Development of a Profession Style, Essay Example
I—The Development of a Professional Style. The development of a professional style is very important for cultivating effectiveness in social work. Based on the lectures, course readings, other research, and my own values, the desire to make a positive impact on the lives of others is the key value that I see as the basis for my professional style. Implementing and maintaining this vision will require me to maintain a strong sense of self, as well as a lot of self-awareness, so that I can better understand my own values and reasons for doing things. My aim in doing this is to become a better listener, as well as a better partner in the therapeutic alliance of social worker and client. I also seek to deepen my awareness of cultural differences, and the social barriers that they can create. More specifically, by cultivating empathy, tolerance, and understanding, I will seek to minimize misunderstandings and offer culturally-appropriate services.
A). Professional Development: For me, professional development in the context of social work practice has to come from the very thing that led me to social work in the first place: the desire to make a very real, tangible, beneficial impact on other people’s lives. To maintain such an approach to the social work practice and the clients I will help to serve, it will be essential for me to remain committed to the value of caring for my clients, and genuinely wanting to help them (Seden, 2011, p. 57). By taking this defining approach, I will have the motivation to continuously develop my professional capacities, thereby improving my performance as a helping professional (Skinner, 2012, p. 184).
But in order to do this, I will need to cultivate two very important things: both a strong sense of self, and plenty of self-awareness. As Seden (2011) explained, this is very important: a key problem with the “competency training” approach popular in social work practice in the 1990s was its emphasis on competency and performance, at the expense of self-awareness. More specifically, what is needed is the kind of self-awareness that promotes flexible, dynamic, creative and ethical, helping solutions (p. 58). To put it simply, in social work practice, one size does not fit all: different clients have different situations and different needs (p. 58). So if I am to commit to ongoing professional development, I will surely need to keep this fact in mind, and remember to put the clients and their needs at the forefront of my practice (p. 58). And the mindfulness that is necessary for this approach of creative, dynamic, ethical relationships will require me to have a very strong sense of self and accompanying self-awareness (p. 58).
To get a bit more specific, self-awareness is also of great importance for cultivating one’s own sensitivity and responsiveness to other people (Seden, 2011, p. 58). By cultivating self-awareness, I can clarify my own professional values, and by so doing I will become better in interacting with my clients (p. 58). As Seden explained, a key part of this is managing one’s own reactions and responses to different situations, especially unpleasant, difficult, and trying ones (p. 59). If one can identify something that is difficult for one to deal with personally, then one can do one of two things: “either work to overcome it or… put in place strategies to handle it” (p. 59). This is a part of self-improvement that really speaks to me.
Just as it is important for me to be self-aware, it is also important for me to be aware of my practice. The idea here is that of being a reflective practitioner: taking the time to think about what one is doing in one’s practice, whether it works or not, and how to improve it if need be (Higham, 2006, p. 200). Reflective practice is really part of self-awareness, but it is specifically about awareness of what one is doing. Reflecting on what I am doing, and whether or not it works, will be helpful to me and to my clients: I will be better able to avoid mistakes and, when and where I make them, to learn from them (p. 200). As Higham explained, by using reflection, it is easier to steer clear from the trap of a “’scatter gun’ approach to theories and knowledge” (p. 200). By reflecting on my actions, I will be better able to take what I have learned and use it to overcome challenges and obstacles—to synthesize it, in other words (p. 200).
Professional development is an ongoing and continuous process: it does not end at any particular stage in the career of the helping professional (Skinner, 2012, p. 184). With knowledge and learning going on all the time in the field, it is very important for social workers to remain up to date and informed on all relevant topics in the literature (Cournoyer, 2010, p. 76). In fact, this is so important that it’s simply vital: social workers who don’t keep up-to-date and informed may hurt their clients out of ignorance (p. 77). Besides, it is very much my desire to give my clients the best care and service that I possibly can, and so this is another very important reason for me to stay up-to-date on all relevant knowledge in the field.
