We Must Believe in the People We Serve

Recently, I took a NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Provider Education Course. I discussed various topics in a room full of social workers, therapists, and directors.

There was one big point of contention, when I mentioned the importance of believing in our clients and being as encouraging as possible.

I talked about how I have told clients that their potential is limitless. I believe they are survivors, having gone through so much trauma, but are trying to turn their lives around.

Having said that, most of the room was in total disagreement. The Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist leading the class said that, “We must be realistic. I’ve found that it’s more often true that they cannot achieve many things.”

And to that I stood up and declared that to be wrong. I said, “We may be able to predict where someone can be in 6 months. Maybe one or two years. But we can never know where they will be in ten years.”
I highlighted my own example. “Several people have said I couldn’t graduate from an engineering college. My own parents and psychiatrist said I could never work, and that I should live on SSI. But I graduated, I now work full-time, I have accomplished great things, and I will accomplish even more great things in the future.

“People made predictions about me in the past, and they were dead wrong. There are too many success stories that have spat in the face of those who made pessimistic predictions.”

And by having a “realistic” point of view (which oftentimes is pessimistic), by telling someone their potential is limited and predicting a bleak outlook for the rest of their lives, you are hurting the people we are meant to help.

I hear psychiatrists and coworkers tell people, “You probably won’t be able to work again.” But that type of statement is damaging someone. It takes away their hopes and dreams. Perhaps it is true, but we ourselves can never know.

What I say instead is, “Right now it looks like you might not be able to work. I don’t know if you can in the future, but if you want to, I will support you and try to help you get to where you want to be.”

I think social workers fear being responsible for someone making mistakes. If we err on the side of discretion and “realism,” we are playing it safe. Perhaps if we believe in someone, they will try and fail – and then we will be responsible.

But I urge you to set that aside and be encouraging. Be hopeful. Have faith in the people we serve.

However, one thing I should note is that I never push. If I believe someone can work, but they don’t, I never, ever push them to do something they don’t want to do. I will encourage them, try to provide counseling and help them see the potential in themselves, but in the end, I never push.

I think if we encourage, and not push, that will help assuage our fears that we will be responsible for anything bad that happens, and still give hope to our clients.

So please. Have hope. Err on the side of encouragement, not discouragement. Recognize your own limitations in predicting where someone will be. Because in the end, we are frequently the only one who has hope in the client – which can dictate hope in the client as well.

2 thoughts on “We Must Believe in the People We Serve

  1. Fred says:

    Go, Hufsa! Way to stand up for what's right! I'm shocked that so many people in your field are making the exact same mistake that many of their patients make: thinking something bad is going to stay bad forever. I learned in therapy to be as specific as possible about negative thoughts in order to minimize their power. Otherwise they can cause me crippling depression and anxiety. I applaud you for standing out and challenging the majority and the status quo. That's gotta be intimidating.That said, if someone told me two years ago that my potential was limitless, I would still turn that into a negative. “I'm not living up to my potential. I'm a failure.” To make that helpful, I'd need to push and pull until I got a positive version of that statement that I could believe, even in my very depressed state. Perhaps “It is not guaranteed that I will be living in a cardboard box in twenty years.” Or “One person thinks I have potential, or at the very least thinks I'm worth enough to say something nice to.” And later “It is possible for me to be happy, sometime down the road,” slowly building it up. I can believe now (most of the time) that my potential is limitless and that I can realize that potential, but it's a long struggle to get there. And it's longer or impossible if the therapist/social worker/some kind of expert doesn't believe it themselves and push people toward that optimism and hope.Finally, I'd like to say that though it may be a dangerous business, going out your door, it's much more dangerous to stay inside forever. Taking risks is living. It's an enormous disservice to discourage taking risks.

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