The Emotional Performativity of Social Work Education

For me, the most stressful thing about social work school has nothing to do with homework, exams, or internships. It’s the constant demand that I share my emotions with near-strangers for everyone’s supposed educational benefit. And if I’m not experiencing emotions at the given moment or about the given topic, I must invent them, because nobody believes me if I say I don’t have any emotions. Moreover, that’s the wrong answer, because if I’m not having any emotions, then I cannot engage in the required “processing” or “reflection” and complete the assignment.

I understand why this is such a large component of social work education. Most people lack self-awareness, and therapists without self-awareness can do a great amount of harm to their clients–for instance, by subconsciously using the therapeutic encounter as an opportunity to get affirmation and then lashing out at a client who fails to provide it.

By nature, I have too much self-awareness. Without intervention, I am too aware of every slight emotion and reaction, every passing thought, every potential reason for those emotions, reactions, and thoughts. I’m constantly weighing possible sources of cognitive bias in my head. I’m constantly modeling how I must look and be perceived by others, physically or psychologically. In its worst excesses, the self-awareness leads to unstoppable rumination, which leads to depression.

The way I have been able to survive depression is by learning to ignore, postpone, or shut down my emotions.

But of course, this is not The Right Way. That would be to just “learn how to sit with the emotions as they come” or whatever, or methodically talk myself out of them every time. Quite frankly, I have neither the time nor the energy. My way works. I am (mostly) happy, I am productive, I am attentive to others, I am (mostly) focused. So what if my methods are unorthodox?

Other helping professionals really dislike this. If I’m distracting myself from my emotions, or–worse yet–not having them to begin with, surely they will all suddenly come back and crash down on me like a collapsing building because I have failed to properly do the work of Processing and Reflecting upon them?

But it’s been years of me successfully managing emotions and that still hasn’t happened. I truly don’t think that it will. The idea that it will is probably a vestige of psychoanalytic thinking.

And yet, my professors and supervisors seem to think we’re either “resistant,” lacking in self-awareness, or else just cold and inhuman if we’re not constantly experiencing a lot of emotions connected to our work.

Something happens with a client and my supervisor asks, “How did that make you feel?”, and I can’t just say that it did not make me feel anything. My supervisor simply wouldn’t believe me. Either I’m repressing it, or I’m being withdrawn and not participating in the educational process like I should, or something else bad.

But I really didn’t feel anything. I generally leave my feelings at the door during therapy sessions. Sometimes I have some feelings afterward, but rarely, and when I do, they’re usually gone by the time I come back to the office the next day.

So I have to perform emotions. “I felt sad.” “Why do you think that is?” “Because it made me think of times when I have experienced _____.” “Well, you know, it’s very important not to overidentify with our clients.” “Yes, I know.” All lies, except the last part.

“Please write a five-page essay about your own experiences with _____ and how that may impact your practice.”

“How did it feel when ____ dropped out of the group?”

“How did you feel when ____ terminated counseling?”

“I’m wondering if that session brought up any feelings for you.”

“How did you feel after watching this video?”

I can’t wait till I graduate and my emotions can finally be mine again.

“I’m wondering if this brings up any feelings for you.” Yeah, I’m fucking pissed off because I want my fucking privacy back.

“How might this impact your practice?” I dunno, maybe I’ll respect the fact that there can be many different effective, “healthy” ways of managing your emotions besides venting them.

“Please reflect on this topic in terms of privilege and oppression.” It is a privileged position to have feelings that are “acceptable” to share. We simultaneously marginalize and pathologize the feelings of women, mentally ill people, people of color, queer people, etc. Our feelings become something to be analyzed and “fixed.” Excuse me if I don’t feel comfortable sharing mine with an authority figure.

Further, the cultures of dominant groups determine which methods of coping we consider “healthy” and which we do not. According to the dominant frame, if I am not willing to share my private thoughts with a supervisor or professor, I’m the one who needs fixing, because there is something wrong with a person who is “distrusting” or “resistant.” No, my ways of managing feelings cannot possibly be healthy or effective for me personally, because they are not what people with authority over me are used to.

And if I’m really not having any feelings, that’s even worse. Then I don’t care. I lack empathy. I’m repressed. I’m pathologically numb. I can’t possibly be cut out for this work, because being a therapist means constantly feeling things on behalf of our clients, doesn’t it?

I don’t think so. I think my ability to keep a clear head in session is actually an asset, not a deficit. Of course I express empathy for my clients, because I have a strong sense of justice and fairness and I know that the things they go through are wrong and unfair. I know that they deserve better. I know that it must be very hard for them. I don’t need to feel anything to know any of that.

And because of that, I never get caught up in seeking reassurance or affirmation from my clients. I don’t need them to get better quickly so that I feel good about myself. I don’t need them to tell me I’m the best therapist they ever had so that I feel competent. I don’t need them to open up immediately, be polite and deferential, stop being so upset because that makes me sad, keep their voice down lest they hurt my feelings.

