Self-Compassion: The Doorway to Self-Care

Cassie Manley Photo     By Cassie

“Self-Compassion: The Doorway to Self-Care”

I am so grateful that we talk regularly about self-care at the GCSW and that is a regular topic in social work education in general. In fact, I found a great definition of self-care from the University at Buffalo’s School of Social Work which says that self-care, “refers to activities and practices that we can engage in on a regular basis to reduce stress and maintain and enhance our short- and longer-term health and well-being.” (The school has a great “Self-Care Starter Kit” if you are interested in more resources.)

As self-care began to come up in classes and discussions at the GCSW, I was reminded of a complementary concept that I learned of through the work of Dr. Kristin Neff: self-compassion. We know as social workers that part of our jobs is to serve as a compassionate presence to others, but I think that we may often forget about how we must also offer compassion to ourselves. Dr. Neff offers a three-part definition of self-compassion. I see it as three simple steps:

  1. Notice that you are suffering.
  2. Recognize that you are not alone; suffering is a part of the human experience.
  3. Be kind to yourself.

I know for me that I can default to a “toughen up, push through” attitude towards myself when I am having a difficult time, so much so that I may not even label what I am experiencing as suffering. If I feel sad or frustrated with my lack of expertise in my internship and I am criticizing myself for how I interacted with a client, Dr. Neff would say that this is a moment of suffering. She would go on to encourage me to take a moment and mentally note that this is the case. Then, she would tell me to remind myself that I am not alone, both in my struggles when learning something new and in my pain in response to my criticisms of myself. Lastly, she would gently push me to be kind to myself either through supportive self-talk messages and/or doing a small kind action for myself like taking a short break to enjoy a few peaceful minutes alone or to taking care of my body through drinking water, eating a snack, or even going to the bathroom (important self-care practices that are easy to neglect in the busy-ness of life).

Because of this process, I have come to see self-compassion as the doorway to self-care. I believe the first step, noticing our suffering, is required in order for us to go on to actually practice self-care. Dr. Neff offers a simple series of sentences that one can use as a mantra or prayer to help remember the parts of self-compassion. I have found it to be very helpful in my own life. She says,

“This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I give myself the kindness I need.”

I hope this information is as helpful to you as it has been to me! If you are interested in learning more about self-compassion, you can do so by visiting Dr. Neff’s website at self-compassion.org.

Well-needed Break at Home

Lauren small pic    By Lauren

One of my favourite aspects of the social work profession is the importance of incorporating self-care.  Professors within the GCSW will sporadically remind us of the significance of looking after ourselves, to ensure we are able to work at our optimum.  While on the winter break, I am taking every opportunity I can to enjoy relaxing with my family and friends.

Texas is my home for most of the year, however I get to go to my homeland for Christmas and New Year.  In Scotland, we enjoy a good party and for Hogmanay (New Years Eve) and I was lucky enough to attend the Hogmanay party in Edinburgh.  It was a great experience with fireworks, music, and 75,000 people from all over the world.  While on the street I heard an assortment of accents/languages including Polish, French, Japanese, American, Australian, Chinese, and many more.  It was fantastic to experience a party in my home country that was attended by people from all over the world.

In between all the eating, gift exchanging, and reuniting there has been room for discussions.  One interesting aspect about being at home, is hearing the opinion on world issues from those experiencing it in a different country.  Throughout the year there have been a number of news headlines from Ebola, to Ferguson.  It has been refreshing discussing all the top stories from the last year with a British twist on it.  There are a few highly educated family members who enjoy sharing their opinion and it was empowering to have them value my opinion, as they were interested to hear where I was coming from.  In past times, at home, I generally kept out of the discussions but I have realised the importance of having confidence to open my mouth.

My whole time at home has allowed me to recuperate and recharge for the last year of my MSW.  I look forward to returning to Houston, but for the next couple weeks I am all about self-care with my family, no treble.

Foundation Semester

Greta Bellinger Photo   By Greta

As the semester comes to a close, I am in awe of all I have learned, experienced and gained the past four months. Serendipity is the word that comes to mind regarding the foundation semester at GCSW. This semester has been one of solid preparation, from the classroom to professors to field placement to support through a cohort. How do you describe a first semester graduate school experience that has exceeded your expectations?

