Please note that all client stories have had identifying details changed.
As a social worker who was just starting out, I longed for a long list of social work interventions which I could look through whenever I had a client problem I couldn’t solve.
Like a list of hacks to help people.
Okay okay, maybe no intervention is that easy, but you get the idea.
Easy applicable interventions.
Without being able to find one, I started to craft one myself. Here’s a list of interventions that have been curated for social work textbooks, books, and courses I have attended.
One of the most helpful books have been Guy Winch’s Emotional First Aid (read it if you haven’t!). Many of the techniques listed here are from Winch’s book.
This article is organised according to the issues that you may face in practice.
1. Argue with self-criticism
- List in writing any negative or self-critical thoughts you have about the rejection.
- Craft rebuttals to each self-criticism you’ve listed.
- Whenever you have a self critical thought, immediately articulate the relevant counterargument.
Here’s an example.
Recently, I have been struggling with feedback that I’m difficult to work with. Thoughts such as ‘no one likes me! I’m horrible at teamwork!’ kept appearing in my head.
One counterargument I started was:
I may not be the best at teamwork, but I’m learning how to now.
This focused me on how I was moving towards better teamwork, rather than as someone who was stuck (always!) as a poor team player.
2. Revive your self worth
- Write down 5 qualities you admire about yourself.
- Under each quality, write down examples of how you’ve shown them in the past.
When I first met my therapist, he observed that I had difficulties dealing with the rejection I had from 3 years ago. He told me to write a letter of love to myself, celebrating the qualities inherent in John.
Here’s an example:
I love you becuase you’re so compassionate. Even though you never needed to, you still served people with disabilities. You organised activities for them and was willing to spend your precious weekends outside of army to be with them.
As silly as this sounds, on a cold winter’s night in Nottingham, when I felt very down, I took this out, read it…
and promptly cried.
Having such a letter of love to yourself helps you to better overcome the rejection in your life.
3. Have a photograph to encourage yourself
Look up from your cubicle. What’s around you? Do you have pictures of celebrities or pictures of grandma?
These days, the wallpaper on your phone probably does more to encourage you than anything else.
Try changing it to a picture with someone you love.
4. Read through gestures of affection that others have given to you.
When you go through a difficult time of rejection, it can feel like one against the world.
Remind yourself that there are people who still care for you and have shown you love in the past is a useful way to remind yourself that rejection is not final.
Take the time to ask your client:
Are there gestures of love that others have demonstrated to him before? For example, might there be a letter, an email, a present, a hug that others have shown him in the past?
Reminding your client that rejection is not final, and helping him to find the other times in his life where he has not been rejected will build up his confidence again.
5. Find avenues for connection
Winch recommends that we try this when clients express that they are lonely. Very often, they might not see the avenues that are available to them.
As the social worker, you can help.
- Go through your phone book, email addresses and social media contacts.
- Make a list of people you consider good acquaintances.
- Prioritise them based on how they made them feel you.
- Invite them out for a meeting.
- Find 3 activities you would like to try (adult learning class, rock-climbing or even a book club). Get online for a meeting.
6. Ask: What are my self defeating behaviours?
Okay, okay, I admit. I’m not the most sociable person.
Once, a friend asked me if I would like to sit with them at church.
I promptly said, ‘No, sorry.’ Then I complained that I didn’t seem to have many friends.
Another example. My friends have a Telegram group to chat with each other. I quitted the group because ‘I wanted to spend less time on my phone.’
Yes, it sounds reasonable, but who’s to blame if I’m chronically lonely?
When you work with a client around an issue like loneliness, it’s useful to examine if the client has self-defeating behaviours that make it difficult for others to connect with him/her. It may not be something significant.
In fact, the client may find this such a habit that it doesn’t even seem like an issue.
But explore them.
When I was 17, I wondered if this was all there was to life. Was this it? Study, study more, and then die?
I started volunteering with a group that served persons with intellectual disabilities. I found a group of friends for life.
With clients who are lonely, I have found that offering them avenues like this can help them to feel a greater sense of purpose. Life no longer becomes about them, but they start to look beyond them.
Loss and trauma
You know the usual theories they teach you about loss and trauma in social work university. The stages of grief by Kübler-Ross? The act of expressing your feelings and not bottling them up?
It may not always work.
According to Holland and Neimeyer (2008), there is uneven support for a stage-like conception of grief.
Rather, it may be better to soothe the grief in your own way. People find different methods of coping.
Encourage your client to use your own. Rather than forcing the client to sit through a difficult session where he talks about his feelings, ask your client what he feels would work best at this time.
8. Recover lost aspects of your ‘self’
Introduced by Guy Winch, this writing exercise can be used as a series of questions during your session as well.
- What are the qualities you valued in yourself or that others valued about you before the events occurred? Try finding at least 10 items.
- Which of the above items feel most disconnected from your life today?
- Why do you feel disconnected from the attribute in question? Why is the quality no longer expressed as extensively as before?
