Choices: Developing Your Self-Awareness


Developing Your Self-Awareness is the most important task and it is a lifelong one.  It is not a goal.  It is an evolutionary growth process.   Having been a social worker now for over 40 years, I am aware of how challenging this profession is for all of us.  However, I have never come close to burning out during all those years despite the fact that I have held some really tough jobs.  Some social workers are not so fortunate and they engage in black humor.


Black Humor


“Student: I’ve just started my field placement and I’m disturbed by what’s happening.  When we go for coffee, everyone jokes and makes fun of the clients.  If they knew the way their workers talked about them, they would never come back.  I didn’t know that professionals could be so coldhearted.  Isn’t their behavior unethical?


“Teacher: Many professionals deal with enormous stress of their jobs through ‘black humor’ (also known as ‘gallows humor’) by making jokes about tragic events or clients’ misfortunes.  It’s one way that they sustain their emotional well-being.  It doesn’t mean that they’ve become hardened or uncaring toward their clients; rather, it’s a way of unwinding and relieving constant pressure.  As you’ve discovered, one of the dangers of black humor is that others will overhear it and draw conclusions about the person’s attitudes.  Is it unethical?  What do you think?” (p. 45---this quote and all the following page numbers refer to the book Choices by Bob Shebib published by Allyn & Bacon, N.Y., 2003).


I think the question of ethics is important; however, an even more important question is: What should we do about this type of problem?  We should not simply tell the social workers not to do this and then offer them no alternatives for dealing with their stress.  Clearly the solution is to help them learn how to effectively deal with their stress.


Although learning to deal with stress is an extremely important factor, even more important is learning to deal with stressors so that they don’t evolve into stress!  Prevention is always preferable to any cure!  One of the most important factors in prevention is self-awareness.




“Competent social workers need to acquire a high level of awareness of who they are.  Until social workers develop self-awareness of their own needs, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, including their personal problems and their areas of vulnerability, they will be unable to respond to their clients with objectivity.  Social workers who lack self-awareness and those who are not motivated to pursue it are destined to remain unaware of the ways they influence their clients” (p. 54).


As Fritz Perls said of those without self-awareness: “We live in a house of mirrors and think were looking out.”


Social Workers with Self-Awareness

  1. Identify and label their personal feelings.
  2. Know where their feelings end and those of their clients begin.
  3. Recognize and accept areas of vulnerability and unresolved issues.
  4. Understand personal values and their influence on the counseling relationship.
  5. Recognize and manage internal dialogue.
  6. Understand and control personal defense mechanisms.
  7. Know when and how clients are reacting to their style.
  8. Realize how they influence outcomes.
  9. Modify behavior based on reactions of clients.
  10. Set professional goals based on knowledge of personal and skill strengths and limitations.


Social Workers without Self-Awareness

  1. Avoid or are unaware of their feelings.
  2. Project personal feelings onto clients.
  3. Respond inappropriately because unresolved problems interfere with their capacity to be objective.
  4. React emotionally to their clients but don’t understand why or how.
  5. Behave nonassertively (using excessive caution, placating behavior, etc.) because they are unaware of the limiting effects of self-defeating thought.
  6. Remain blind to their own defensive reactions.
  7. Are unconsciously influenced in their relationships by personal values and do not manage the effects of their values.
  8. Remain unaware of how their behavior influences others.
  9. Behave based on personal needs and style rather than in response to the needs and reactions of clients.
  10. Avoid or limit goal setting because they are unaware of personal and professional needs.  (p. 55).


The essence of self-awareness is the answer to the question ‘Who am I?’” (p. 56).


Negative Self-Talk


As part of your self-awareness program that you should develop, you should incorporate methods for dealing with negative self-talk and implementing positive self-talk.  As you become ever more competent at this for yourself, you will be that much better at helping clients to do the same.


“Social workers need to become aware of negative self-talk as a crucial first step in developing a program to combat its effects.  Subsequently, systematic techniques such as thought-stopping can be used to replace depreciating self-talk with affirmations of positive statements.  Negative thoughts can be interrupted by mentally saying, ‘Stop,’ or by snapping an elastic band on the wrist as a reminder to divert the self-talk” (p. 57).


Managing Personal Needs in Counseling


As you get better at managing your self-talk, avoiding black humor, developing stress reduction techniques and avoiding stress, and at having a program of self-awareness, you become far better at managing your personal needs in counseling.


The following is a list of your personal needs in counseling with a list of warning signs and risks related to each:


  1. Need to be liked and to be helpful:

     A. Withholding potentially helpful but critical feedback.

     B. Inappropriately avoiding controversy or conflict.

     C. Trying to ingratiate (.e.g., excessively praising, telling clients what they want to   


     D. Acting with rescuing behavior.

     E. Expecting or reaching for compliments from clients.

  1. Need for status, prestige:

     A. Trying to impress with ‘exotic’ techniques or brilliant interpretations. 

     B. Taking credit for client success. 

     C. Name dropping. 

     D. Bragging about successes.

  1. Need for control:

     A. Advice giving. 

     B. Interfering with client self-determination (e.g., unnecessarily using authority,

          manipulating, dominating). 

