role has been workforce development. This is where I have struggled somewhat to find my footing. I have undertaken in-depth case reviews and produced reports that were disseminated across the Local Authority. Returning to Munro’s book, Effective Child Protection, has proved helpful in reviewing decision making. Also, I have delivered workshops on risk assessment, working with fathers, direct work with children, child-parent observations, and attachment theory. Delivering training has caused some internal tension. Providing an overview on a topic implies a certain standard of knowledge (i.e., expertise) which I have from experience, but this feeling runs contrary to underlying feelings I can experience of inadequacy. Another challenge has been attempting to extricate learning acquired over many years, which has become implicit and making it explicit and comprehensible to others. Despite these challenges, psychological and practical, I do enjoy this part of the job.
This year, I have attempted to establish a healthier relationship with work. I no longer have a role whereby the work is next to impossible to do without working long hours, which was my experience in a long-term case holding team. I have faced two challenges with working less. I had developed an identity and attached feelings of self-worth to the fact that I worked for long hours. Underpinning this identity was a feeling of not being good enough, so I told myself that I had to work harder to keep up with my peers. If someone worked 40 hours, I had to work 50 hours just to be on a level playing field. Secondly, working less has meant that I couldn’t do as much, which meant being more selective about what I took on. The hardest part of this was saying ‘no’ or being transparent with my manager about how I felt I was managing my current workload. I found this very hard. In childhood, I developed a compulsive caregiving strategy, and as a result, I tied my self-worth and sense of self to my performance in the caregiving role. I carried this strategy forward into the adulthood. While I worked long hours at work, I would say ‘yes’ to almost everything out of my desperate desire to please and elicit approval (and avoid rejection), even if this meant compromising other areas of my life or my wellbeing. A part of me, even now, feels that if I say ‘no’ or explain that I can’t take on a particular piece of work, this will mean I won’t be valued, respected and everyone will finally see the evidence of my worthlessness. I can’t help but mistake the conditions of my childhood for the conditions I am currently in. Of note, I don’t apply this expectation to anyone else. In fact, I respect my peers when they create boundaries around what they can and can’t do – often, it means that they can more effectively do well what they are expected to do. On the other hand, in the past I tried to please everyone and either succeed (by compromising health, well-being, outside work relationships) or overstretch myself and please no one.
In addition to a new job role, I recently secured a position of British Association of Social Workers In-Practice Researcher at Cambridge University with Dr. Robbie Duschinsky and his team. As part of this 12-month position, I am involved in undertaking some research with Robbie and Sarah Foster, a collaborator based at Northumbria University. I am beyond excited and grateful for this opportunity.
This year, I have continued to write a blog. Last year, I wrote that I wanted to write 26 blogs, including a review of Robbie Duschinsky’s book, Cornerstones, and became more comfortable writing shorter blogs. I also wanted to get 1000 followers. I have failed on all accounts.
I didn’t write a review of Cornerstones. The blogs remain long, and in total, I wrote 16. One of them was sharing a webinar, and 1 of them was a guest blog by Rhian Taylor. I have increased the number of blog followers from 193 to 580, and most of these came from the most recent, and by far, most read blog. This isn’t anywhere near 1000.
With all of that said, I am delighted by each person who has shared their e-mail, so they receive my blog each time I write one. It is exciting but also humbling. More than ever, I want to ensure that I do my best to provide valuable, interesting work. If you are reading this and following the blog, thank you genuinely (yeah, you! Thank you). It’s astonishing, really, in our current climate with so much vying for our attention that anyone at all ever reads them. Moving forward, I will not set targets; instead, I will produce the best quality blogs I can for those already following. If anyone else joins the community, then, of course, that would be wonderful.