The search for knowledge should really never end: to my mind, Cournoyer (2010) is right in describing it as a lifelong quest (p. 78). But knowledge must be applied, and so this is something else that I must do: take what I have learned and put it into practice (Skinner, 2012, pp. 191-192). A big part of this is simply learning how to apply new knowledge to different situations effectively: new knowledge has to be brought into the relationship between professional and client (p. 192). By continuing to grow in knowledge and wisdom, I believe I will be well-equipped to help my clients.
B). Cultural Awareness. I believe that a desire to understand and show empathy towards others is really where cultural awareness starts. Fundamentally, it’s all about the idea that every human being is equally worthy of respect and consideration, no matter their race, culture, nationality, religion, or any other factor. And with this idea, one can start to understand culture: one’s own culture, the cultures of others, and why they are so important.
First of all, cultures are different, diverse, and unique: they are distinct ways of living and doing things (Tan, 2012, p. 128). Because cultures define so much of how people view the world they live in and engage with it, when people of different cultures interact there is a lot of potential for misunderstandings (p. 128). In order to make sure that I’m contributing to constructive relationships with my clients of cultures other than my own, rather than contributing to those misunderstandings and ill-will, I will need to make sure that I understand cultural context (pp. 128-129).
I think a big part of learning cultural context is recognizing that not everyone thinks the same way (Bosch, 2012, p. 123). As Bosch explained, this is a type of cultural encapsulation, which makes it more difficult to develop cultural awareness and sensitivity (p. 123). Another good example of cultural encapsulation is assuming that one’s own view is the right one, rather than just one of many (p. 123). So for me to cultivate cultural awareness and sensitivity, what Bosch called cultural efficacy, I will have to look at those diverse cultures as simply different ways of doing things and thinking, and I will have to make it a priority to communicate effectively in culturally appropriate terms (p. 124).
Therefore, successfully engaging with clients of other cultures will mean that I will have to be mindful of those very specific cultural differences and rules. Two of the more well-known dimensions along which cultures vary have to do with rights and with communication, respectively. In individual or individualistic societies, the rights and needs of the individual are seen as having the greatest importance: it is the individual that matters most for the people of these societies, like ‘mainstream’ American culture, rather than the group as a whole (Bosch, 2012, p. 125). By comparison and contrast, collectivist societies, like Asian and Latin American cultures, tend to favor the group as a whole: it is the group that matters, not the individual (p. 125). Second is communication: high-context versus low-context cultures. In high-context cultures, communication takes place not only through the words that are spoken and written, but also through the setting, tone, and other factors (p. 125). Again, many East and South Asian cultures are high-context cultures, as are many Latin American cultures (p. 125). On the other hand, low-context cultures, like the United States and many other Western societies, place all the emphasis on the transmitted message, and little or none on the context (p. 125).
Learning how to communicate effectively across cultures is very important, but it goes far beyond simply knowing what to say and what not to say. To really understand cultural context, I will need to be mindful of the legacies of ethnocentrism, racism, and discrimination, all of which have been experienced by many people in non-dominant cultures (Lee, 2001, p. 176). The ‘mainstream’ culture is always the dominant one, and here in the United States that culture has always been associated with Anglo-Americans (Lum, 2011, p. 137). The power of the mainstream culture is to assimilate other groups into it, and also to marginalize them (p. 137).
In so many ways, mainstream American culture has systematically marginalized minority cultures, through racism and discrimination (Lee, 2001, pp. 177-178). And racism is still a very big problem in the United States today: not only is there individual racism, but also institutional racism, racism that exists in the major institutions of American society (Berg-Weger, 2010, p. 107). Because of this, blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and others have had far more difficulty in getting good homes, good jobs, good education, good loans, and other things (p. 107). In fact, it’s very visible in the prison where I work: racism and white privilege have created a society that incarcerates non-whites, especially black men, at much higher rates than other groups.
