Process, social work, Writing

What the Research Taught Me

It has been over a year since I posted about the compassion fatigue study I designed while in the MSW program at the University of New England School of Social Work. I’ve been thinking about it recently because self-care practices feel more relevant than ever right now.

I was reflecting on this research project while writing my morning pages and I started thinking about what I learned. Here are five lessons I’m keeping with me.

  1. Ask the right questions. Uncovering a research question, designing interview questions, and crafting writing prompts are all practices in the art of asking. This is where I see the intersection between social justice work, mental health care, and writing: in all three realms the work is about finding the right questions.
  2. Honesty is a gift. One of the participants in my study had a strong negative reaction to the writing practice. Her reflections were some of the most valuable because they reminded me that everyone processes information in different ways, that even when offered “choices” people can feel pressured or coerced, and that I’m doing something right when people feel comfortable offering their criticism.
  3. Words heal. The students who participated in the writing and follow-up interviews noted that getting their thoughts out on paper helped them to process their experiences as new social workers, allowed them to build confidence in their work, and offered an opportunity to work through insecurities and challenges.
  4. Process. Is. Everything. Sure, I have final data showing rates of change in the Compassion Fatigue Short Scale, but it’s lessons from the process that stick with me. This message was echoed in follow-up interviews with the students as well. They noted the freedom they felt in writing something no one else would see, without needing to restrict their words or strive for perfection. It’s amazing what changes when we shift our focus away from a final product.
  5. We need multiple and varied tools for self-care. Writing will always be one of my go-to tools for processing, reflecting, and purging. And, attending to my body (dancing, sweating, walking) is equally important. When I carve out time to move I’m more attuned to the messages my body sends me and I’m better able to respond to myself and others.

I know I’m doing the right work when I end a project with more questions than I had when I began. I pull lessons from the process and toss out the new questions, seeds for future work.

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creative work, mental health, social work, Writing

Writing and Compassion

It was seven years after I graduated with my bachelor’s in social work that I decided to go back for my master’s with a focus in clinical social work. I know that I needed those years to develop my own centering routines, a depth of self-understanding, and the resiliency to work with trauma in a critical and compassionate way. In her book “Trauma Stewardship,” Laura van Dernoot Lipsky writes, “If we are to contribute to the changes so desperately needed in our agencies, communities, and societies, we must first and foremost develop the capacity to be present with all that arises, stay centered throughout, and be skilled at maintaining an integrated self.”

Writing is one of the tools I use to cultivate presence, centeredness, and maintenance of my “integrated self.” When I began my capstone research this summer I started by looking at compassion fatigue and writing. The research led me to a question that I’m hoping to answer this spring:

How does an expressive writing intervention impact levels of compassion fatigue among second year MSW students?

I designed a study where two groups of students completed a compassion fatigue scale, one group engaged in an expressive writing intervention, and both groups completed a post-intervention compassion fatigue scale. I interviewed willing students after they completed the writing intervention, seeking their feedback on what the writing was like for them, if and how they felt it benefited their work or their lives, and other ways they use writing. Part of what I love about both social work and research is that they require a commitment to critical reflection. I learn and evaluate as I do this work, finding new ways to create balance for myself and give support to my communities.

 

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