Saturday, February 23, 2013

Identify the Problem, Apply the Solution

We sat in class, discussing the 10-minute practice counseling sessions we'd completed the previous week in small groups. We'd videotaped the sessions, transcribed and evaluated them, and were turning them in that day. My small group, all coming from a social work background, was discussing the difficulties of trying to unlearn our social worker habits. "I just want to fix it for them," one of my group members said. The remaining two of us indicated our agreement with this sentiment.

"Okay," the professor said. "Let's examine this. What's the difference between social work and counseling?"

We stared at her, stumped.

"I'll rephrase the question," she decided. "What does a social worker - a case manager - do?"

This, I could answer with confidence. "We identify the problem," I said, "and apply the solution."

"Ooh." The professor was impressed. She reached for a pen and paper, writing down my words. "I need to remember that one."

The other two members of my small group nodded their agreement.

"How is that different from what a counselor does?" the professor asked now.

We began throwing out vague answers, trying to identify what, exactly, the difference was. There was one, we were sure of it.

"Okay, let me ask you this," our intrepid professor continued. "Why counseling, and not an MSW?"

Again, our answers were vague. That difference was absolutely there. There was a reason, when I had looked at the course listing for the MSW, compared with the course listing for a masters in counseling, that I had thought, oh, no, that is not what I want to do. I just couldn't define that reason in words.

Finally, the professor grabbed a marker and went to the dry erase board. "No laughing at my drawings," she warned us with a smile, before drawing a stick figure that she labeled "client." She then drew a box that she labeled "problem." I felt something sliding into place in my brain. "Now," she continued. "As a case manager, where is your focus?"

One of the members of another group, who had not been a social worker, murmured, "The client."

Her murmur was drowned out by the voices of all three members of my group, myself included, saying, with conviction, "The problem."

"Oh," our classmate murmured, perplexed.

The professor smiled. "With counseling, the focus is on the client. I've heard all of this before. Case managers can't focus on the client. They don't have time. MSW students struggle with this, too, especially if they're still working at their social worker jobs, because they're learning some of these skills in addition to the case management skills. But when case managers try to focus on the client, they end up getting in trouble with their supervisors because they start falling behind in every other area."

Suddenly, my mind was filled with visions of former supervisors lecturing me about paperwork and numbers that I hadn't managed to stay on top of, and myself responding with all the problems my clients had faced over the past week(s) that I'd had to help them through. This was always hand-in-hand with a vague job dissatisfaction that I'd always assumed was the result of not getting paid enough to put up with this shit, combined with an inability to think of anything I'd rather be doing, career-wise.

It all made sense to me now.

I was always trying to focus on the client, not the problem. In a role where I needed to focus on the problem, not the client.

That was the problem.

And that was why I was so adamantly opposed the MSW program. And why the masters in counseling was absolutely the right choice for me.

Solution applied.