From my perspective, the main reason that ethnocentrism is such a problem is that it is condescending: it looks down on people simply for being different. This is a very patronizing and supremacist way of looking at other human beings, one that can lead to a lot of very hurtful and unkind behaviors. Understanding, I think, is the main way to overcome or prevent ethnocentrism. More specifically, understanding that is all about cultural competencies: deep understanding and knowledge of a culture and how it impacts the lives of the people who are members of that culture (Lum, 2011, p. 124). Cultural competence moves from the general to the specific: from the worldview of a particular group, how they see things, to specific awareness and knowledge of how people in that culture behave, and finally to the therapeutic context (pp. 124-125).
For me, then, a culturally-sensitive and culturally aware practice will entail a deep understanding of the cultural background of my clients. I will take it upon myself to do the research necessary to understand their cultural backgrounds: the values, beliefs, and practices common to their cultures, and the impact of any legacies of oppression, racism, and discrimination that members of their culture may have faced. I will also take it upon myself to try to understand the degree to which they themselves share the values of their culture, and some of the specific ways in which they express them. By so doing I will be better able to relate to them as people, communicating across cultural barriers of understanding and meaning to increase the efficacy of the intervention.
Part II: Identifying Practice Theories. The foundation theory I have chosen is cognitive theory. Cognitive theory has been around for three decades and counting, and it has made quite the impact (Thyer & Myers, 2010, p. 32). Closely related to behavioral theory, cognitive theory differs to some degree by emphasizing specifically cognitive elements (p. 33). The first of these elements is the idea that people don’t simply respond to events, but rather to “cognitive representations” of events: in other words, it’s all about how the brain interprets what an individual does or experiences (p. 33). Another key idea defining cognitive theory is that “learning is cognitively mediated”: in other words, learning happens through an individual’s thinking processes (p. 33). Cognitive theorists also believe that emotional and behavioral problems are filtered through cognition: they are affected by, even expressed as, the thoughts of the individual (p. 33).
This cognitive emphasis is the reason that I have chosen cognitive theory: I believe that it offers one of the best approaches to how the mind works, and how social workers can use that to help their clients (Thyer & Myers, 2010, p. 33). Although cognitive therapies vary, there are four basic types: first, “changing misconceptions, unrealistic expectations, and other faulty ideas”; second, “modifying irrational statements to oneself”; third, “enhancing problem-solving and decision-making abilities”, and fourth, “enhancing self-control and self-management” (p. 33). Cognitive theory emphasizes the importance of listening to clients, and helping them to describe and analyze the things that they have experienced or done (p. 33). A major idea here is self-empowerment: cognitive therapy is all about helping people to identify and change self-defeating thoughts (p. 33). In essence, then, cognitive therapy is the effort to help clients understand how they are shooting themselves in the foot, and how they can heal.
The second theory I have chosen is crisis intervention. I chose this one because all social workers should expect to confront crises, and I have already seen that this is true in spades for me, given that I work with inmates in a jail. It’s small wonder that Knox and Roberts (2008) called it “essential” for social workers to know how to do (p. 249). As these authors explained, crisis intervention is present-focused and action-oriented: it is specific to the crisis situation in which the client finds themselves (pp. 250-251). There are different theoretical approaches, but the one that I find most relevant is the psychoanalytic approach, which, like cognitive theory, aims to help patients to understand “unconscious thought patterns and prior emotional experiences” (p. 384). By so doing, clients can gain new understandings about their problems, and move towards healing (p. 384). Crisis intervention is all about helping the client deal with their situation in the present, by identifying resources that they have access to, resources which can help them through the crisis (p. 251).
