What’s love got to do with it?

It’s almost Valentine’s Day, and I have a few musings about romantic love. In particular how it can trap us in abusive relationships, and fool us into being compliant, and putting up with stuff we normally wouldn’t.

When you first fall in love, isn’t it marvellous? Best feeling in the world. You want to be around that person all the time. Add sex in, and you want to touch them most of the time. This may play out in different ways for different people, but it’s always very sweet. Lovers initially are kind to each other, think constantly about each other, and look out for each other.

But there’s this thing that romantic love does, depending on who we are. In a monogamous relationship, there is always somewhat, even to a tiny degree, an imbalance based on need, and expectations. One person will love the other slightly more, or slightly less. Some people are just more guarded with themselves, even with the person they are infatuated with. Some people give more freely of themselves. We all express romantic love differently, and we all have a way we need to be loved, or ways of being loved that we respond to the most. Some call this a love language.

And how we are loved as children, in my opinion, feeds very much into this, and can act destructively if the way we are treated is very poorly – physical, emotional, verbal abuse. If we have suffered any of these as a child, our view of romantic love is likely to be a bit off. What we expect will be set by how our whānau/parents/caregivers have treated us. How they have loved us, or not.

So we fall in love. This bit may last a wee while or not for long. On average, it is thought that if someone is controlling – ie exhibits signs of being abusive – it will take a few months for this to kick in. It will have been there from the start, it’s just that infatuation with that person masks it, and by the time they start showing who they really are, if you’re still there? Then that’s set the pattern.

There are, of course, different ways of being for people who seek to wield power over you, and different motivations. Let’s remind ourselves of what the wheel of power and control looks like.

There are also different models for what constitutes healthy behaviors for equality in a relationship.

The difficulty with abusive behaviours are that they most often don’t start until one is well ensconced in a relationship, or one is too infatuated to notice them eg jealousy can be coded as “cute”. (It is not.)

By the time most of the controlling stuff starts, as I said, you’re usually well embedded in your relationship with a person. Because they know they’ll get away with it. The first time will never be major – it’s a test. The person doing this may not realise it is, but it is. And each time, it may escalate to a level (verbal, emotional, psychological, physical) that’s deemed acceptable by one or both parties. Sometimes the abuser shocks themselves, and we can’t believe what’s happened. They may apologise, usually apologise, and promise they won’t do it again.

But we stay because we love them. Or we love the idea of them. We love the them they are when they’re not being awful to us. Some days, we say: it’s okay, I don’t like him/her/them all the time. But I still love them.

Love, you see, can be a trap.

And that’s why, today, I don’t celebrate the idea of love, the commercial “how it’s supposed to look” love, but the reality that it can become. Healthy care and consideration between people. Butterflies in the tummy, sure, but much more than that. Equality and compassion, and just wanting to be with someone who gets you. In a good way. Wanting the best for each other, and figuring out how to make it happen. That love is SO SEXY. I love that love. I’ll celebrate that, any day.

Social workers respond.

Over a short period of time, a couple of days, I had become aware of what I think is a bit of a connundrum. I hadn’t ever realised the extent of the community work that people who work in vulnerable communities do. And I’ve heard myself called a community worker so I guess that fits. I’ve never called myself a social worker, I don’t ever really know what to call myself to be honest. If asked, I’ll just say I’m Aunty In Charge (of The Aunties, not anyone else). I was shocked these people weren’t social workers, and because I have an outsider’s knowledge of what social workers actually do, though I work with many social workers, it forced a bit of reflection on what do. I used to feel a lot of “impostor syndrome” and I haven’t lost that totally. I’m still sitting meeting with people, and questioning myself if it’s okay that I’m doing that.

So I wrote a blog and called it Social Work – it’s here. The name of it played on the word social, but I never have believed that what I do is social work. And I never ever tell the women that’s what I am. So I ruminated. And wrote.

I was delighted to recieve feedback – as I had asked at the end of that blog to do so – from some social workers. I’ve put that here so you can see it too. Having been a kindergarten teacher, and being called a daycare worker, I completely relate to what they said. I have a degree, I have a teaching qualification. I know the importance of those “pieces of paper”, which aren’t just that, but instead represent years of hard work, and more importantly, hard thinking. Critical thinking. Critical analysis of what we do, and how we are, in our chosen professions.