The three most popular blogs are:
- 5 points about the death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes (34,824)
- How to manage resistance and have difficult conversations (992)
- Working with fathers: Challenging our perceptions (884)
The three least popular blogs are:
- If I was in charge for the day (116)
- Carl Jung: Modern Man in Search of a Soul, 10 lessons (75)
- How the world is healthier, happier than ever and what it means for social work (56)
I am convinced by the value and utility of writing a blog more than ever. My only regret is not writing one sooner, I think everyone should (and if you are considering it, I would be happy to offer advice or help – just get in touch). The blog has three main functions:
- It helps me integrate and remember my learning. I have read many books and can’t remember anything about them, other than a basic gist. Writing about a book I have read forces me to engage with material much more rigorously and thus improve my ability to understand and recall the ideas.
- It improves my ability to write. In an informational and technological age, effective writing is a necessary skill. There is no shortcut to improving writing other than to practice. There is no better place to practice than online, in front of the world. Knowing that it will be made public forces me to think carefully about what and how I write and encourages the application of a rigorous (albeit flawed) editing process. I have noticed that some book-review blogs reflect the style of the book I have read, thus I end up learning that style. For example, I reviewed Forrester, Wilkins and Whittaker’s book on Motivational Interviewing, which is written by the authors in beautifully clear and plain language. I attempted to emulate this style in the blog, in part, because I also want to write as clearly as they managed to in that text.
- Writing is related to thinking and thinking is related to action. As pointed out by Peterson, ‘You need to be able to think because thinking allows you to act effectively in the world…if you can think and speak and write you are absolutely deadly…it’s the most powerful weapon you can provide someone’. Therefore, learning how to write, in my opinion (perhaps not in others!) has improved my problem-solving skills and ability to be a helpful, practically useful social worker.
About the latter point, I have been fortunate to be invited to Oxford Brookes and Kent University to deliver presentations on Participation and Theory to Practice respectively. Both online, of course.
Most pleasingly, I delivered a webinar with none other than social work legend, Siobhan Maclean on ‘Social Work and Conflict’ (See below). This is a top contender for the highlight of the year. Not only did these invitations come from the blog, but most of the content also delivered in these workshops I based on the blogs I had written. Thus, whilst I needed to prepare a PowerPoint presentation, I had already done most of the hard work. This experience allowed me to appreciate the saying, ‘when opportunity meets preparation’.
To conclude on this overview of blog writing, I will summarise some key ideas and principles that have influenced my approach to writing:
- Share what you have learned (not what you know). I take a lot of pressure from myself by framing the blog writing as an attempt to share what I have learned, rather than what I know. If you learn something, share it.
- Related to the first point, embrace being an amateur. Austin Kleon writes ‘we’re all terrified of being revealed as an amateur, but in fact, today it is the amateur – the enthusiast who pursues her work in the spirit of love, regardless of the potential for fame, money or career – who often has the advantage’. Amateurs, Kleon continues are ‘just regular people who get obsessed by something and spend a ton of time thinking out loud about it’ (p.15-16)
- Write as simply as you can. Simple words, simple sentences, simple paragraphs. This is something I am working hard on trying to achieve currently.
- Write the first draft badly, freely, and playfully. Then, edit, edit, edit. Always accept the first draft will be bad and separate the writing from the editing.
- Time will never make itself available for you to write. There is no point in the future where your life circumstances conspire in such a way that a non-interrupted space becomes available. You have to impose a structure into your life that allows you to write. Invariably, this involves sacrifice because as soon as you decide to spend your finite time on one activity (i.e., writing), you are automatically, unavoidably deciding not to spend it on an infinite number of other activities. I wish I had a daily writing habit, 30 minutes per day. But I don’t (yet!). I think about writing every day and sometimes I spend an hour before or after work or a few hours on the weekend.
Reading, Audiobooks and Podcasts:
In my previous annual review, I set myself the target of reading 20 minutes per day. As I noted before, 20 minutes a day doesn’t sound a lot, but amounts to 2 hours, 20 minutes per week; 9 hours, 20 minutes per month; and 121 hours over a year. That is at least 3 weeks of full-time work a year of reading.