Crisis theory has delineated several different types of crises that individuals may find themselves in (Hepworth, Rooney, Rooney, Strom-Gottfried, & Larsen, 2010, p. 384). The first type is a dispositional crisis: this is a crisis experienced by an individual who is unable to make a decision due to lack of information (p. 384). The second type is anticipated life transitions: these are major events that typically occur in individuals’ lives, ranging from marriage and divorce to career change or even “entering into a different stage of life” (p. 384). Traumatic stress is the third type: this includes such traumatizing events as “unexpected death, sudden loss, rape, receiving health status information, and illness” (p. 384). Psychopathological crises are emotional breakdowns that result from some innate psychopathology, but which emerge due to stress (p. 384). Finally, psychiatric emergencies are crises of impaired function, and they result in individuals being so impaired that they become “incapable of performing daily living functions”, and may be “a danger to self and others” (p. 384).
The following scenario is fictional, but I have based it upon elements of the stories of a number of the inmates I work with. Brandon is a 34-year-old white male, who was rushed to the emergency room after being found passed out in a public park due to a drug overdose. He is homeless, and has been a heroin addict for the past six years. The police found drug paraphernalia and heroin on him, and he has been implicated in a number of burglaries, presumably to feed his heroin addiction. He is also bipolar, and has been off of his medications for at least the past six years. The combination of nearly dying from an overdose, followed by withdrawal from the heroin, the criminal charges, and his bipolar condition prove too much: he alternates between utter depression and mania and irritability. The irritability is all the worse because of his withdrawal, which also afflicts him with aches and pains, nausea, vomiting, fever, and insomnia.
The first priority is helping Brandon to stabilize his condition through crisis intervention. As it stands now, he is in psychological, mental and emotional freefall: he simultaneously craves the drug that has ruined his life, and hates what he has become. The focus of the crisis intervention would therefore be on helping him to identify how he can address his needs. But the first step is really to help him define the problem: what does the whole thing mean to him? (Hepworth et al., 2010, p. 385). For both crisis theory and cognitive theory, it is very important for the therapist to listen to the patient, and talk them through what they are thinking and feeling, and what it all means to them (p. 386). In this beginning phase of the treatment, I would try to anticipate what kinds of issues Brandon would be likely to have, especially related to his drug abuse and withdrawal and his mental health issues, with the bipolar disorder. I would also need to ensure that he felt safe to open up and share with me, seeing me as a legitimately supportive and helpful figure (p. 386).
Using cognitive theory, I would be looking for negative self-talk and cognitive distortions from the very beginning (Hepworth et al., 2010, p. 391). Moving into the middle part of the therapy, I would try to encourage Brandon to tell me more about himself: his life, the decisions he has made, the experiences he has had. Taking things one session at a time, I would put the focus on Brandon and Brandon’s thoughts, especially Brandon’s self-talk: what faulty, harmful, self-damaging beliefs and assumptions has he been carrying around? (p. 391). Does he blame others for his misdeeds, or does he wallow in feelings of guilt and failure? Does he try to excuse his need for a “fix”? Does he engage in ‘all or nothing’ thinking, believing that his mistakes mark him as beyond all hope for change? (p. 391). Moving forward into the final phase, we could continue the process of examining his negative thinking and helping him to challenge and change it. Yes, he has made mistakes, and he is paying the price—but that does not mean he is hopeless. Does he have family who might support him? Inner resources of courage, resourcefulness, and other good qualities? What events happened in his life to make him turn to heroin? The final phase would be reached once Brandon began to understand this, and to move forward with positive cognitions, helpful patterns of thinking that would enable him to find a better way of thinking and being.
III. Synthesis: My professional growth and development are all about passion and commitment. I am very passionate about the work that I plan to do: I am passionate about helping others to improve their lives, passionate about the connections that I will make, and passionate about the ways in which this work will shape my own outlook on life for the better. This passion makes me want to be as committed as I can be: I want to be the very best that I can, because I want to make a lasting impact for good. I did not seek to enter this field for money or prestige: rather, I have pursued it because it is genuinely what I wish to do. The values of empathy, tolerance, understanding, and acceptance are the values that I want to define my practice. This is the essence of my whole way of looking at my professional development and growth: using my passion and my commitment to improve myself and see the positive results in the world around me, and to be enriched for that.
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