I’m able to actually just be there for them rather than mentally swimming around in my own issues.

But that doesn’t make any sense to anyone, so I sit in class and in supervision and perform emotions like a good social work student.

Check Your iPhone At The Door

Now that I’m in graduate school, the beginning of each semester is an opportunity for me to hear the same lecture four times over: the lecture on How It Is Rude And Disrespectful To Your Fellow Students To Use Technology In Class For Anything Other Than Taking Notes, and how, therefore, technology use for anything other than notes is strictly banned in class on pain of lowered grades or public humiliation.

I mean, usually I don’t care that much. I have other ways of distracting myself when I’m bored or anxious, such as writing blog post drafts in my notebook. Presumably, that is okay because it does not involve a keyboard or a screen.

But this past week, two things happened that made me realize/remember how irritating this is. One is that a professor kept rattling off dates and assignments and I was unable to effectively record them because my to-do list and my calendar are both in my phone. (I wrote them down on paper instead, obviously, but that adds an unnecessary extra step and thus an extra opportunity to make an error.)

The other is that I have eight hours of class in one day a week this semester, and that means eight hours during which I am not allowed to respond to emails or messages. Here’s the thing. My role as a student is not my only role. I also have a job. I also have friends and loved ones who sometimes need things from me. I also have projects and other things I organize or volunteer for. I have money to manage. I have an apartment to maintain and roommates to maintain it with.

I am, obviously, not the only student in this situation; we are all in this situation. Maybe it bothers them, too. Maybe it doesn’t because we have different priorities.

Regardless, not being able to access technology for eight hours of one day actually has consequences for me in my role as a friend, partner, roommate, daughter, employee, freelancer, volunteer, and organizer. They’re not horrible consequences; they’re not unmanageable consequences. They are consequences that I might accept if I were choosing them by myself as part of a tradeoff.

But I’m not choosing them here. They are being chosen for me in a paternalistic and condescending way. The message is that I must prioritize my role as a student–in the limited way this role looks to my professors–during these entire eight hours, regardless of what’s going on in the rest of my life.

I am an adult, and I should be able to, at times and within reason, prioritize other things, such as comforting a depressed friend or moderating an online support group I run or doing some online banking or jotting some notes for a piece I need to write, over being a model student.

The patronizing way that my classmates get dragged into this is irritating, too. In a progressive program such as this one, professors probably know that they can’t get away with demanding that we refrain from touching our phones as a sign of respect and deference. So instead, much is made of the fact that the use of electronics for non-approved purposes is a “distraction” to fellow students and is thus “disrespectful.” From authoritarianism to communitarianism, I suppose.

First of all, if my checking my email is distracting to you, I don’t see why taking notes on my laptop wouldn’t be (and that’s, of course, grudgingly allowed). These things look about the same on the outside. They look like scrolling through text and typing things.

Second, our professors are always expecting us to learn how to deal with various adverse situations because they will be part of our work. This is good, though sometimes they take this too far. Bigotry from classmates, for instance, is expected to be tolerated and responded to kindly and copmassionately, because we will encounter this in our work. Guess what? The presence of a person texting on their smartphone may also occur in a work environment, and you need to learn how to manage that and not get distracted by it.

It’s interesting that expressions of bigotry in the classroom are not considered too “distracting” for the students who are presumably targeted by that bigotry. Me taking some notes for a piece I’m working on, though, is a distraction too severe to be tolerated. What I’m hearing here is that professors don’t feel like challenging bigotry or finding ways to prevent its expression (preferring instead to to have everything up for “discussion”), whereas banning technology serves their own needs and purposes. So what is distracting and what is not distracting, or what we need to learn to manage and what we do not need to learn to manage, depends more on the professors’ whims than anything else.

Finally, it is irritating to me, as a student who does not get distracted by other students’ laptop or gadget use, to be spoken for in this way. When professors say, “Do not check your email; it is distracting to your classmates,” I am one of these classmates being used to restrict someone else’s behavior. Nevertheless, I am capable of keeping my eyes on my own notebook and on the professor. You could be watching porn on your phone next to me for all I care.

I can’t help but contrast this with my experience at conferences and other types of lectures. Technology is welcomed into these spaces. We use hashtags to connect with other attendees and respond to the material we are being presented. There are disadvantages to the proliferation of technology use at conferences and lectures, but also advantages. I feel that I learn as much, if not more, at these events as I do in my classes.

Obviously, conferences and classes have different aims and work in different ways. My point isn’t that classrooms need to become more like conference halls and that we need to adopt course-specific hashtags or whatever. My point is that technology doesn’t necessarily inhibit learning, and nor does it necessarily distract others around you from their learning.

And none of this is to deny that technology can interfere with classroom experiences, that professors can experience it as disrespectful, or that students can make irresponsible and ultimately harmful decisions about technology use.

