Here’s an example of a broken system in action: A social worker is working in a challenging and emotionally difficult position with children in the community. She is putting in 50 hours a week, letting go of time for relaxation and self-care in order to keep up with the workload. She is paid under 40k, despite having a Master’s-lever education, because this is considered an acceptable pay rate for social workers in the US. She is asked to supervise several interns, add extra groups or individual cases, or take on one more side project, without extra compensation for her work. She is frequently derailed by mistakes made by insurance companies, for which they take no responsibility, because they are not regulated. As a result, she becomes further behind and begins putting in some weekend hours. On the few hours she has off, she is emotionally drained due to the often heartbreaking nature of her work.
I have the privilege of working with many individuals like the one I described above, both as clients and as colleagues. I am very familiar with the internal dialogue of this individual. Often, it might be something like the following: “I can’t keep up. I’m not smart enough. I just need to try harder. I’m failing my clients. I’m a fraud. I need to do more, or else everyone else will know that I’m incompetent/untrained/not dedicated enough. Everyone else can do it, so why can’t I?”
This woman might seek out therapy wondering how to increase her ability to go harder without breaking down, as is our cultural standard and a prized behavior in today’s helping professions. She believes (as society might reinforce) that if she can just do more, or work a little bit longer, then she’ll be able to pull off the job. Were she to see a therapist, it’s likely that none of these themes would be validated – because they simply aren’t true. This is a social problem – an issue of a broken system, not a broken person.
Why do those of us in the helping professions (and many others, as well) keep shaming ourselves for being unable to keep up with an impossible standard?
Here’s my best guess: If we identify ourselves as the root of the problem, then it becomes fixable. Suddenly, it feels as though we have more control, because we think we can manage changing ourselves more than the tricky business of challenging larger systems. Perhaps this is why we are so keen on making ourselves the villains in our own stories, and so hard on one another – because, otherwise, we must consider opting out of the system that is exploiting us, or trying to make changes within it. Both of these options require time and energy that we may not have to give. So, we internalize the blame – because as long as the problem is us, it’s at least tidy and manageable.
I offer no easy solutions here. I can say is that, objectively, it’s unhealthy for us (physically, mentally, and emotionally) to believe that we are the problem in scenarios like the one I detailed above. This belief system eats up countless therapists, social workers, teachers, nurses, etc. It’s not okay. It’s not true.
I can also say that, as long as we remain on the hamster wheel, we contribute to the system continuing to run as it is – in a manner that is destructive to the dedicated and skilled people within it. I also posit that, as long as we push one another to meet the impossible standards placed before us in the helping professions, we allow the system to go unchecked, and we reinforce the idea that we just need to be better workers. This is not a good look for us.
It is true that we must do better. We do it by teaming up, by supporting one another, encouraging self-care, time off, fair pay, and boundary-setting. We do it by turning our fingers around to point at the social system within which we practice.