This year, I have read about 20 books, which is 7 more than the year previous. Most of these have been real books, but I have also read several on the kindle. I haven’t counted how many days I have read compared with how many I have missed, but I approximate it to be 85% – 15%. Quite often, I will read for more than 20 minutes. I always do this before I go to sleep, and as a result, try to get to bed half an hour before I go to sleep. I have tried to increase the speed I read, but I have also come to realise that there is no shortcutting the process – I simply need to allow myself time to read every day.
My three favourite books this year have been:
- Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker (2018)
One-line review: Perspective changing, uplifting, meticulously researched, exceptionally well written.
‘We are born into a pitiless universe, facing steep odds against life enabling order and in constant jeopardy of falling apart…We are made from crooked timber, vulnerable to illusions, self-centeredness, and at times astounding stupidity…Yet human nature has also been blessed with resources that open space for a kind of redemption. We are endowed with the power to combine ideas recursively, to have thoughts about our thoughts. We have an instinct for language, allowing us to share the fruits of our experience and ingenuity. We are deepened with the capacity for sympathy-for pity, imagination, compassion, commiseration… Our circle of sympathy has been expanded by history, journalism, and the narrative arts. And our puny rational faculties have been multiplied by the norms and institutions of reason: intellectual curiosity, open debate, scepticism of authority and dogma, and the burden of proof to verify ideas by confronting them against reality. As the spiral of recursive improvement gathers momentum, we eke out victories against the forces that grind us down, not least the darker parts of our own nature. We penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos, including life and mind. We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences. Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by the others’ (P.452-453).
- The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1976)
One-line review: Exquisite, beautiful writing style enthused with the authors fascination in the topic.
‘I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. ’Special’ and ‘limited’ are important words in the last sentence. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense. This brings me to the first point I want to make about what this book is not. I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. * I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave. I stress this, because I know am in danger of being misunderstood by those people, all too numerous, who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case. My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true. Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to.
As a corollary to these remarks about teaching, it is a fallacy – incidentally a very common one to suppose that genetically inherited traits are by definition fixed and unmodifiable. Our genes may instruct us to be selfish, but we are not necessarily compelled to obey them all our lives. It may just be more difficult to learn altruism than it would be if we were genetically programmed to be altruistic’ (P.3-4).
- Cruel Optimism by Lauren Berlant (2011)
One-line review: Captivating and thought-provoking. A beautiful exposition of hardship, ordinariness, and cruel optimism.
‘This chapter is most broadly about the political and affective economies of normativity at the present time, the production as desire of a collective will to imagine oneself as a solitary agent who can and must live the good life promised by capitalist culture. It tells a story from the perspective of the economic bottom’s thick space of contingency. It is about the fantasy of meritocracy, a fantasy of being deserving, and its relation to practices of intimacy, at home, at work, and in consumer worlds. It is a story about plenitude and scarcity – about so many bad jobs contingently available to so many contingent workers and never enough money, never enough love, and barely any rest, yet with ruthless fantasy abounding. It is a story about the calibrations of reciprocity and about how proximity to the fantasy life of normativity might be what remains to animate living on, for some on the contemporary economic bottom. Finally, it is an account of normativity that sees normativity as something other than a synonym for privilege. Rather, in my view, to understand collective attachments to fundamentally stressful conventional lives, we need to think about normativity as aspirational and as an evolving and incoherent cluster of hegemonic promises about the present and future experience of social belonging that can be entered into in a number of ways, in affective transactions that take place alongside the more instrumental ones… the lower you are on economic scales, and the less formal your relation to the economy, the more alone you are in the project of maintaining and reproducing life’ (P.167).
If you are interested in developing a reading habit, here are some suggestions I have picked up on habit formation from others (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZ7lDrwYdZc): 1. Make it easy. Set yourself an easily achievable daily target of 1 page a day. Or 5 minutes a day. Pick a book you want to read – not one you think you should read. 2. Make it accessible. Leave the book by your bedside cabinet or somewhere else visible. 3. Be consistent and preferably, do it at the same time each day.
