When someone at a party asks a general question such as “tell me about yourself”, or you are writing your profile for a blog, a web page or social networking site, what comes to mind first?
Is it your professional identity as a counsellor, or any other profession alongside counselling, or is it your family status, your religion, a hobby you are passionate about or an aspect of your personality or even a physical characteristic? How do we even decide what comes first in this list or what even features at all?
I am a social worker, currently training to be a counsellor. I am a mum, wife and friend; an aspiring writer and avid reader. I like plans and predictability but I am learning to step off the “what if” mindset. This is a path that I frequently fall off but would like to get ‘there’ one day.
My teenage son recently told me “you’re so mainstream Mum”, I’m not sure if this was a compliment but I have ruminated with disparagement. Really? Is that how others see me? Mainstream? I am not disagreeing but it’s not how I see myself.
I am fascinated by identity and the narrative of our lives; how this develops, is shaped and changes over time. Though my current work as a social worker with fostered children and young people and my counselling training, I feel in privileged position to compare social worker and counsellor identity with regards to the concept of ‘holding the pen’ to a person’s life story.
Picking up the Pen
As a social worker, working with children and young people, I am one of those people not just holding the pen but helping write the script for a young person’s life. For children and young people who receive services from social care or become part of the care system, their life story is (partially or wholly) written for them. In the absence of continuous professionals, for most young people, how this story is understood is often solely down to case recordings made at the time. I reflect on whether I am getting my writings right for the children I work with. How much do I control the pen or do I share it. Do I record decisions, thoughts and opinions, and not just facts and events. If a young person chooses to read what I have written when they are 18, 25, or 40, is this accurate, responsible and will it provide the answers to their questions.
This identity and narrative is shaped by an external system – with language recently changed to put the child first “Children Looked After” not “Looked after Child” - and care leavers I work with, (now also referred to as “care experienced young people”), see this as a key part of their identity; whatever their experiences of the system may have been.
Taking back the Pen
Though the counselling process we support people take back that pen, or even grasp the pen for the first time. Whether this is with care experienced young people, whose identities have developed through trauma, loss, separation and are shaped by the care system, or people seeking support about life events where the pen may have temporarily run dry. It is my identity as a counsellor to enable others to make sense of and understand what the pen wrote. It is no longer my pen to share, make judgement with or comment upon.
Professionally I need to learn to relinquish the pen I once wrote with and shift the emphasis to support individuals with their internal identity and narrative.
To enable people to tell their own story, understand the story and even begin to re-write the story for the future; at their pace and time, and with their pen. The pen may be different colours, a delicate fine-liner or a bold marker and may even dry up during the process. But like social work, I may also never know how the story ends and just be part of a chapter.
Learning from Care Experienced young people and adults
We can learn a lot about identity from care experienced young people who tell their stories as adults, and there are many articles, novels and books to read to explore this further. Some talk about their identity within the care system as the first point on the list. “I am in Care” features before, I am a son, brother, sportsman; this is an accepted and important part of their history and identity, for others this is not who they are or want to be defined as. This helps us understand how identity can be shaped by external societal systems, alongside that shaped by choice and control.
Creating a narrative
The pen then becomes an important aspect of narrative, identity and power, and this is a very real metaphor for social workers and therapists to ensure that the child, young person or adult remains at the centre of the story at all times. We can do this by asking what did this mean for the individual, not what it means for us.
This is not to say our own identity is in a vacuum to our professional role and responsibilities. Through exploring our own identities and what we prioritize on the list we can understand how other people may experience their own identity, or an identity that others may have written for them, such as through a societal system or power differences in a relationship. I have shared my own thoughts and feelings about answering the “tell me about yourself question” in my personal blog (LynnFindlayWrites) and how this may be influenced in a group situation. I also make brief comparisons about the online/offline identity – but this is a whole other blog piece.
Understanding identity is a complex issue that can be debated from many aspects, with regards to development, time and context. I digress to a brief spell I spent learning Spanish a few years ago and the understanding the different verbs ‘to be’, adds another dimension to my thinking. (In Spanish there are two verbs ‘to be’; SER (Soy = I am) and ESTAR (Estoy = I am) , with different uses depending on the characteristic you are describing, and basic teachings are that if its permanent use Soy and if temporary use Estoy, but of course with many debatable exceptions beyond the linguistic meaning). And I haven’t even thought about writing a narrative with a Spanish pen.
But now when I ask someone the question, “Tell me about yourself? Or tell me what brings you here?” I listen for what is first on the list, and second, third or even last. I think about my identity, just for a second in that precise moment, as I believe knowing who ‘I am…’ is an important step in facilitating this in others.
“I am….” two of the powerful words we can use. What is first on your list?
Lynn Findlay is a social worker and trainer for The Foster Care Co-operative and a trainee counsellor Academy S.P.A.C.E in Sheffield. Her interests are trauma-informed practice, mental health and online safety; as well as writing and running the much loved online fostering book club.
You can hear more from Lynn on her personal blog here