But I don’t appreciate being treated like a child, and that doesn’t make for a great learning experience, either. I don’t appreciate the adverse effects these rules have on my ability to keep my life and my education organized and productive. I don’t appreciate feeling “on display,” like I have to “perform” my student role by refusing to ever glance at my smartphone screen or open a new tab for my email. I already have problems with feeling like my behavior is constantly being watched and judged; I imagine many women do. This seems like the opposite of the sort of space a social work professor would want to cultivate.

I’m sure they imagine they’re creating a space that’s focused and respectful and engaged. To me, it just feels stressful, restrictive, judgmental, and infantilizing.

Saints and Scapegoats

When my parents tell their family friends what I’m in school for, the reaction is usually concerned panic about the future state of my finances. Once, though, they got a different reaction. The person said, “Oh wow, social workers are saints.”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, and my complex feelings about it, and the ways in which this common perception of social workers both results from and drives expectations about the type of work we are supposed to be doing.

First of all: I’m not sure that I agree that social work is uniquely “hard” as a profession. Certainly the work can be stressful and can cause vicarious trauma or desensitization. Certainly the work can follow you home. Certainly many jobs will overwork you and not give you enough support (material or emotional) to do the work as it ought to be done. But I’m not sure how this differs from many other jobs.

In fact, to me, most other jobs seem much more difficult than mine–prohibitively difficult, even. Journalism. Scientific research, especially in the natural sciences. Business. Finance. Construction. Food service. Computer engineering. These jobs all require skill sets that I lack and could only build with considerable effort, stress, and financial investment, if at all.

The job I chose feels easier to me than these jobs because I am suited for it.

But people are tapping into something slightly different, too, when they say that social work is “so hard” or that social workers are “saints.” Maybe they notice our abysmal pay. (Someone with a Masters degree and years of cumulative field experience deserves a starting salary of significantly higher than ~35k, but the money’s just not there.) Maybe they notice that we have to do the job of two or three people. Maybe they notice that our work environments can be unsupportive and even abusive.

And I would hope that they notice these things and instead of saying, “You shouldn’t have chosen social work if you wanted more money,” they will say, “It’s abhorrent that you make so little money and if there’s ever any way I can influence this situation, I will.”

(Irrelevant sidenote: I hate it when I express concerns about money and people say, “Well, you’re not exactly in this field for the money, are you?” You are correct, I am not in this field “for the money.” I am in this field for the same reason anyone else is in any field: to be able to pay the fucking bills and the rent. Yes, I should be paid enough for that, and then some.)

But one thing that few people seem to pick up on–at least, people outside the field–is that part of the problem is that social workers are being tasked with things that should not be our job.

I don’t mean that in a flippant way; I mean that I continually feel like we are being asked to fix things things that it is simply beyond our power to fix. Or we’re being asked to slap bandaids onto severed limbs. I get so demoralized sometimes when I realize that I’m being asked to essentially help people learn how to cope with poverty or racism or homophobia or simply working a crushing minimum-wage job while raising kids alone without any help from anyone, and it feels almost cruel to try to help people be more okay with this when this is not something that anyone should be okay with.

I know there’s no other way. I know that, of course. I’m all for harm reduction. If I can help someone deal with the fact that they are going to be poor and hated by the rest of society for their entire life, I guess that’s better than not helping them deal with that.

You know what would be even better, though? If more people gave a fuck about creating a world in which it doesn’t have to be that way.

So when I say that fixing poverty shouldn’t be my job, that’s because it should be everyone’s job. We should all care about poverty. We should all learn about what types of approaches might actually help in reducing poverty. We should all vote for legislators who pledge to implement such approaches (rather than utter rubbish like mandatory drug testing for mothers on food stamps or reducing the total number of months someone can receive public assistance so that they “just get a job already” and all that). We should all then vote those legislators out of office if they fail to follow through on this during their first terms. We should all, if we are able, donate to organizations that have a proven record of helping people in poverty and helping communities develop the resources they need to thrive.

Instead, right now, we all seem to collectively decide that poverty (and racism, and violence, and unemployment, and all that) is someone else’s problem to fix. Let all the social workers and community mental health practitioners handle that stuff; we’ll just be over here voting for whichever candidate looks the nicest.

No wonder many people think social workers are “saints.” They have charged us with singlehandedly fixing all of the most enduring and challenging social problems in our society, while making barely enough money to get by. We’re sometimes less saints and more scapegoats, the people on whom the responsibility to care falls because nobody else is caring.

And, naturally, when things go wrong–an abused child doesn’t get the help they need, or a child who isn’t really abused is taken away from their parents because of false reports of abuse, or a person with an untreated mental illness becomes violent–people ask why the social workers or mental health practitioners didn’t “do their jobs,” and how it could happen that someone would fall through the cracks like this.

If you build a crappy cracked pavement and let it deteriorate without ever making the effort to fill in the cracks–or, better yet, rip the whole thing up and build a better one–don’t be surprised when those of us tasked with running around trying to catch people sometimes fail.

That’s not to deflect responsibility from us. That’s to spread it a little more evenly. We are responsible for doing the jobs we are hired to do, but we can only do so much in an environment where nobody else seems to care.