When I think of the foundation of a building, I think about the hidden beams, concrete, and partitions in place to make that building strong. The foundation establishes the strength of the structure. Every portion of the Foundation Semester is important to producing a competent, prepared and ethical social worker. The knowledge obtained in textbooks, classroom lectures and activities provided me with the essential tools needed to be effective in my field placement. The support I have received from my peers, in addition to encouraging and readily available professors, provided much needed confidence and strength when questions or weariness arose.

The encouragement, support and knowledge I gleaned from the social workers at my field placement, The Council on Alcohol and Drugs, have been extremely positive.  My field supervisor exceeds my expectations as she diligently works to provide me her time, along with opportunities for exposure to a diverse client base, research and the policies affecting the population seeking treatment through the CRADLES program.  My desire to work with addiction, women, pregnancy and postpartum depression is being fulfilled through my field placement.  Fully aware that not everyone gets their dream field position, I consider myself fortunate to be placed where my interests are fulfilled and knowledge and skills are challenged.

Last, but not least, being an Ambassador for the GCSW has fulfilled one of my dreams to encourage others to pursue graduate school. Addressing the challenges and rewards of this program and the University of Houston, I look forward to another great semester of promoting a career in social work through the GCSW.

The Field Placement You Did not Know You Needed

Emme Bozone Photo

By Emme

Every student has dreams and expectations when they enter school. I remember the first few weeks of school; classes were filled with chatter about what we dreamed of using our degree for. We had our dreams, but professors and second year students cautioned us to not get caught up in them. As we got further into the semester we became antsy to find out where we would be spending time training to be a social worker.

The day finally came! It felt a bit like the first day school again. There was so much unknown, yet a sense of certainty. For the past ten years I have worked with children, and figured I would get a field placement working with them in some capacity. My dream is to work with children in an educational setting.

The excitement of finding out my placement rapidly deflated. My placement was working at Interfaith Ministries in the Meals on Wheels department. I was so upset that I had to spend my first internship working with the geriatric population, one of the few populations I had never dreamed of working with.

As we finish our first semester, I cannot begin to express how grateful I am to have been pushed out of my comfort zone. Working with a different population has given me the ability to learn new skills, view social work from a new perspective, and discover new things about yourself.

We often ask our clients to try something new, to reframe their situation, or to think in a different way. As a social work intern, I had to do the same thing. If I had not opened my mind to the possibilities of what social work can do with different populations, I would have been stuck. Instead I’m learning about Meals on Wheels, the clients we serve, the many agencies in Houston, and how to help seniors live independently for as long as possible.

I would have never picked Interfaith Ministries, but I am glad it was picked for me. Graduate school brings about a lot of uncertainty, but there is a lot to learn when you trust in the process. You may not get the class you want or the field placement you dream of, but when you trust in the process you grow as a person, as a social worker, and a colleague.

Choosing the MSW Program That’s Right for You

Claire Crawford PhotoBy Claire

I spent two years trying to decide where to get my MSW.

The first year, I applied and got into a good school but became too ill the month before school started, so I was too sick to attend. I spent all of this last year researching the best MSW programs, spending absurd amounts of money on transcripts, applications, the GRE, etc., visited my favorite programs face-to-face, and making one of the biggest decisions of my life. And that’s how I got to the GCSW.

Honestly, UH wasn’t on my list the first year and hadn’t really crossed my mind as an option until late in the game; I’m from a town of 20,000 people, and Houston is HUGE, far from home, and way out of my comfort zone. However, I figured that since I had another year to apply, I might as well broaden my options and look into schools outside the Southeast. I still wasn’t sure if it was really a viable option until I visited the school in February 2014; but as soon as I walked off the campus, I knew exactly where I would be getting my graduate education. Everyone takes their education seriously—I mean, we’re paying for this—so we’ve all put in plenty of time to decide exactly where we belong. Here are a few of the things that factored in to my final decision:

1.The faculty. I highly suggest requesting to meet with a faculty member who shares your interests when you go on a school visit. I met with two professors during my visit, and they were passionate about their research, listened closely to my goals and what I hoped to accomplish in both graduate school and in a career, and one eventually offered me a graduate research assistantship with her—one of the things I most hoped to accomplish. The faculty in my classes have been fantastic, and I feel that my assistantship has allowed me to form a tighter connection with professors.