I apologise to all social workers for giving the impression that I ever thought it was just a piece of paper, and I also thank the social workers who responded and clarified what it is that they do.

 

“The value of my ‘piece of paper’ – knowing enough to know what I don’t know.

 

I found this particularly hard to read – and from the comments of other social workers (yes, the ones with pieces of paper) around me, I wasn’t alone in that. So, since being reflective and trying to separate our own feelings from actual events is a core part of what we’re educated to do in our (four-year, intense) degrees, we had a few chats about why. This is what we concluded.

 

Your degree of empathy is awesome. It’s beautiful, it’s inspiring, it shows genuine and admirable compassion for the women you support. It’s equally awesome that you are willing and able to listen to women’s stories – that’s not inherently a social work skill, but it’s an incredibly important one for anyone supporting women after experiences of violence or trauma. The fact that you have supervision is excellent – it’s reassuring, and arguably essential for anyone working with women who’ve been hurt. Your role in their life is important. Your work is important. But I wouldn’t go so far as to call it ‘social work’ without acknowledging the pitfalls of claiming an identity you haven’t studied for.

 

I’m a registered social worker, with a four-year Bachelors and a two-year Masters. So are the majority of my peers. We work in similar fields. And in most of our organisations, we do have qualified social workers, and unqualified or less qualified support workers. For some of the basic tasks we do, there is little difference. We are able to sit with women who’ve experienced trauma. We are able to advocate for them. We share those skills and that commitment.

 

Equally, there are points of difference – skills we’ve gained, knowledge we’ve gathered, and ways of thinking that have become automatically ingrained throughout the four to six years we’ve spent being educated to think and act in a particular way. In our degrees, we learn to deconstruct all of our beliefs, and the practices of systems we’re embedded in. We learn that listening and responding genuinely, empathically, and authentically to women’s stories is vital – but so, too, is knowing how our genuine, empathic, and authentic responses might reinforce negative cycles of behaviour; might unwittingly blame, judge, or shame women for their experiences; might not pick up on what’s being said that might indicate the need for further support in particular areas, etc, etc.

 

The words “you don’t actually need a social work qualification if you’re not working for a government department” are grossly misleading. There is a reason many (arguably most) organisations prefer to hire social workers who are fully qualified and eligible for registration. That’s not just about a minimum standard of competency (though that’s just as important – we wouldn’t allow a nurse to undertake surgery just because she feels confident to do so), it’s about a guarantee of basic learning and unlearning.

 

We have spent years learning where our limitations lie – when we should be the ones hearing disclosures and taking up the mantle of key support person, and when we should refer to specialists. We know enough to know that when we qualify, we are, at best, consciously incompetent – new graduates should have been educated enough to remove their accidental, well-intended mistakes with clients, and to know they need a hell of a lot more support to become consciously competent.

 

So, when you say, “if it’s good enough for them, then it has to be good enough for me” – that worries me, too. Because a lot of the role of a social worker is invisible. Clients are not necessarily going to know if you unintentionally cause harm. If you enable, or justify, or minimise, or shame, or suppress resistance, you might not know. Neither will they. Just as when I go to a doctor, I can’t adequately evaluate quality – I’m going to assume that they are qualified enough to interact with me in the way that I need. I assume this, because they have qualifications, registration, and regular requirements regarding professional development and competency.

 

So if you say you’re a social worker, they’re going to expect that you’re acting from a position of knowledge and expertise. And, if you claim that those things aren’t important, you’re delegitimising the entire basis of our professional identity as social workers, and minimising the value of our hard-earned education – the education that makes us deconstructed, accountable, and conscious of our skills and limitations. “Good enough for our clients” isn’t our end goal. Being good enough to reach a high standard of externally measured professional conduct and skill, in a way that our clients may not be able to see but with certainly benefit from, is the baseline.

 

I’m glad you do what you do. I think you should keep doing it. But I don’t think you should assume that there’s no difference between your work and the role, education, and scope of practice of ‘social work’. ”

Thank you for your honesty.

Thank you for your feedback.

But mostly, thank you for what you do.

Respect and admiration, always.

Jackie Clark.