- What are possible people, activities or outlets you could pursue that would allow you to express the quality in a greater way?
9. Thought exercise ‘What might have been’
Please assess the readiness of your client before assigning this task. If your client is not emotionally ready, this might cause more harm than help.
- How would your life be different today if the events had not happened?
- In what ways could the outcome of the events been worse than they were?
- What factors prevented these worse outcomes from occurring?
- How grateful are you that these worse outcomes did not occur?
10. Finding benefits in loss
From Winch’s book, Emotional First Aid, he recommends clients to try this:
- I never imagined back then that such tragic events would lead me to:
- What I did was significant and very meaningful to me because”
- The first step of my journey towards the achievement was when I:
- My achievement was possible because I changed my priorities such that:
- Changing my priorities led me to make the following changes in my life:
- Along the way I realised my purpose in life is:
To help clients suffering from guilt, it helps to understand what kind of guilt they suffer from.
There are 3.
There’s a caveat. Guilt and shame are not the same thing There’s a difference.
Shame talks about your character. It says, ‘I’m bad.’
Guilt says something about your action. It says, ‘I did something bad’.
11. Make effective apologies
I once made an apology. But it didn’t seem to work.
As I reflected on why it hadn’t worked, I realised that I hadn’t followed Guy Winch’s recipe for effective apologies. I had simply apologied, without giving the emotional validation needed.
To offer authentic emotional validation, Guy Winch offers 5 steps.
You know why you don’t feel great even after someone has apologised to you?
You haven’t had the chance to talk about your side of the story. You haven’t had the chance to share about how it hurt you, how you felt, your interpretation of the events.
With your client, as difficult as it is, coach him or her to do this emotional validation. This will make apologies more effective.
12. Practice self-forgiveness
As Guy Winch explains, self-forgiveness comes in two parts.
The first is accountability.
13. Write to reflect on what you did.
- Describe your actions that led to the other person feeling harmed.
- Read your description and take out qualifiers or excuses. For example, ‘She accused me of being insulted’ will read ‘She felt insulted’.
- Sum up the harm the other person sustained both tangibly and emotionally
- Go through the description of harm and ensure that it is as realistic and accurate as possible.
- Were there extenuating circumstances?
14. Think through possible atonements you can make.
- What changes do you need to make in your thinking, habits, behaviour or lifestyle that would minimise the likelihood of you repeating the transgression in the future?
- Are there meaningful reparations you can make?
Have a ritual to mark the end of the atonement
We all have rituals in life. The holy communion at church. The graduation ceremony at university. The way we wake up.
Similarly, having a ritual can help to separate the past from the present, and the present from the future.
With some clients, I have seen them mark difficult periods of growth in their lives by having a tattoo. You don’t have to ask your client to have a tattoo.
But it’s worth marking the end of a period with a ritual.
I will share two examples.
I had a friend who I shared a close relationship with. Unfortunately, that relationship broke down due to my own insensitivity to her feelings. To mark the end of my personal self-flagellation, I wrote a letter of self-forgiveness to myself.
I then put it in the river late one night, watching it slowly sink down into the bottom.
In another instance, I found myself blaming myself after another conflict with a friend left us no longer friends. Again, I wrote a letter of self-forgiveness. I then ended up setting the paper on fire…
and promptly triggered the fire alarm at home.
You get the point. There are certain rituals that can help to mark the end of an error you’ve made, and how you will move on to the next phase of your life.
You might be like a cow. Chewing and chewing over something that has happened. It’s not healthy.
15. Take a self-distanced perspective.
Some clients may have experienced failures. Responding to them with sympathy and empathy is vital, but helping them to pick themselves up again is next.
Reflect on your failure and its lessons.
These questions are adapted from Guy Winch’s ‘Emotional First Aid’.
- What should I do differently next time?
- What opportunities might my failure possibly present?
- In what ways might my failure make me stronger?
- What ways are my failures a success?
- How much more will success mean to you now that you’ve encountered failure?
- Can you identify ways you derived meaning and satisfaction as you pursued your goal?
Break down goal planning.
When you fail, it makes you feel smaller. Previous tasks where you might have gone,
YES I CAN!
may make you now go whimpering like a little puppy.
Guy Winch suggests that you break down your goal into something clear and measurable.
Secondly, what are the clear steps to reach there?
The self-esteem raising tool
I have a confession to make.
I have not had a girlfriend before.
I have had 3 painful rejections in life, which have heavily damaged my self-esteem. As a result, I have found it difficult to build the self-esteem and confidence again.
For every criticism you have of yourself, list down 3 others that are qualities you enjoy about yourself, or which people have said of you.
Ray is a different boy. Not difficult, but different.
When I’m asked to come in, the directive is clear.
Get him a job, and get him out of the family home.
He’s been in lots of trouble.
He’s gotten into fights. Is currently being charged for breaking a shop window.