2.The Medical Center. U of H is about 4 miles away from the largest medical center in the world. How cool is that?? The Med Center offers opportunities not just for people like me who are interested in a very specific type of medical care, but also to any students interested in health, medical social work, research, and really anyone who wants a job (the medical field desperately needs good social workers). I made an appointment with a social worker at Texas Children’s Hospital when I visited U of H in February, and she was so excited to have a social worker interested in her topic of healthcare. I ended up doing my first field placement in the Med Center, and I’m hoping my next placement will be there too.

3.The students. When I visited campus, I talked to a really helpful GCSW Ambassador who gave me honest opinions about what it’s like to be a student here. She told me about life in Houston, graduate classes, her field placement, and her overall experience. She, along with two extremely knowledgeable and passionate alumni I spoke with, helped guide my decision. Just as I had hoped, the students in my cohort now are inspiring individuals with unique goals and interests who have been with me every step of the way as we’ve begun this program together. I can’t wait to see the difference they will make in a couple years after graduation.

A year ago, I would never have guessed I’d be living in Houston, TX.  Somehow, through a series of unexpected events, I have ended up exactly where I believe I am supposed to be—and I couldn’t be happier about my decision.

International Development and Social Work

Dixie blog2013 picBy Dixie

This last spring I was selected along with three other classmates to serve as a delegate for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom to the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). I and 19 other women from around the U.S. spent a week completely submerged in the world of international relations, diplomacy and advocacy. The theme of this year’s CSW was “Challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls”. In a nutshell, the Millennium Development Goals are a set of 8 goals for international development to be achieved by 2015. Although there are criticisms, some that are extremely valid, of the MDGs and the UN’s approach to international development, I want to take this post in a different direction.

More information on the MDGs, history and next steps here: http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/.

The week we attending the conference was a jam-packed, roller coaster ride of events ranging in topics from ‘empowering girls through spirituality’ to ‘involving men in the movement’; briefings from U.S. Ambassadors; networking events and somewhere in there was one slice of cheesecake or seven. It was an exhausting, exhilarating, disappointing and motivating week. One of the biggest surprises for me was the low representation in the process of professionals identifying as social workers. I understand that the social work profession is not as, well, professionalized, in other countries as it is in the U.S. but nonetheless, I was disappointed.

As part of our delegate status we were continuously updating the discussion board with entries to include WILPF members in the conversation that were unable to be at the CSW. Here is an excerpt from a post I wrote toward the end of the week.

“As a social worker I come away from this experience slightly disappointed in the representation of my profession on the global level. However, I also strongly believe in tackling issues from a strengths-based perspective and see a great opportunity for freshly minted social workers such as myself to revitalize the voice of the profession in the international policy arena. The values that we hold most dear as a profession are also those found at the heart of sustainable development. I am motivated to work towards a ensuring that the global voice of social workers is strong, vibrant and innovative.”

Even now that I am back home comfortably surrounded by fellow social work students, as I read over this excerpt again, the same feelings rise up. There is such a need for social workers to speak up and speak out on an international level about issues we face every day. Not only are we making things happen in our own communities, we have the tools to make lasting change for communities around the world. Cultural Competency, meeting the client where they are, evaluation and evidenced-based practice are consistently pushed as the “wave of the future” in international development but as social workers, we are already there. I believe that we play vital roles in our communities, we help those that need it most right around the corner but that is not to say we cannot represent them or we cannot empower them to speak for themselves on a global scale. There is power in our values, ethics and practices as clinical and macro social workers that has validity in the international development conversation.

The GCSW has numerous opportunities for social work students to get involved at the international level. For more information about these opportunities, feel free to email Professor Patrick Leung at pleung@uh.edu or visit the GCSW website.

You get out what you put in

Christine Spring 2014By Christine

As an older student, with a large family, I missed out on the typical college life during my undergraduate education. There was no rush week for me, no pledging, and few student organizations. Aside from being well above the mean age of most other students, I simply did not have the time to devote to extra-curricular activities, after class, homework and feeding and caring for five children.