     C. Imposing personal values. 

     D. Stereotyping clients as needy and inadequate (which creates a role for someone

          to be ‘helpful’).

  1. Perfectionism: 

     A. Focusing on mistakes. 

     B. Pushing clients toward unrealistic goals. 

     C. Responding with self-depreciation to mistakes (e.g., ‘I’m a failure’).

  1. Need for social relationships:

     A. Becoming overinvolved with clients (e.g., meeting clients socially, continuing

          counseling relationships beyond the normal point of closure)

     B. Indiscriminate self-disclosure.  (p. 59).


It is only when you develop skills in all the areas listed above that you are able to fully implement the three guiding principles of counseling.  (Empathy, Genuineness, & Unconditional Positive Regard.)




Genuineness is sometimes seen as inherently conflictual.  But it really never is.


“Student: How far should I go with genuineness?  What if I’m angry with my client?  Should I say so?  Or suppose I find my client disgusting.  Should I express that too?


“Teacher: You’ve identified an important dilemma.  On the one hand, the need for genuineness suggests that we should be open and honest with our clients.  We shouldn’t put on false fronts, lie to clients, or fake our feelings.  At the same time, ethical principles clearly prohibit us from doing harm.  Being genuine doesn’t entitle counselors to ‘dump’ on their clients.  Genuine social workers are truthful, but they are also timely.  They share personal perceptions and feelings in an assertive way in order to meet their clients’ needs.  They might express their anger, but they do so without intending to punish, ridicule, or trap their clients.  As for feeling disgust toward a client, I can’t see how sharing that information would serve any purpose.  On the other hand, it may be useful to the client if you explored the specific behaviors or attitudes that gave rise to those feelings.  With sensitive feedback, your client can have the benefit of learning about his or her impact on others.  One final point: Strong reactions toward our clients may hint at our own vulnerabilities.  If you find a client disgusting, I’d want to ask you, ‘Where does that feeling come from?  Are you sure it is related only to the client?’


“Student: Maybe the client ‘pushes my buttons’ the same way my father did.


“Teacher: Exactly.”  (p. 75).


If a client really is disgusting, and many of them are, it is usually their behavior that you are finding disgusting.  That disgusting behavior is effectively communicating something and your task is to learn just what it means.  To simply not mention may lead to your avoiding just what you need to tackle with that client.  Therefore, you may need to confront the client, not saying that, “You disgust me!”, but letting them know that: “Some people might find that your behavior is disgusting.  What do you feel about that?”  However, in order for you to effectively ask such questions, you must first have Unconditional Positive Regard and Empathy for that client and lots of Self-Awareness or your client is likely to correctly interpret your remark as an attack.


Self-Awareness Exercise


“This exercise is designed to expand your self-awareness regarding issues that might affect your counseling relationships.  Complete each sentence quickly, without attempting to edit your thoughts.





One of the more challenging things we do is becoming comfortable with silence in the interviews we have with clients.  Silence can be one of the most important forces in effective communication.  However, if we have not developed our self-awareness we can get very stressed when the client is silent and begin to think we have to jump in and ask a question to avoid that silence.  Sometimes we need to jump in; however, the tendency is just the opposite.  We tend to jump in prematurely before letting silence work for the benefit of the client.


Thousands of years ago Dionysius recognized this when he said: “Let thy speech be better than silence, or be silent.  Remember, silence can be a form of effective communication as Shakespeare understood when he said: “I’ll speak to thee in silence.”


“During silence, workers need to do more than just keep quiet; they need to attend to the silence.  Attended silence is characterized by eye contact, physical and psychological focus on the client, and self-discipline to minimize internal and external distraction.  Silence is not golden if it communicates lack of interest or preoccupation or if it says, ‘I’m not listening.’  This means refraining from fidgeting and from other digressions such as taking notes or answering the phone.  At the same time, workers should not stare or turn silence into a contest to see who is the first to break it” (p. 108).


It is helpful when you are dealing with silence to remember that there are six common meanings to silence:

  1. The client is thinking.
  2. The client is confused and unsure of what to say or do.
  3. The client is encountering painful feelings.
  4. The client is dealing with issues of trust.
  5. Silence is the client’s usual way.
  6. The client has reached closure.  (pp. 108-112).



The bottom line is self-awareness.  But, don’t beat your head bloody in your pursuit of this skill.  Always remember that you are to live a balanced existence.  Part of the balance is that you are being good to yourself while you are being good to others.  As the Dalai Lama says: “Be kind whenever possible.  It is always possible.”  I now will close my review of Shebid’s book with the quote he uses to open the book:


It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world.  The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”  Baha’u’llah