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Piled Higer and Deeper – I hope not.

March 28, 2013

In 1989, four years after completing my Masters of Social work, I applied for a Ph D in Social Work.

I diligently filled in the application, obtained several references and attended an interview. By the mid Spring I received notice on the status of my application. I was informed that while I met criteria for acceptance into the program, there were not enough seats to accommodate me.

I was somewhat dumbfounded and confused. Not enough seats?… I could bring my own!

I called the registrar to ask what all this meant. I was of the impression I had been rejected.

The Registrar confirmed the content by reiterating what was written. Upon my attempts to then conclude I was rejected, the Registrar again reiterated the contents of the letter. Given I wasn’t clearly rejected, I asked if I was then waitlisted for acceptance or if I was then first in line for the following year.

I was informed that I would have to reapply in the following year for my application to be assessed in the context of the other applicants. So again I said, I am rejected, to which the Registrar reiterated the previous reply. I even advised I can handle rejection but what I was left with was what RD Lang would have referred to as mystification of experience.

Needless-to-say, I was pleased not to be accepted into a social work Ph D program where even the Registrar was unable to give a straightforward reply.

This was very much like a skit straight out of a Monty Python routine. I had no issue with not making the cut – being rejected, but I did take issue with the subterfuge contained in the letter and reinforced by the Registrar.

Why can’t social workers just be straight? Why is it that a good many social workers are so focused on coddling peoples’ egos that any semblance of reality is lost on providing a message that shines light out of the person’s backside?

I received this message very recently from a budding social worker, in response to another post wherein I discuss theoretical approaches to therapy:

I think that my training so far has probably been Rogerian. It is hard to tell though, because my book touches on all of the theories scattered throughout. According to my book, you don’t want to be too passive but you don’t want to solve the problems for them either. Letting them work things out on their own is good for their sense of confidence and it shows you respect them.

Here appears a confused social worker – likely entering the field seeking to be helpful, but of the impression to be careful about being too helpful, lest your help upsets the individual. HUH? (Don’t worry, you will wrap your head around all of this in time.)

I get that some training in Rogerian practice can help budding counselors and therapists learn how to speak with and listen to clients, but at the end of the day, clients come to us because they or someone they love is in distress. Very often the client’s own behavior or way of dealing with the problem actually contributes to their very distress. However, many therapists, rather than forthrightly advising the client of their own inadvertent contributory behavior, worry first about the client liking them (think therapeutic relationship) or worry about hurting already fragile egos.

My view is that paradoxically, the longer the client is in therapy, the more disturbed, crazy or useless they must think they are. Because of this perspective, I am of the view that if I can directly offer an insight into the client’s own behavior, rather than guiding them to find it on their own (Days? Weeks? Months? Years? Never?), maybe the client will be grateful and pleased that their distress has been relieved. And for those who may argue that the client does not learn for him or herself that way, well, how pejorative! People can learn by direct instruction, feedback and guidance and not feel demeaned by what they didn’t know. It’s a matter of delivery.

Being a good therapist is more than active listening. Being a good therapist behooves us to know several theories of human behavior, issues related to substance abuse, addictions, violence, power imbalances, psychopathology, systems theory, gender politics, oppression, change, etc.

Just like when I take my car in to be fixed, I expect the mechanic to know and understand the various mechanical and electrical systems of the vehicle. I expect the mechanic to diagnose the problem, advise me intelligibly of same and then fix it. If my improper use of the vehicle contributed to the breakdown, then I also expect to have this explained to me. If the mechanic asks me how I feel about the car breaking down, I will think s/he is crazy. After all how do you expect me to feel? Happy?

I think there will be a day of reckoning for us social worky types.

Insurance companies are starting to wonder about what looks like hand holding and coddling and singing Kumbaya.

I think it is good to learn how to deliver difficult or challenging information and to use our expert knowledge to advise directly on those matters that are contributory to our clients’ distress. We must do this forthrightly and supportively. These are not mutually exclusive approaches.

In my practice this seems to be remarkably appreciated. To do otherwise is only to prolong upset and troubled relationships.

I was once told Ph D stood for “piled higher and deeper”. That was certainly my experience when looking to join that one club. I am glad I didn’t get in, yet I love being a social worker.

While I am not advocating anything radical, I do hope my rant causes us as a profession to examine our own behavior and approaches to helping people improve their social circumstances.

If you bring your own chair, I can tell you, there will always be room at my table.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW


For more direct opinions and advise, read my book, Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships.

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One Comment
  1. Very well said.

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