Ten Things I Learned as a Social Worker That Made Me Better at Life #WithAssistByTracyChapman

For almost thirteen years, I mostly made a living being a full-time martyr. Man, does that Cross get heavy. Now that I’ve been out for over a decade, the lightning bolt lessons of that time thwack me across the back of the neck most days. The old ones used to warn, “You got a hard row to hoe, girl.” They weren’t wrong.

I do like a challenge.


“It probably isn’t about you.” When your objective is for other people to change, and they don’t, or they do, but it is so imperceptible and zig-zaggy that you don’t believe it…it is entirely easy to question your efficacy.

But, here’s the thing: people aren’t things. We don’t exist long in absolute states. We are inbetweeners, thus not quantifiable in any simple sense. Change is, even when it isn’t. People learn what they need to learn when and how and why they need to…or they don’t. Either way, perspective.

Secondly, “After a careful process of deduction, it may in fact, be about you.” You bring your issues with you. Your biases don’t disappear with the passing years. The paths between neurons are well-traveled or non-existent. If you don’t use it, you lose it. We all get lazy or too busy to deconstruct Self as we should, but if you are on the front lines, you cannot afford neglect.

“State the obvious.” At a certain point in difficult conversations, sugarcoating is patronizing.  When I was 19, I had to talk to a resident at the shelter where I worked about hygiene. It was unpleasant and I really didn’t want to hurt her feelings. And yet, she needed to be encouraged toward more self-care. Having had this awkward conversation over a dozen times now throughout the years, I can tell you that tough love is sometimes the kindest.

“Inequality is real. And so is a lack of equity.” Poor people suffer more than a lack of money. Higher arrest, conviction and sentencing rates, limited access to quality healthcare and a social safety net with holes so big, you can disappear forever. This burden also disproportionately falls on communities of color. You can pull your bootstraps all day, every day and still never move anywhere but backwards. The American Dream is ever more elusive if you are born poor.

“Policy matters.” It really does matter who is elected and how ideology gets translated into social services.” From food stamps, to Medicaid expansion to availability of mental health and substance abuse treatment…real people are impacted when policies seek to punish for not being worthy enough to help. I will never understand how a Nation of so many Christians can justify its treatment of “the least of these.”

“Harm reduction is the only sane and compassionate way to treat people with problems.” An insistence on abstinence as the only “true” progress is willful ignorance. Typically, the philosophy is used in parts of Europe and Canada to treat alcohol and drug issues, as in better-a-joint-than-a-needle, better-a-clean-needle-than-a-dirty-one. It has served me extremely well to apply this same approach to most human problems. Be ready to praise the little things. And if there is nothing to praise, respect the process. Perfection just isn’t a helpful goal.

Trust no one. Trust everyone.”  Yeah, I know. Contradictions can be an easy way out. But, here’s the thing: if you work with cons, you better learn when you are being conned. And also know when to lend someone the benefit of the doubt. Learn how to read body language. Know who you are dealing with…what is their baseline? This is about protecting your heart and extending it when you can.

“Kindness is a perfectly appropriate tactic.”  During my time in the field, I realized my momma taught me one of the most potent weapons is compassion.  Rilke and my mom were both right.

Rainer Maria Rilke

“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are

only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and

courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its

deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

― Rainer Maria RilkeLetters to a Young Poet

“All that you have is your soul. TRACY CHAPMAN IS RIGHT ABOUT ALL THE THINGS.”  And if this doesn’t help you, you may need more than I have to give ya. Please seek a professional who is still obligated to try and understand you.

“Shenanigans” You best invent a way to have a ball as often as possible. Get outside. Read. Get on a stage when it scares you to death. Travel. Have extraordinary moments—as many as you can fit in one day. Make music. Draw badly. Act a fool. Give randomly. Be sillier than your kids. Shake your groove thang. You know…go ahead and use real butter and real sugar. Yolo and all.

Helping people is hard. Helping yourself is, but shouldn’t be, much harder. You can only do one without the other for so long…and if you don’t balance out, you’ll tend toward neurosis or psychosis. So, yeah. Be about learning how powerful you are and how powerless you are simultaneously. Be about sticking your neck out for what is right. Be about the flux of it all. Settle at home in humanity, we are a fascinating bunch.

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About Kristen Chapman Gibbons

Loosely connected facts: Storyteller. Curator of a Better Internet. Lifelong Politico. Social Media Maven. Creativity and Empathy Evangelist. Performer. Creator of Content Worth Sharing. Digital Strategist. Former Social Worker. Decade teaching in Higher Ed. Master's Degree in Theology. Married to an Irishman. 3 darling kiddos. Preacher's kid. Appalachian. Music maker. Music devour-er. ENTP. Bohemian. Geeky. Obsessed with thrift stores and all things vintage. Lover of species.

View all posts by Kristen Chapman Gibbons

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