Shock Value

Here was this disheveled, smiling man standing in front of me, cradling what was left of his arm that he just cut off.

As a social worker, have you been told “I can’t do what you do”?

In graduate school, I worked full time for the State and was finishing up my master’s degree. I chose to intern at a psychiatric facility attached to a local hospital. I normally put in my 20 hours a week on the adolescent unit, but I had to pick up a few hours on the adult unit one night. I checked into the adult unit after leaving my day job to begin my few hours of assessing new patients. I pulled out my biopsychosocial assessment packet for a new person who was just admitted, and began the walk down the hallway toward our newest patient.

The halls there are quite jail-like, and cold. This place isn’t meant for long term stay; simply stabilization so the patients can stay safe while the staff social workers can finalize discharge plans. The rooms are small with the basic necessities. I knocked softly and entered, alone, and found a seat next to a desk in the room facing the only entry and exit point. Safe, I know*.

I introduced myself and explained why I was there. The older man was cordial, and answered my questions easily. We talked about his life, how he ended up at the hospital.

He gave me a very elaborate story about how he was homeless, and lived in a small tent community in the middle of the woods with others who shared similar experiences. He then began to explain his suspicion of the government. This was normal enough to me; some people who have had a rough go at life tend to feel they have been taken advantage of at some point, even by the government. This person proceeded to tell me he believed he had a locator microchip in his arm placed by the government, and therefore had to lie his arm on the railroad tracks in a successful effort to sever the arm and remove the locator chip. I sat there, watching him as if he just told me that vegetables were on sale this week. My point is, I didn’t flinch. I didn’t necessarily condone or agree with the logic what was said, but I didn’t disagree either; it was his story.

So, herein lies my conflict: I enjoy telling people that story because people who don’t practice in my profession drop their jaws in shock, appalled that a rational-sounding person could have made such a choice. Telling the story makes me feel good.

I’ve even had other social workers look at me strange and ask how I was able to be in the same room with a person who just purposely cut off his arm. It makes me proud, in a way, to recognize that I can be confronted with very different and confusing scenarios and can remain calm and understanding.

However, I feel guilty about using this person’s story to provoke a reaction. I don’t feel like it’s right to use others’ life experiences in a way to gain attention, just as I wouldn’t appreciate if someone else used my less-than-appealing life experience to get more attention for them. Ever found out a friend used your embarrassing story to make others laugh? Yeah, it’s kinda like that. But can you see how the first line of this blog can catch someone’s attention? I’ve used this story as an example.

How you can social work better:

My best advice is to first notice it’s happening. Once you notice it, you can’t un-notice it. It has even become a natural way of communicating with others outside the workplace. I began to notice the gossipers more. Part of me flinched when I heard others (including coworkers) talk about others negatively. I had an employee, in a state of frustration, tell me about a person she worked with was a PSYCHOPATH. This was a clear indicator that she wasn’t confident with her own skillset before working with that particular person, and instead of admitting that she didn’t feel prepared, decided to bad-mouth her client.

Then, make a point to stop talking negatively about people. It doesn’t feel good, and it doesn’t make you look good. After a while, people start believing you’ll talk about them the same way when they’re not around. Even worse, you may become burnt out from rehashing clients’ wild stories which may affirm that the people you work with are lesser than you in some way.

Practice talking about the good you’ve done. Talk about people positively. Talk about yourself more positively. You may attract more friends because they’ll want you to talk how awesome they are when they’re not in the room. Don’t vent about other people. Instead vent about your own frustrations about not being able to help, or a mistake you’ve made while trying to help.

Practicing these steps can help build connections between yourself and your colleagues. People will be drawn to you and respect you more. We don’t need separation and competition among social workers – when we do this, we defeat the purpose of the hard work we do with people. Our work can be difficult enough as it is. Venting can feel good to the soul, but real work begins when we can guide our own improvements. How will you begin to guide your own?

*Risk assessment: checking out your surroundings to make sure you, and the folks you’re with, are safe. I want to emphasize this because my ability to assess risk was pretty underdeveloped and I put myself in a potentially dangerous situation as I faced the exit, rather than sitting as close to the exit as possible with a clear escape route in case things went sideways. Make sure you receive guidance from your field supervisor to build risk assessment skills before and during your practice!

From “Shock Value”, a blog post from

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