When I began graduate school, I gradually became more involved in student life. My children are older now, which has freed up some time on my schedule. Acting as a student ambassador has been a great experience and has supplemented my doctoral education in ways I could not have anticipated.

As a student, we are often wrapped up in homework and deadlines, and we often neglect to develop our professional identity in other ways. Rarely does college, (not even graduate), prepare us fully to go directly into our fields and have the knowledge, experience, and confidence to be fully-fledged professionals. So we have to supplement our education in other ways.

You may or may not have heard the phrase, “you only get out what you put in.” This common advice given when one is entering graduate school and many of you may have heard this without giving it a second thought.

As graduate students, our schedules are beyond filled. We have classes, internships, study-groups, just to name a few. We do not, however, learn everything we need to learn on campus, or in classrooms. We accepted the challenge of an advanced education, but our classes and internships cannot possibly complete our education. We need to go beyond our classrooms and challenge ourselves to do more, to supplement our learning experiences.

Although we could stick to our set schedules, we will be doing so much more as professional social workers and academics, and it is completely up to us to seek out opportunities to enhance our learning and growth.

Working as a student ambassador is a way to not only build a resume, but also helps fill in the gaps in learning, by developing interpersonal and communication skills, and preparing me for work I will be doing outside of my institution. It has given me the opportunity to meet others, both on campus and off, and has given me the opportunity to travel to professional conferences, as a representative of our college. Collaboration, and communication, whether between individuals or organizations, is an important part of our profession and it is essential for our success as students, and as professionals. Moreover, these experiences are essential to success and continued growth.

Political Social Work

Torey Spring 2014

By Torey

Political Social Work. If you would have asked me two years ago, I would not have been able to tell you what exactly that means, but as I prepare to complete my final semester I don’t know how I ever lived without it.

I had the honor of participating in Austin Legislative Internship halfway through my first year. While I was stoked to be part of this amazing opportunity, I was still missing the exact point where traditional social intersected.

That didn’t last long.

As I sat through committee hearing after committee hearing and witnessed some of the devastating effects policy had on individual’s lives, I truly understood what it meant to be a political social worker and why we are needed.

Some policies seemed like common sense. One policy that stuck with me was in the Defense and Veteran Affairs Committee. A previous statute prevented funeral homes from releasing the cremated bodies of veterans to anyone except the next of kin. What that meant was thousands of Veterans being stored at funeral homes across the state waiting for a next of kin to claim them. As a Veteran, I cringed at the notion that one day that could be me.

The solution? A bill that allowed non-profits to claim these Veterans if a next-of-kin is unavailable. Seems so simple right?  To know that I had a part in making this law a reality is an honor I will never forget.

For me political social work is advocating for policies/laws that promote equality and sustainability, especially among underserved and minority populations. The long (extremely long) hours spent analyzing policy during the Austin Legislative Internship, combined with the amazing policy professors at the GCSW, have prepared me for a long career as a political social worker.

Torey

Eat well. Travel often.

Tabeen Spring 2014By Tabeen

That phrase is a motto that I’ve grown to live by in my adult years. There is no greater joy to me than exploring different areas of the world and eating native cuisines. The idea of travel, of being able to examine the history, food, language and society of another country, of being able to truly immerse myself and experience the various beautiful cultures that surround us – that is what truly brings me happiness.

Culture is inherently important to social work. As a first-generation immigrant, I am particularly interested in working with various populations of different diversities. My parents are from Bangladesh, so I spent my childhood speaking two languages and acquiring a third as I continued my education. Due to this, I developed a facility for one-on-one interaction, learning to listen closely and familiarize myself with different cultures. My current work with monolingual patients at my internship at Shriner’s as well as my part time job as a pharmacy technician inspires me to continue my studies in Spanish, as I notice how my effort to communicate with the patients in their native tongue comforts them. I have an appreciation for other cultures and I continue to learn that I can better help patients when I have an openness to learn about their backgrounds.