One approach I have found really motivating is if I tie reading the book into a relationship with someone else. For example, I will ask someone I admire what has been an important or influential book. Then, I will read the recommended text with an expectation that I will feedback to the person some reflections about the book as an acknowledgement of appreciation.
In respect of audiobooks, I have listened to less than last year. My two favourite audiobooks are:
- Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. This is a staggeringly good book on family, addiction, poverty, violence, and sexuality. Stuart does an outstanding job of revealing the complexity of a mother plagued by alcoholism.
- Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman. This was so good I listened to it twice. The perfect antidote to the frenetic, compulsive desire to be more productive and efficient. A central argument is that there will always be too much to do, and often we think that if we can become more productive, efficient, then there will eventually be a time when we are in control. However, while not entirely undesirable, becoming more efficient has built-in traps because the more you do, the more you take on and the more you take on the less selective you become about what you’re doing. Consequently, you end up doing activities, projects that don’t ultimately fulfil you.
The reduction in audiobooks might be a result of listening to more podcasts this year. I listen to a variety depending on the topics, including Lex Friedman, Joe Rogan, Deep Questions with Cal Newport, The Michael Shermer Show. The podcasts I have listened to the most however have been:
- Modern Wisdom by Chris Williamson
- The Social Work Research Podcast by Martin Webber
My favourite episode all year though was Matthew Walker on the Joe Rogan Show. Completely changed my perspective on sleep. Absolutely fascinating:
In last year’s review, I wrote about listening to audiobooks and podcasts on x2 speed. I still think this is a game-changing time saver. I won’t ever watch a webinar live now because I know that I can always watch it later at twice the speed and in half the time.
I continue to apply a lot of time and attention to well-being. Journaling and meditating are two staple habits that I have continued for the second year. I have added a third habit this year; a cold shower. Almost without fail, I do these three habits every day.
I did a four-day retreat in June 2021 with Concorde Institute. This retreat involves bodywork, dialogue, and a macrobiotic diet. Attempting to put into words what this course, and others that I have done like it in the past will do it a disservice. Briefly, it has shifted my worldview and supported me in ways that I could have never imagined in overcoming the effects of my childhood experiences and the strategies I developed. In addition to cold showering, meditating, journaling, and partaking in therapeutic programmes I also have attempted to implement a more consistent exercise regime. This year, I have made good progress with this, although it remains more inconsistent than I would like it to be.
I have a few reflections about my introspective inquiry that I would like to share.
Firstly, I am now in an unbelievably privileged position in life whereby I can no longer hold onto the idea that any outside, external phenomena such as a job promotion or validation, attention, or recognition will provide a sense of success. My ego, like others I assume, has a core, unchanging idea that at some point in the future, (when I get…fill in the blank i.e. promotion, recognition) then I will be, finally, conclusively content. However, suppose I allow myself to accept that the future holds the key to happiness. In that case, I also agree to a way of thinking and being in the world that perpetually sacrifices the present moment in pursuit of some future moment or attainment of a goal. However, this way of thinking and being doesn’t change once I attain the goal that I imagined would bring me happiness. After a fleeting moment of contentment, it almost immediately shifts the goals posts. It has me projecting myself into the future once again with a different goal, with a new promise of contentment. I am, therefore (often unsuccessfully), constantly attempting to detach myself from the ego’s insistent attempts to orient me in the world such that I give up the present under the false belief that the future will bring in the ideal. There is the journey and nothing else. That doesn’t mean I don’t have goals and ambitions, but I try to recognise that pursuing goals is what makes life. That is life. Total and complete immersion into the entirety of the present moment. One pursuit after the other with milestones to indicate whether or not you hit the target.
Secondly, while scanning through a years’ worth of journal entries it became apparent how much energy I exert into being a reasonably healthy, functioning adult. It feels as if I am at war with myself.