 

 

 

Social Work

As I get busier in this job of mine, something has started to become obvious. More and more of the women who are self referring, and who are being referred to me, are high risk. What does that mean? It means they’re really vulnerable. They have just left an abusive, and very dangerous,  relationship or they are still in that. It means that they trust very few people and it means they’re often under the “care” of multiple agencies. And it means that they are in a state of flux. Disorder, emotional chaos, uncertainty about what to do and where to go next.

I had thought I was moving away from that. I stopped working indepth with the women in one refuge, and for most of the last 5 months have moved to working with the people who support women in a couple of refuges, and in emergency housing.

But that’s changed completely. I still don’t work, currently, with women in refuges. I, instead, am working with women who have never been, or choose not to go, to refuges.

Living in a refuge doesn’t suit everyone. There are a number of reasons for that which I think I’ve gone into, before.

This new thing has led me to some self reflection around my ability to go deep with these women, if that’s what they want, and offer them sustained emotional support. Because what’s started happening is that they are telling me the most intimate details of their abuse. This is new because with the women at the refuge I used to work with, we really only talked about our lives, and the generalities of the abuses of power and love against them. We never talked of the nitty gritty, only what it felt like to a large degree. Now, however, the women I see open up to me in this very graphic way, sometimes. I’m not sure if that’s a function of them knowing that I am experienced working with women who’ve lived in violence, or a function of my age, and my obvious safety. But whatever it is, it’s a recent thing. And that’s what I’ve been thinking about.

When I was working with the one particular refuge, I made very sure that I wasn’t doing anything I imagined a social worker would do. I wasn’t offering advice, or counselling them in any way. I kept it within the bounds of what I thought were my capabilities and qualifications. I’ve been a teaching professional for the last 20 years, but not a professional in this field. I don’t have a piece of paper, and I’m not going to get one either.

So where does that leave me? For a while, I carried on as normal. Any conversations had, in my car or at the storage unit, move, as they always have, at the women’s pace. Go deep or not as they wish. The difference is now where once I didn’t encourage them to talk about this stuff, mainly because I’m not a social worker, but also the stuff could sometimes mean they think they have an obligation to share their pain with me, I have started to realise that actually now I’m being asked by referrers to do exactly that. I wasn’t silencing them or stopping them from telling me, it was just an organic thing. They shared what they wanted to, always.

But. I have had women come into my life in the last few months who require me to go deeper with them. That’s what they want, so I’m not going to not do that. I can’t break their trust by saying: STOP. I’m not qualified.

Because the reality, I have come to see, is that I am.

How do I know this?

Because I’ve had discussions with a number of people in the organisations I work with, who I thought were social workers, and are actually not. Who work with incredibly vulnerable people.

I’ve asked them about this. About what a social worker does, what I do. How that’s similar, and what the differences are. And I’ve had the same answer every time. To do this work, to do any work where you are supporting vulnerable people, you don’t actually need a social work qualification if you’re not working for a government department. This is not to suggest, of course, that social workers aren’t valuable, or that just anyone should be working with vulnerable people. But the reality is that, as I am coming to see, there are many many people who work with vulnerable people in our communities, who are not social workers by profession. But what we do is quite similar. Social support, community support, advocacy – it’s given different names. We just don’t have a piece of paper.

And I’ve asked them if I’m qualified to do this job. I’ve asked them if I’m fit to do this job. And they’ve all answered yes. Yes, because I’ve been doing it a while, and they’ve seen me work with people and they like the way I do that. They know my capabilities and are confident of them or they wouldn’t ask me to do what they have.

And I’ve asked the women I’ve worked with for a while if they think I’m qualified to share their pain, and support them in the ways they require me to. And they’ve said that they’ve never even questioned it. That they’ve needed support, which the Aunties have provided materially, and then I’ve stuck around when they’ve wanted me to, to be a friend. And that’s good enough for them.

And as, in all things, if it’s good enough for them, then it has to be good enough for me.

I haven’t stopped asking myself hard questions – I’m hard wired to do it, as a reflective practitioner. And I will never stop checking myself, and checking in with the people I work with. When you’re working with really vulnerable people, it would be dangerous not to.

I am, however, going to just keep doing what I do, because it seems to work. So I’ll just have to accept that that’s what’s important.

 

NB:: If you are an actual social worker, I’d appreciate feedback, and perhaps your perspective on these thoughts. 