He’s also someone with a learning disability.
When I first read his file, I’m scared.
What if he decides to beat me up?
But when I first see him, my defences drop.
He looks like any other teenager. Loves Snapchat, WhatsApp, and TikTok.
For the first work placement I find, it’s a canteen in a fire station. It’s manned by others with learning disabilities.
It’s also amazing! The food, is great.
After the first time, he looks excited to go back. We’ve spent the entire day chopping vegetables, making curry, and washing the dishes.
I’m surprised he wants to go back.
The next day, I struggle to get him out of bed.
I try every trick. Try pulling him. Telling him that I will get him something if he gets out of bed.
He lies in bed.
Unsurprisingly, the placement doesn’t accept him.
Still, I go back to ‘engage’ him.
There’s a beautiful moment during the first day of the placement we tried.
We have this huge pile of dishes to wash.
We groan together.
Then I set him a challenge.
Let’s see who can finish the pile the quickest!
We race through the stack, washing, drying, and putting them away.
Come along for lunch now!
We stare at the curries in front of us, and finish them in an instant.
Then he burps.
We laugh again.
For a boy who’s been caught so often by the police for supposed infarctions of the law, he seems different.
I wouldn’t say I’m special.
But with Ray, I used a different intervention.
It was called..
Every social worker has an intervention toolkit.
Sometimes, we think that toolkit is limited to the twins of case management and counselling, with little else.
But beyond that, there’s also mentoring.
Mentoring is modelling.
It’s modelling to someone the character and the attitude you want to see.
Is a social worker really a mentor?
Can a social worker be a mentor?
How do you be a mentor?
Come alongside someone.
Listen first, talk less.
Do things together.
No, no, we’re not protesting on the streets and demanding that there be parity and equality.
Advocacy in social work, is all about the relationship with the systems you’re involved in.
Remember, it’s relationship.
I will be the first to admit that in my dealings with some systems, things may end up so difficult that I find myself cursing the system.
I find myself dreaming of all the ways to get back at them.
How do you advocate better?
Build better relationships.
Sometimes, advocacy is about pushing the relationship to do something that may be difficult.
When I was advocating that our local council provide some leeway for a client to have a more expensive service, it helped that I had a good relationship with my manager.
As you know, austerity has hit many budgets badly. If there’s a cheaper service, someone is going to get it.
It can be frustrating to work with systems sometimes.
So don’t work with the system. Work with the person.
Remember that at the back of every system is a person. Whatever you think of them, remember that they are human beings.
What if the person was trying his best?
Rather than blaming the next agency you work with, advocating better is about starting from the human relationship.
And building from there.
I was recently trying to explain to a student intern why she should not join social work.
Oh, don’t say I was a bad colleague, giving social work a bad name.
For all the good that we do in social work, social work isn’t for everyone.
Part of the reason is because of casework.
What is casework?
How is it an intervention?
As my previous boss used to say,
casework is the bread and butter of social work.
Casework is case management.
Under the National Social Work Competency Framework, you will see that there are 3 sections.
- Engagement and assessment
- Case review and documentation
- Goal setting and intervention plans
You don’t have to raise your hands if you’re struggling with documentation.
All of us find that difficult.
As you can see from the three aspects of casework, it’s about:
- Knowing what the client needs and where the client is
- Contracting with the client about the final destination
- Guiding the client to the final destination
It’s like a journey.
You are the guide on their journey.
I trained in the U.K.
During my first meeting as a student social worker, I asked why we hadn’t considered more therapeutic approaches.
I was greeted with a blank stare.
Later, when the concerns procedure was initiated, I was told that the local authority didn’t focus on therapeutic work.
The social worker as the street-level bureaucrat has been documented in many places.
Moving from the therapeutic aspect of social work, to the administrative aspect of social work, has been difficult, for many social workers.
That’s not to say that counselling cannot remain as an intervention you can draw from.
Indeed, counselling is one of the most important interventions you can draw from as a social worker.
I’ve teared many times as I heard clients share their stories.
Some people call me emotionally weak. And that I should hide my tears.
Sometimes, you have nothing to say to the profound stories of pain you hear.
No need for doing.
Don’t just do something, sit there!
I’m on the last day of my student placement.
After this, I fly home to Singapore.
I’m meeting my client for the last time.
As we look back at how far we’ve come, I pass her a postcard of Singapore.
Oh how lovely!
She places it on the mantelpiece.
Now we can remember you for years to come.
As I walk out of the home, down the street, there’s a bitter-sweet feeling.
Yes, I know that I might never see them again.
But I know that somewhere along that street, on a mantelpiece, above a fireplace, lies a reminder of the impact I’ve made.
That’s social work.
You walk in and out of people’s lives. You leave, and yet continue to leave impact.
Sometimes you fail, sometimes you succeed beyond your wildest dreams.
At the end of the day, different interventions count for different impact.
What is your favourite intervention? Why?
Share them with me below.