Boundaries

I think (and write) a lot about boundary setting in my work. It was a thornier issue for me when I worked in hospice; being in people’s homes makes the lines all the more blurry and the boundaries rather flexible, in my experience. Now that I’m in a doctor’s office, it’s easier to draw some firmer lines. No one is offering me food, for instance. I’m not sitting on the edge of someone’s bed. I visit with patients in empty exam rooms; there aren’t any pictures of my family or any personal artifacts. Still, the balance of building rapport while keeping firm boundaries remains.

Take, for instance, a regular patient of mine. We’ve seen each other off and on since I started this job a year ago. We’re actually nearing the termination process now, much to his chagrin. He’s a nice guy; I like him a lot. But lately he’s been a little more familiar with me and I’m struggling with whether or not to push back.

Familiar feels like an odd word to use here but it’s sort of the only way to describe it. He’s not outwardly inappropriate; there’s nothing he’s said or done that I could point to and tell him to knock it off. It’s been an insidious little bit of boundary pushing. It started with an increase in cursing during our sessions. (Which honestly, if you’ve spoken to me for more than five minutes, you know that I have a foul mouth. I come by it honestly: my mother swore like a sailor). The words don’t bother me per se; it’s more that he used to watch what he said. My patients often apologize for swearing during a session, to which I answer that I’ve heard all the words before. I even allow myself the occasional “this is shitty” or something to that effect, if the relationship is there. But this patient’s frequent use of heavy curse words feels more boundary pushing than before.

Maybe I wouldn’t even have noticed except that the swearing comes along with a little more… flirting, for lack of a better word. Again, nothing so outrageous that I could give a firm, “not appropriate, knock it off.” More a subtle change in his tone of voice, a casual remark here or there. I have a feeling my female friends know exactly what I’m describing. If I mentioned it to him, he’d surely say he didn’t know what I was talking about. It’s subtle and honestly, I’m not totally sure he realizes he’s doing it. Which is partly why I’m struggling with what to do about it.

I should state here that I don’t feel unsafe; that’s a different topic for a different day. My discomfort is more about how I’m reacting to his boundary pushing. I’ve found myself coming back with a little attitude. For instance, he asked why I won’t be at work on a particular day (we were scheduling an appointment) and I jokingly replied, “None of your business.” We have a good rapport, so he laughed and said he was only kidding. It was a deeply awkward moment though. It’s the kind of response I’d give to a guy in a bar, not to a patient. But because I kind of let the boundaries blur, I let things get away from me.

That being said, this is not unsalvageable. And it’s possible that some of the over familiarity on his part is because we’re terminating our relationship soon and he has some feelings about that. Whether we’re going to address them the next time we meet really depends on how the session goes. I can consider different reactions to different things but I cannot predict the future (sadly) so I’ll just have to wait and see how it all shakes out.

In the meantime, I’m considering how I relate to my patients and if I need to take a more clinical approach. I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules here; it’s a case by case approach. I think what’s really needed is a little more self reflection and maybe a little pulling back. I guess we’ll see how hard he pushes and therefore, how hard I’ll have to pull.

Ah, clinical social work: where every interaction is deeply weighted! I guess it’s part of the charm of the work. Right??

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The gift of counter-transference

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There's a short story collection I adore called The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing. (I highly recommend it, the narrative voice is delightful). There's a line in one of the stories that I repeat to myself frequently, especially when I’m being too hard on myself: "too late, you realize your body is perfect; every healthy body is."

I am especially reminded of this today, as I sit across from a young woman (just a little younger than I, actually) who was diagnosed with a chronic auto-immune disease a little less than a year ago. We are not terribly different: she has two small kids, a husband, a house she wants to keep in better shape, and her mom is not with her anymore. But there the similarities stop. Because she is sick and I am not and that is just our luck: her bad and my good. Sitting before her, sitting with the discomfort of her crying and my inability to do anything that will really help her, I am struck by how lucky I am to have this healthy body. It is a thought that stays with me for the full 20 minute session, rolling around in the back of my mind, begging to be explored further. These are the kinds of feelings that make supervision at all stages of our career a necessity.

What I’m feeling is counter-transference. I’ve written about this phenomenon before and why I think it can sometimes be a good clinical tool. Counter-transference can simply be a deep sense of empathy with a client. Empathy is the core of social work. It is the foundation upon which everything else is built: advocacy, behavior change, clinical therapy. Our ability to see ourselves in other people, to witness suffering and truly understand it, is what makes us good humans and good social workers. Counter-transference can be used to build rapport, even in a short session like the one I had with this woman. But it can also linger in our minds and pick away at us, leading us to burn out.

It's true that I felt helpless sitting across from this woman but the truth is, there are ways for me to help her. There are CBT strategies for people with chronic illness that I can help her explore. I can refer her to a support group. I can witness and validate her pain and frustration. The parts I’m struggling with, the counter-transference that is lingering in my mind, are the other truths: I cannot cure her disease. I cannot fundamentally alter her new path, which is one of doctors and medication and setbacks as she experiences flare ups. These are uncomfortable truths for me, especially as I sit in front of her with my perfectly healthy body and my growing, healthy pregnancy.