On the one hand, I want to be a responsible, loving father and husband who takes care of my physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing whereby I can fulfil my duties at home and live a successful happy life. On the other hand, I resist the ‘good life’. I have a strong desire for self-sabotage (especially when things go well), and I desperately want to (and often do) escape from the self and responsibilities of life through unhealthy means.
Sometimes, I feel resentful that I have to journal, meditate, eat healthy, go to sleep at 10pm and exercise just to feel okay. Just to avoid the existential despair that too readily sets in when I don’t do these things. I am increasingly realising, however that my childhood experiences didn’t prepare me for success, love, and progress. I was prepared and conditioned to respond to rejection, disappointment, and failure. The ego’s way of protecting me from the hurt and pain invoked by these childhood experiences was to disconnect myself emotionally – that is now my default setting. Emotional disconnection. In the past, this is what kept me safe, psychologically speaking. But, separation from negative feelings incurs a price, separation from positive feelings too.
As part of this process, feelings were labelled as ‘bad’, ‘dangerous’ or ‘threatening’. Therefore, when I act in the world in a way that invokes feelings, even positive feelings, I find this threatening because my ego has created a self-protective short cut and has linked emotion with pain. All of this is unconscious. Consciously, I am trying to be a better person. Unconsciously, the ego is tracking the internal and external landscape for danger. The ego has identified danger as emotion. The automatic response to danger is emotional disconnection. How do I achieve disconnection? Psychological withdrawal, binge eating, alcohol, social media, and excessive, obsessive working. The ego, characterised for me by detaching from emotion, has also formed an identity, independent of who I am and want to be. Part of its identity is not feeling good enough, worthy enough, and fundamentally flawed. For reasons I am not entirely clear about, there is an aspect of my psyche that compels me to act in ways that reinforce these negative underlying beliefs. Further, it undermines any attempt to behave in ways that would allow new beliefs to emerge and take hold. Carl Jung’s concept of ‘autonomous complex’ offers a good description of this:
This is to say that every day is a struggle between good and evil, right and wrong, morality and immorality, truth and dishonesty (a tad hyperbolic?!). I am increasingly (and begrudgingly) accepting the need to have a program of daily habits to keep the ‘complex’ or ego at bay. I have also come to learn this year, more starkly than before, that I need a relationship with god or higher power. I am not affiliated to any religion, nor am I making any metaphysical claims, but simply accepting, or rather surrendering that for me, a belief in god is one of the most effective antidotes to the suffocating and debilitating constraints of the ego. I might eventually replace the word god with presence, as I am not entirely clear that they aren’t the same thing.
Last year, I set some goals, but I am not doing that this year. Partly because I didn’t achieve nearly any of my goals. Instead, I am going to develop habits and systems that facilitate healthy functioning and wellbeing.
On a final note, when I was a newly qualified social worker, I read 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey (a book I highly recommend despite what I am about to say). A central premise in this book is that you look at the different dimensions in your life (work, family, friends, self-development, health, etc.) and analyse your contribution in each domain. A hyper-focus in one area will leave you unbalanced and compromise other essential regions of your life. For example, in my 20’s I worked excessively long hours and made progress in this domain of my life. However, my physical health suffered, I rarely saw my friends, and I was often exhausted whenever I did spend time with my family. Ideally, Covey suggests you create a balance between the different domains so that you can satisfy each of them. Ever since I read this, I have been aspiring to succeed in every area of my life simultaneously. That is the goal. To be successful at work, eat healthy, nutritious home-cooked food, exercise regularly, meditate, have fantastic relationships with friends and family, and volunteer in the local community. While this is not an unworthy ambition, it is unattainable. In his book, 4000 weeks, Burkeman points out that successfully focusing on one area will, by default, require you to make sacrifices in other areas. It doesn’t mean we abandon our attempts to achieve balance; rather, we accept that at specific points in our lives, we assume that we won’t function as well as we would like in some areas while we pursue other areas. What a relief!
By Richard Devine (03.01.2022)