The most essential characteristic or trait of a social worker is the ability to empathize with another person.In a blog post on SocialDegree.net , Amanda Brody, MSW explains the 10 core traits in detail which include the following:
Of course this list is topped with empathy which she reports is the core trait that all social workers must possess. However, is empathy a trait that can be learned or is it something that is innate? In the picture above, besides being a representation of a total sterile medicalization of empathy itself we see that in fine print it says, “Empathy is the ability to blur the line between self and others.” Is that all that empathy really is? A neat little injection that can cause someone to see something or someone differently. Is empathy really that prescribed? If that is the case and we could inject it into humans at some point in the future, how would this change the way we relate to others? Just looking at this picture invokes thoughts of getting a shot, the smell of the alcohol, the coldness of the swab, the prick of the needle and the plunger of the needle as it’s injected into the body. What does this say: that we must be be injected with the essence of social worker to be effective?
Additionally, I feel that empathy is much messier and not neatly summed up in a sterile bottle such as the one picture above. Empathy involves feelings, thoughts, presence and heart. The idea of empathy for me as a social worker is embodied in the picture below by the artist Lynne Cameron , the piece is entitled “Living Impulse.”
When I look at this piece, I see a living, breathing, example of empathy. This picture looks like two hearts, one larger and lighter, the other smaller and darker, and yet suspended in motion, connected by an invisible thread. There is scarring in the lower left hand corner of the painting, but out of it comes a color and a lightness. The brightness of the heart shape on the left side is definitely compelling and draws the eye to the center of the shape, while the other shape on the right side of the painting hangs suspended, heavy with possible burden or grief. The lighter heart shape is meeting the other shape where it is at and finding the lightness and strength within.
This is empathy to me– being able to sit with not knowing, yet being present for the feelings as they come.
Even the title of this piece denotes a connection to empathy, it is an impulse, a natural living one for all social workers.
Empathy is one of many traits that I continue to discuss as I teach, mentor and coach my social worker students as well as continue to embody as an active clinician in the field. Empathy is a connection that you cultivates as a social worker and first year students often get caught in the sympathy trap and think that they are empathizing with the client. I ask these students to sit, listen and feel what ever emotions as they come, try to embody what the client is sharing and try to be still with that feeling. This painting speaks to the intangibility of what empathy is. It is a representation of what we cannot see, and yet what we do on a daily basis. I do not think it is something that can be created or “injected”; rather it is an essence that lies within all of us. It is just that social workers have been able to harness this trait and use it for positive change.