Counter-transference is complicated, like most feelings. It is both a help to our practice and a hindrance. Today, for me, it was both: it helped me establish rapport quickly with a new patient but it also hurt me to bear her pain. Ultimately, those twenty minutes are a part of my own personal growth. I was reminded, humbly and beautifully, that this body I complain about (because I’m pregnant, because I’m 5 pounds heavier than I want to be, because because because) is perfect, because it is healthy. And this work, which troubles me and excites me and frustrates me, is a gift. 

Racism, anxiety, and discomfort

This was a difficult subject to tackle; I’ve started and restarted it a few times. It certainly isn’t a deep dive into race relations or cultural competence in therapy. It’s just one experience that I keep turning over in my mind. What follows is the best I can do and I’m afraid it’s still not a perfect evaluation. Still, it is with me and I just have to keep talking about it.

The other day, a doctor gave me a referral for a patient suffering from anxiety and depression. She has a long psych history and mostly needed to be reconnected to care. Simple enough. But when we met and started talking about her increasingly anxious feelings, a lot more came pouring out than I was prepared for.

I want to be respectful of my client’s right to privacy so I’m not going to write the details of what she told me about. The basics are these: she is a young black woman with sons and she struggles with anxiety about how they will be treated in the world. She faces racism daily, in big ways and small. She knows that her sons will face it too, especially as black men. She is afraid to send them on the bus; she is afraid to call the police if she’s been the victim of a crime; she is afraid.

Lots of my clients suffer from anxiety. They tell me about fears they have that keep them up at night, about the pervasive nervousness that is with them all the time. Generally, we focus on utilizing some CBT and a little bit of mindfulness practice. I teach them strategies to examine their thoughts and worries and use their more rational brain. I teach them deep breathing and some basics of mindfulness, telling them that stress can be controlled. But in this case…what can I do when my client’s fears are not irrational? And also, am I the right person to help her?

I’m white. I was raised in an upper-middle class household and I live firmly in the middle class now, with a lot of privilege. There is no way I could totally understand my client’s experiences as a black woman and as a black mother. I validated her feelings, of course; I explored with her how watching the news increases her anxiety, how some people are unaware of or do not believe in the micro aggressions she and her sons experience on a daily basis. But I cannot truly understand those experiences, not at the cellular level that she does. And honestly, I can’t help her examine her fears for irrationality because racism exists.

I referred her to another therapist, because her mental health history demanded a more intensive therapy than I can provide in my current role. But I keep thinking about her. I keep thinking about what it must be like to fear for your children, in a very different way than I fear for mine, because the dangers they face are different than the ones my kids will face. I keep wondering if I could be an effective therapist for her, were my role to provide that kind of long-term therapy. It’s a question I vaguely remember from graduate school about cultural competence and how we work with clients who have cultural differences that we may or may not understand. This woman and I live in the same town; we are both mothers; we are around the same age. And yet, her lived experience is radically different than my own. In short, I can help her but I wonder if the help would lack something essential.

As usual, I end with few answers and more questions. The good news is, I’ll get to see her the next time she visits her primary doctor, so at least I’ll know how she’s doing. I hope she finds the right therapist. And I hope (corny though it may sound) that things keep getting better so her fears become unfounded ones.

 

Photo by Evan Kirby, Unsplash

Every conversation is clinical

My first experience with providing clinical supervision was about a year and a half ago, supervising an advanced-standing graduate student during her internship. The student's MSW program provided 6 sessions of training for new clinical supervisors (free CEUs!). One theme we kept returning to was the complaint from the student that their placement wasn't "clinical enough." I empathized with this; I recall expressing the exact same complaint as a grad student. I hated my first placement deeply, partly because I felt like it wasn't "clinical." (There were other reasons of course but that's a drama for another day). I was inclined then, at this training, to side with the students on this point. Some placements just don't seem to be given to enhancing clinical skills. But my trainors reminded me of a simple and true fact about being a social worker: every conversation you have with a client is a clinical conversation. Every. Single. One.

That was by no means the first time I ever heard someone make that point. But prior to that training, I didn't really believe it. When I was doing case management, for instance, it was easy to forget the clinical piece because so much of my job was about providing concrete resources to people in crisis. I often got caught up in the (sometimes very complicated) surface issues: pending evictions, drug or alcohol relapses, medication compliance. I sometimes forgot that I could utilize my clinical skills during these conversations because I was focused on what I could do right that minute.

I burned out of that job pretty quickly because I felt like all I did was put Band-Aids on broken legs. Now, several more years into my career, with different experiences and more education, I think about that job differently. Knowing what I know now, I think I could have been better at it. This feels especially true as I learn new skills, like motivational interviewing. When I was case managing, stuck in the weeds of constant crisis, I often forgot to use my clinical skills to tease out the underlying issues. Why, for instance, would someone relapse after a year of successful sobriety? Why did this one client, who seemed to have a reasonable income, constantly end up on the brink of eviction? Maybe I asked the client that, but not in a skillful way that elicited a thoughtful conversation. I focused on the resources I could provide and forgot, sometimes, the clinical skills I learned as a student.

It's easy to do that, when we are pressed for time and have limited tangible help we can offer our clients. But we have tools at our disposal that are unique to this profession: we know how to look deeper at what is said and not said in a client meeting. As soon as we start a conversation with a client, we are doing clinical work: assessing body language, physical presentation, affect, what they're saying and what they may actually mean. Don't be fooled by the weeds you sometimes get into: every conversation is clinical because this work is complicated. And your skills are growing every time you interact with someone. 

Happy Social Work Month! Do good work and be proud of it.