Social work is about improving the lives of other individuals and communities, which regularly involves working with people from upbringings and experiences that may be different than our own. Our work often involves dealing with issues such as substance abuse, domestic violence, unresolved grief, poverty, development and human rights. However, the United States is not the only country to face these issues. People all over the world are experiencing the same problems, and studying abroad can offer you a new perspective on the policies of other countries and how they tackle the social injustices within their own communities. Diversity is incredible because it is educational, and I believe that the ability to understand and connect with people from other backgrounds is the foundation for positive, open communication. The first step towards cultural acceptance comes from opening your eyes to new experiences and pushing yourselves to travel (literally!) outside your comfort zone to learn more about other religions, customs and traditions. Traveling abroad will provide an invaluable education on other societies all over the world and will enhance your ability to offer authenticity as a social worker and provide help through a different lens.

As a social worker, learning extends far outside the reach of the classroom. What better way to practice communication across different backgrounds than experiencing life in a foreign country? Traveling through social work enables you opportunities to develop new programs, implement educational resources for a population, create various community service projects, and provide counseling and health care services to locals who are in need. University of Houston encourages students to take that adventure, and offers several opportunities for trips and scholarships to help you take that journey. For this spring, UH is offering trips to Turkey, Bolivia, Hong Kong, China and Australia.Travel not only enhances your understanding of the world, but it teaches you about yourself by inspiring self-reflection, personal growth and openness to other ways of life. I encourage you to take one of these explorations and see for yourself J

For more information on study abroad trips, visit www.uh.edu/studyabroad or contact Dr. Patrick Leung, our main contact for study abroad trips, at pleung@uh.edu or 713.743.8111.

Great Expectations

Anna Spring 2014By Anna Johnson

I remember vividly the day I found out my field placement. For weeks after the start of the semester, I had been pondering the question of my placement. Would I be working in a school? Would I be working with older adults? At the time, I was interested in medical social work, so I dreamed of a placement in a hospital. As the weeks passed, though, I allowed myself to be in the uncertainty. As I started digging into my readings and assignments I realized that the best way to handle the uncertainty was to accept it whole-heartedly. Instead of trying to control it by holding on to one placement over another, I opened myself up to the possibilities it held.

This turned out to be a good tactic, because my placement was a complete surprise to me. One of the first things you learn in Foundations, by talking to your classmates about their placements, is that social workers can go just about anywhere. The vastness of placements in Houston is almost overwhelming. The field office lists over 100 partner agencies which provide field instruction, but the number of social service agencies in Houston must be even greater.

So, when I read the name of my field placement, the Alliance for Multicultural Community Services, my first thought was, “I need to Google this one.” After a little bit of research, I learned that the Alliance provides a range of services to refugees in Houston, including ESL, driver’s education, employment, financial assistance, and case management. They also have a translation program with over 70 languages, a tailoring shop, and an organic garden.

Wow.

It was a lot to take in, but boy was I excited. I contacted my field instructor for a meeting, and continued to immerse myself in their website, hoping to learn as much as possible. Then the thought occurred to me: “Will it matter that I don’t speak any other languages?” It seems ridiculous now to be worried about this, but the week before my meeting with my field instructor, I dwelled on this thought. I thought back to my high school days of goofing off in French class, and cursed my decision to take German instead of Spanish in college. When I met with my field instructor, I voiced my concern, and immediately she assured me that it wouldn’t be a problem. Some of the clients speak English, and an interpreter can be arranged if needed.

I knew next to nothing about refugees when I started in October. Now, I can talk at length about where many of our refugee population come from, as well as the issues that refugees encounter when they arrive. If I had been closed off about my placement, stuck in the mindset that I couldn’t work with clients if I didn’t share their language or background, I never would have gained that knowledge and experience. Not only that, if I had remained closed off about the type of experience I wanted (i.e. clinical over macro), I never would have gotten the chance to explore macro work. As a student on the macro track now, I can say that my experiences in field were crucial in shaping my decision.

For prospective students who might be in my shoes next fall, I challenge you to stay with the feeling of uncertainty that you will inevitably encounter. Part of the joy in being a student is exploring possibilities and opening your mind to new ideas. Embrace the opportunity, and maximize your experience at the GCSW.

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