Self-Disclosure and the Power of Connection in Social Work Practice
Updated: Oct 30
As a masters level social work student, it is likely that you will be thrown into the field within a month of starting your program. That comes with the opportunity for all expectations to be completely blown away as you do the thing you’ve been talking about to friends, family, and admissions officers for months. Over my field internship with a school-based agency, an important position at my agency changed often. Turnover is talked about often in social work spaces, but experiencing it was completely different. The position, which saw 3 faces and 2 openings during my time, was responsible for managing all of the services provided at the school and supervising any interns or volunteers. Each time that someone left the role, there were so many logistical questions that I had: who will tell me what I should do? How will kids receive the services they need, including valued time they were promised? I felt heartbroken and disappointed for both of them and for me.
In the midst of change, incredible people supported me by answering these questions to the best of their ability. Still, some answers were hard to hear, incomplete, or simply not available. After the second person left the role, I felt part of myself crumble and I cried thinking of how many kids would be confused or let down. Over the next few days, I talked to my trusted field liaison as well as my mom, who I always call when upset. Still, as I continued to figure out a new plan with those around me, I noticed how emotionally activated I continued to be at my agency and at home.
Burnout is a phenomenon impacting many different professions, social work in particular. It’s no secret that secondhand trauma, low compensation, and huge caseloads all contribute to the collective overwhelm social workers experience. Authentically and continually witnessing your clients’ experiences of pain, struggle, oppression is difficult. Even more disheartening is when client challenges are systemic and their behavior is an attempt to simply survive. In order to support our clients with therapy and advocacy, pursuing the end goal of systemic change, social workers ourselves need to be supported. But until that magical day where everyone is properly equipped to fight burnout, what can be done?
When I called my field liaison to process my own emotions as well as hearing any suggestions he had for talking to clients about the changes, I didn’t imagine that his answer would be able to address both of those needs. After all, social work students are taught a client-centered lens, which means avoiding meeting our own needs via work with clients. Up until that point, I believed that meant that I needed to check my emotions at the door to a session, and be a blank slate for whatever they brought to me. But even though I was practicing bodily regulations strategies to be present for clients, I knew I still felt sad about the level of turnover that was going on. After my call, I felt less afraid to sit with that, and to even bring my feelings into the developmentally different, yet routine explanations about why someone left again. Some of the most mutually healing moments that I had during my internship were ultimately expressions of the ways that our – mine and my clients’ – trust led into disappointment, a mix of confusion and sadness.
Self-disclosure is a science and an art. While social work guidance suggests that self-disclosure be utilized only in ways that add to the therapeutic quality of the relationship, and provides certain tips such as relevance to the “here and now”, the discretion to self-disclose is ultimately up to the individual social worker. New social workers, such as myself, may have a tendency to either offer self-disclosures too frequently or too infrequently, which both have unique consequences. Social workers need to be very careful that we do not attempt to meet our own needs with client interactions, but at the same time, relating with clients is an important part of their healing. So when I asked clients how they felt that this change was happening, I was allowing them to express their feelings with the promise of being heard and believed, which could be a rare occurrence for a kid dealing with big emotions. As I listened, I allowed myself to truly feel that emotion with them, mirror it back to them, and express my resonance with that feeling. I found that only after those moments could we begin to move forward.
Moments of self-disclosure offer potent authenticity and connection that deepens the therapeutic bond. They show clients that we are human with them; that we have hard feelings, like them. Telling someone that you are facing a similar emotion in a shared situation is a powerful embodiment of relating. This experience can act as an embodied part of how to regulate, relate, and reason with clients. Thus, the process of connecting is deeply tied to the work of regulation. Connection to our work is also a huge protective factor against the experience of burnout. When I leaned on connection with clients as an antidote to the impact that burnout was having on our program, the cyclical nature of stress was interrupted, if just for those few moments. Connection with my clients offered me a reprieve from the ongoing bureaucratic challenges within the agency, reminding me about the beauty of social work, the amazing resilience of kids, and the healing we can do together.
Cameron Bates is a candidate for a Clinical Masters of Science in Social Work (MSSW) at the University of Texas at Austin. Before entering the MSSW program, she obtained her Bachelors in Psychology, also at the University of Texas at Austin. She has worked primarily in the school-setting supporting early intervention and social-emotional learning. Cameron is passionate about supporting kids, families, and communities with anti-oppressive, trauma-informed interventions that highlight the dignity and worth of every human being.