I would also add that I have professional supervision monthly, and I have found this very useful. She reflects my work back to me and it means I can download issues I may be having or heavy information that I have recieved. 

 

 

 

 

Charity. It’s not me, it’s you

I started a bit of furore.

It was all a bit ridiculous. People getting exercised about something I’d said when they plainly had no idea what I’d said. You’d think I’d be sick of it, but I’m revving up for more, and I’ll tell you why shortly.

A bit of context, first: 4 years ago, almost to the day, I looked in the pantry at a women’s refuge. I’d asked first, to see what we could do about food. I was appalled. 50 tins of tomatoes in that pantry, and quite a few expired tins of chickpeas too. And then in another cupboard, more tinned tomatoes. All expired. It struck me then as a bloody ludicrous thing for there to be in the pantry of a house where women were living who were in varying states of crisis and upset,  and I wanted to throw them away. My friend Gloria was appalled that I would think of doing that, so I got some to her and she made the most exquisite spaghetti sauce (which the women ate communally).

On we went, and I decided that we would provide as much food for the women in that refuge as we were able. A givealittle page was started, we went shopping 4 times a year, and then moved on to just making sure the women had access to supermarket gift cards. The evolution, as you can see, was from PROVIDING for the women to making sure they could provide for themselves. Agency, and freedom, at a time in their lives when they hadn’t been used to any for a while. My thinking changed as my work and relationships with them progressed, and I tweaked the systems we had in place, with feedback from Kris, who ran the place, as to what would work best.

They never asked for tinned tomatoes when we went shopping for them, and I never saw many of them cook with them – and I did cooking lessons with them, so I knew what they liked to cook, each one. One of them LOVED cooking with tinned tomatoes, most did not. And certainly none of them cooked at all in their first few days there, if they’d come directly from the violence that had shattered their lives.

So. Was this ever about  tinned tomatoes? No. It was about trusting that people know what they want and need and providing access to those resources for them, so that they get to make their own choices.  And having a relationship with the people you’re supporting so that if you’re ever in a position where they need/want you to provide them with something and not get it for themselves, you know what it is that they’re likely to need/want, and make your judgements on that. 

Either way, the point was this: the person who drives the resourcing should be the person who needs the support, and not the people driving it. 

So how do we change the paradigm? How do we start looking at giving people agency?

Let’s start with the language. Language is incredibly important because the “wrong” language can make people feel even more “less than” than they may already feel. More judged. More of a failure.

At the moment, there’s a lot of buzzwords and phrases around:

  • children in poverty
  • feed the need
  • the less fortunate
  • poor
  • deprived

I’ve been around this stuff for a while now, and I’ve always used the words “living in poverty” but recently, I’ve started using the term “deliberately under resourced”. Because that is, in my opinion. what it is. All the other words/terms are simply byproducts of that under resourcing.
A low wage economy, prohibitive rents, benefits that are set to be deliberately unliveable.

And, even amongst liberals there’s this idea that people are down on their luck. No. No, they’re not down on their luck. For the people I work with, they never had any luck because the system is set to shut them out. Deliberately. There’s no acknowledgement of it, but that’s what it is.

And why are they where they are in the first place? It may be different for a lot of people who are struggling, but for the people I work with, by and large, this stuff is generational, and it’s to do with – not to put too fine a point on it – colonisation. Loss of land, disruption of culture, prejudice finding good jobs and good housing. All of those things which started many many years ago and have continued to this day. And how do you change that? How do you even begin to fix that? You acknowledge it’s happened and you strive to put it right, and in the case of The Aunties, my belief is that we start by understanding that whatever support someone asks for, and we resource them to take advantage of that support, that is what they’re owed. Because most of you reading this will be perfectly comfortable. I certainly am. This is not about white guilt. This is about recognising that the system that has privileged me by dint of the family I was born into, is the same one that has shat on the women I work with. It’s as simple as that.

