One of my favorite teachers used to say repeatedly, “Social work is an art and a science. I can teach you the science but the art is up to you.” And that has resonated with me for twenty years. Before I was a therapist, I was a dancer. I graduated from a performing arts high school and I majored in dance in college…the first time around. When my social work teacher said that social work was an art, I shuddered a bit because I knew what it was like to be an artist and I was done with that. As a dancer, I knew how to throw my whole self into my work, how to dig deep into choreography and make it my own and how to hear and respond to the notes in the music that most people are unaware of. I knew that while big tricks often leave people bewildered because of their athleticism and power, it was the simpler movements… the tilt of the head, the breath in a moment, the placement of a hand or the expression on a face that captures the audience’s attention because vulnerability resonates so deeply. Even when my technique was imperfect, and it often was, dance connected me to parts of myself that I wasn’t able to articulate yet and it connected me to a diverse and eclectic community that I loved. But I also knew the dark side. The hours of preparation, the sacrifice, the constant reminder that I was replaceable, the fatigue and the expectation to look like I had it all together when I rarely did. The self-doubt, insecurity and “what if’s” were constant. From not tall enough, to not short enough, to not thin enough, to too thin…too blonde…too whatever??? It was exhausting and sad and echoed that all too familiar mantra that many of our sisters know all too well…. you are not enough. I became dependent on external validation as I had learned to look to the teachers, judges and the audience and had never really stopped to consider myself and evaluate from within. When I was 21, I walked into a ballet class and stood at the bar. Three minutes into the class, I recognized that I no longer belonged there. I had an overwhelming feeling to run. I did. And I never went back or danced again.
As I sit here typing this, I look back over the last 20 years and barely recognize that girl. I have come a long way and have done a lot of work to get there. Professionally, I became a social worker, which seemed a billion miles away from the dance world but recently I am recognizing some interesting parallels. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, I have been underneath a super difficult eighteen months of clinical work treating childhood traumatic grief and sexual trauma. It has been rewarding for sure but it has also weighed me down with a tremendous amount of internal and external pressure. This season has tested my emotional strength, endurance, resiliency and coping skills. It has pushed boundaries and been extremely difficult to contain. There is a lot of science to the work but there is also a great deal of art. Everything doesn’t fit into a well constructed treatment plan, evidence based model or move in a linear fashion. Just like everything else, life continues to be messy even while we do the hard work of healing. There is a lot of improvisation involved and the music changes rapidly. Like dance, it’s the simple stuff that’s the most effective if you can commit yourself to the process, listen and respond to the notes that are under the melody and trust the metaphors. And sometimes it’s the simple stuff that requires the most emotional energy because it calls you to dig deep, be acutely aware of every nuance and hold emotion like it’s as easy as counting to three. And like dance, it’s easy to get lost in the expectations of others. Especially in a system with time frames and agendas and mandates and laws. Many people would think that it’s the content of the stories that makes people crazy and leads to burnout but I would suggest that it’s the process. This process is fragile and there are so many people to take care of and hear and respond to….that it’s insanely easy to overlook the artist. And this is what has me so off-balance these days. In all of the “art” I overlooked the science. The science is very clear…self-care is essential.
So while my instinct is to run and never look back, it seems that I have grown enough that I just might benefit from doing things differently this time around. I see lots of people like me who may not be therapists or social workers but who know what it’s like to be burned out, exhausted, crispy fried and ready to throw in the towel. Marriage, parenting, working, divorcing, grieving and caregiving all call us to use a multitude of emotional resources while simultaneously continuing to put one foot in front of the other and live. And sometimes we all benefit from stopping, evaluating and considering new ways of being and doing. I have absolutely nothing but my own experiences to share with anyone reading this. This is my truth and should not substitute for anyone else’s. If you are a human service warrior, I hope that you will find something here that resonates, connects and inspires you to prioritize you. Our people need to talk about this more. Without shame and without judgement. Our agencies and our institutions and our University’s need to take notice and implement programs and policies to help ensure that we keep new and seasoned workers safe from the work without putting all of the responsibility on the their shoulders. But this isn’t just about human service warriors. These same pressures exist in other arenas of life too. The pressure to look like you have it all together when you are screaming inside, the expectation/tendency to put everyone else’s needs and feelings before your own, the fear of saying no, the longing to look someone in the eye and say let’s connect and not compete and the longing to be heard are universal. In order to have these things we have to be connected to ourselves first. We have to be intentional. We have to be present.
There are hundreds of chapters in our beautiful stories. I don’t want to change a single chapter of mine but I do crave the growth and transformation that can only come with some struggle and stretching. I will never pretend to know what someone else needs or what will work for someone else. These are my experiences and I simply have no desire to keep them to myself. I share them in the hopes that they will continue to inspire myself and perhaps others to do the work and stop running and numbing. Right now I am working to fit back into my own skin. I am prioritizing myself, (even though it feels selfish at times) to live a life where I can hear the beautiful notes in my own music and not be led by another’s. I encourage you to join me. Exactly as you are.
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