My work, my ideas, my faith, my life

Going Steady

True Support

By Rex Goode

As a social worker, I specialize in high-anxiety customers who have learned in their lives to try to get what they want by maladaptive behaviors. I say “to try” because it doesn’t actually work for them. It seems like it works because many people will give in or cater to the behavior, thinking that it is somehow the best way to deal with it.

However, it is only an illusion. It may get a person off of your back momentarily, but you haven’t done anything to help him deal with his anxiety. Sadly, if this person is someone you cannot easily escape, as in a professional or family relationship, you are only creating more anxiety that you will end up dealing with later.
Mind you, I am not talking here about the diagnosis or treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I am qualified to do neither. I’m talking about my role as a professional social worker who works “in the trenches” with customers who experience anxiety that affects their behavior. I am a life skills trainer. My job is to teach people how to navigate through life, how to behave responsibly, and how to have better relationships with people.

Joel Dixon

One basic belief that guides my own behavior as a social worker is that what an unsteady person needs most is a steady person. To be effective, I must be that steady person in an unsteady person’s life. My hope would be that others who work with my customer would also be steady for them, but I am often disappointed. Many people in helping professionals have not learned to cope with their own anxiety.

So my philosophy as a helper begins with modeling. No, I’m not talking about runway models. I’m also not talking about gluing pieces of plastic together to make tiny ships and planes. I’m talking about being a role model, an example of steadiness that my customers can emulate, can see that my life is more stable because I approach it in a steady way.

This kind of modeling accomplishes far more than just can be summed up in the cliche’ “setting a good example.” My customers learn that beyond being able to look to me as an example of steadiness, they can count on a certain response from me in a chaotic world where some things cannot be relied upon.

These responses from me aren’t always what my customer hopes for. I employ the word “no” most generously in my work. “No” is a one of the steadiest words in the English language, and it works pretty well in other languages too.

Even “no” must be applied with steadiness for it to be effective. It is best used immediately and consistently. I’m a big believer in listening. I never say “no” until I’ve heard a client out. You can’t instill a sense of security in someone by just executing a summary “no” without having listened. It is hard work to let a person have their say when they’ve said the same thing over and over, used the same gimmicks to get a “yes”, and pushed you to the limits of your patience.

The biggest mistake that can be made, however, is to let these strategies to overcome your “no” result in an improper “yes”. Despite all strategies used by an anxious customer, the answer I give, whether yes or no, must be the answer that is of most real benefit to my customer.

The mode under which I operate as a skills trainer of developmentally disabled adults is based on my customers’ rights to self-determination. It seems a tricky game to play for me to honor my client’s right to determine his own choices while not relinquishing those same rights. I manage it in my head by remembering that “no” doesn’t mean, “No, you can’t.” It means, “No, I won’t.”

I was faced with this recently when I was asked by a client if he could rent porn videos from a store where he had an account. He doesn’t have his own transportation and the store is too far for him to reasonably reach on public transit. His plan was to rent the porn, get it to me before its due date, and have me return it for him. I have no right to tell him he can’t rent porn. I have every right to refuse to transport it for him.

This is an example of steadiness. Though my client was not happy with me that I wasn’t going to facilitate renting porn, I showed him that what he could count on me for were solid boundaries about what I would or wouldn’t do. It sets an example to him that it is important to stand for a principle. It creates a stronger bond of trust between us far beyond what compromising my principles could ever do. Well-placed trust is what creates true security. Sensing that true security is what alleviates anxiety.

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3 Responses to “Going Steady”

  1. Blain said:

    Odd. Your style sounds a lot like mine at work. Different populations and role, but, otherwise, very similar. I seem to be able to build relationships with difficult clients that allow me to say things to them that they don’t want to hear, but they will hear it from me without (necessarily) blowing up (quite as much).

    There’s some tricky stuff having to do with choosing what to engage with, what to respond to, and how to respond. A lot has to do with knowing where you have power, and where you don’t, and not pretending the contrary in the moment. There’s an honesty in that which seems to reach people who have been lied to and manipulated quite a lot. (Honesty has been on my mind a bit of late)

    I think your point about steadiness makes a lot of sense. I had a client who returned from a run recently, and was very agitated when he found that his room had been searched, and left in a different (messy) order than the (messy) order he kept it in. He came out in a very belligerent attitude when he couldn’t find his DVD player, assuming that it had been removed after he had been told by the case manager that staff wouldn’t remove it. I was in the middle of catching up the log to note that he had returned, after which I was going to get him his meds and start the phone calls to cancel his run-away report, after which, I told him (calmly), I would go look and see if it was locked up in the office. He backed off and went back to his room, and came out a few minutes later to apologize — it had not been removed, but wasn’t where he found it immediately. Because I have a history with him of staying calm and telling him the truth, including calling him on his crap in a fair fashion, I was able to point things out to him about his situation that put it into a different, more realistic frame. Don’t know how much of an impression it made, but it helped stop him from ranting at me about how unfairly he thought he was being treated.

  2. Rex Goode said:

    Yes, Blain. Exactly what I’m talking about. I’m amazed at how many in helping professions don’t understand this.

  3. Blain said:

    I know what you mean. Too many err on the side of ignoring everything, or on the side of “gonna teach them a lesson.”

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