We can also shift the paradigm by thinking about what charity actually means. I don’t like the word “charity” – it doesn’t describe what the Aunties do, and it’s demeaning to the people we support, and resource. We don’t dispense charity – we are a whānau, a community, supporting and resourcing other members of our whānau. I’ve always said people need shit, we get it for them. But it’s always been a bit more complicated than that. Because you have stuff other people need, you get it to me, and ostensibly I give it to them, who need it, right?  Kind of. What actually happens if that you offer me stuff, and I decide who can use it because I have a relationship with them, or their social worker, and in the cases where I know the person directly, I ask them. Or the stuff gets to the storage unit, and I don’t even ask them what they need anymore. I just tell them what’s there, they come and get what they need or want. There’s no middle person, it’s just them making their own decisions.

Because we’re not in communist Russia. When you go to the supermarket you take what you need, don’t you? And there’s a whole range of choices. Well, the way I work things is that the stuff is there, all sorts of stuff, and you do the same thing. Except it’s free. A number of charities have started doing this with food – they call it the food pantry approach. And some have done a Christmas Loft, where clients get to choose their own kids presents. Because, let’s face it, when someone else has wrapped the present, and put an age and gender on it, that’s a bit shit. And I think that we need to move away from this model of charity where you get what you’re given. It’s disempowering and designed to make the person recieving feel like a piece of poo. Because you have to be grateful.  And here’s one of the other things I want to talk about……

Why should you be grateful for something you never asked for, and that you have no hand in deciding whether you get it or not? And why would you be grateful, even if you do need, say, towels, when they’re not even good enough for a dog? Or they’re not the colour you like, best? Or they’re just a bit threadbare?

No. I say no. Enough.

I’ve always said: give with love. I want to change that up. Gift with love. Resource with intent, and in a specific and client based – hate the word, it’ll do for the moment – way. Bring the focus back to the person who’s getting what they need, and not the person who’s giving it. Because, and here’s something else to think about, there is a huge power imbalance in all of this. You have something they need, they feel the pressure to be grateful. Power imbalance.

I know about this stuff because I get it all the time. I have to stop women from being over the top with gratitude – I’ve started talking to people I work with about their agency. That I understand that I’m bringing/getting them stuff and so they feel like they have to repay me with their story, or opening their lives to me. No. They don’t. And when I say it, they say: but I would tell anyone else this.

I happen to be someone people tell stuff, deep stuff, to anyway, and quite quickly. And if people are comfortable doing that, that’s fine. But when we have the discussion about it, and that stuff is clarified, we can be on a more even keel – though because of who I am and why I initially meet them, that’s still there. I’m always aware of it, and I always have been. So I want to shift that by having this conversation with other people who work in this field. How do you add some balance? How do your clients? For me, it’s about sharing about my life, and who I am.

How about, then, instead of dashing just to resource people – getting them what they need based on what they’ve asked for, and relationships built – we also, as communities of people who make it our business to concern ourselves with supporting other people when they’re struggling , think about that power imbalance, why it exists, and how we can do our jobs in a way that redresses that? Invites people to take back some power and have a say in their own resourcing? Indeed, build them into the very core of our communities. Their voices, and thoughts. Their concerns, and dreams. We can do that.

And I’m not fond of the idea of helping people. Making a difference. Changing people’s lives. Only they can do that. We can support them to do whatever they need us to support them in, but we don’t change their lives. We may touch their lives, we may impact their lives in some way. But that’s all.  This is about agency. Supporting people, in The Aunties case, in a number of ways,  while they still live in, or have left, domestic violence.

We can move from a model of charity where we act as parental, to a model where we act as equals, as much as is possible. Empower people to do whatever they need to do to bring them out of those struggles, if that’s what they want to do.

I know these are new and very challenging ideas to many people. And I know this because even  the suggestion that charities are allowed to say no to donations made people very angry. Completely spun some people out. There was talk of ingratitude. Yes, there was.

And I hear, over and over, what if there were no charities? What if we had a society that didn’t need charities? In my opinion, we will always need communities who help each other out, support each other, and share resources. It is, after all, what it means to be a community. You can call those charities, but I know which word I prefer. Which idea is much more supportive and empowering to people who are struggling, in any way.

So I’m asking you all, for the New Year, to consider my thoughts. Consider them as Xmas gifts to you.  I know this model of charity can work, because The Aunties are already largely doing it. I invite you to join us, whether you run a charity, work for a charity, or support one.

We don’t need our community to be grateful. We just need our community to be okay. All of us. To be okay. We can do that.

 

With gratitude to Dr Jess Berentson Shaw for her feedback, and suggestions.