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.
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.