When self-care feels impossible as a social worker, try these five easy tricks

Essy Knopf social work secret self-care tips
Reading time: 4 minutes

Working in a demanding profession like social work, I’m often reminded that self-care is a commitment many of us struggle to make. 

Certainly, there may be factors that interfere with our ability to perform this vital activity. We may for example experience a time crunch at work and miss a lunch break in order to help a client in crisis.

When such a situation becomes routine, we should be worried. Many however refuse to take action, claiming they simply don’t have control over the circumstances.

Addressing self-care, however, is less about external circumstances than it is about certain problematic beliefs we hold to be true.

Common mental barriers to self-care

Chronic overwork usually happens because we permit it to.

For example, boundary issues may convince us we are obligated—if not morally bound—to take on more than our own share. 

This can stem from low self-esteem or distorted self-perception, which are in turn fed by negative self-talk. 

If given too much latitude, our internal critics will demand we constantly prove our self-worth, leading to workaholism, perfectionism, and other forms of grandiosity

This is not a sustainable way of life. We can’t ignore our feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion forever. But in the absence of self-compassion, we will likely dismiss self-care as “unnecessary”, “wasteful”, and “selfish”.

Another contributor to overwork is time anxiety, a phenomenon by which we come to believe there is simply never enough time in which to complete all of our assigned tasks.

Like other forms of anxiety, time anxiety follows a simple premise: 

if you do or fail to do X, Y catastrophe will happen 

If you’re struggling to overcome one or more of these obstacles, or if the suggestions in my previous guide to self-care as a social worker didn’t quite hit the spot, I would suggest the following approaches.

1. Snack on self-care

Incorporate brief, “snack-sized” activities into your daily routine. For example:

  • Watch a humorous segment from a late-night talk show host on YouTube while eating breakfast
  • Check your favorite news website during work breaks
  • Watch a fun TV show while cooking dinner
  • Listen to an enriching podcast while cleaning or exercising
  • Do school readings while enjoying a hot bath
  • Practice a grounding exercise during moments of peak stress. For example: box breathing, belly breathing, or body scans

While multitasking has been linked to higher levels of stress and fatigue, self-care snacking in this fashion is a start…and thus progress.

2. Try gratitude & affirmations

Studies have found that practicing gratitude can significantly boost our mental health

One common example is gratitude journaling. This involves writing down five things you’re grateful for each day. 

Alternatively, you can share this list with a designated “accountability partner” either daily or weekly, in-person, or over the phone.

Another fun way to practice gratitude is with a freewriting gratitude exercise. Set a timer for five minutes, suspend your critical thinking, and start writing down anything and everything you could be grateful for.

When the timer ends, set down your pen and review your work. Does what you write check out? Are you surprised by the number of things you were able to list?

Another proven way to nip stress in the bud is by practicing affirmations. Consider opening or closing your day with an affirmation that emphasizes a positive aspect of your life or celebrates your strengths or achievements. 

Here are some examples of affirmations you can use as part of a daily practice. 

Thankfully, practicing gratitude nor affirmations are not time-intensive activities and can be performed during natural lulls that occur throughout the day.

Essy Knopf self-care ticks social work

3. Lean into self-compassion

Self-compassion refers to the willingness and ability to comfort oneself in moments of distress. This is a vital skill we typically learn by internalizing the soothing offered to us as children by our primary caregivers. 

When our attachment to these caregivers is disrupted, however, through misattunement, invalidation, neglect, abuse, loss, and trauma, we may develop insecure attachment styles.

This impedes future relationships and deprives us of the chance to learn self-compassion, which can bolster personal resiliency.

Thankfully, self-compassion can always be developed through practice. To get started, check out some of the brief guided meditations, videos, and exercises available on Self-Compassion author Kristin Neff’s website. 

Again, these activities can be done almost anywhere and don’t require a lot of time.

4. Get your body moving

Exercise may maintain our general health—but it can also help protect us against anxiety and depression.

As someone who has suffered chronic anxiety, I have found daily exercise goes a long way to helping me manage this condition.

While I don’t always achieve the 30 minutes of moderate activity daily recommended by scientists, I do make sure to take 20-minute walks around the neighborhood at the very least.

Slower exercise should ideally be supplemented by higher-intensity workouts. For instance, I try to cycle for an hour one day, hike for a few hours on another, and do an hour of weights and jogging on a third.

If your mind tells you that taking time out to exercise will eat into your productivity, consider listening to a podcast or audiobook at the same time.

Should venturing outdoors or going to the gym demand too much from your schedule, try exercising from home with free-to-view YouTube aerobics classes.

5. Sleep hygienically

How is sleep a self-care activity? Usually, when we are consumed by work, we may not get our seven-hour minimum.

If our sleep is too short or the quality of it is poor, we may quickly find ourselves running on empty.

Practicing sleep hygiene is how we create the ideal conditions for sleeping. Some examples of good sleep hygiene are:

  • Going to bed and getting up at a regular time 
  • Ensuring our bedrooms are quiet, dark, relaxing, and comfortable
  • Using our bedroom exclusively for sleeping 
  • Removing electronic devices from our sleeping spaces
  • Employing blue light-free bulbs and the wellness feature on our Apple or Android devices (sometimes referred to as “night light”)
  • Avoiding large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before rest 

Wrap up

Whatever your career choice, overwork is a possibility that can always sneak up unexpectedly. 

Boundary issues, fierce internal critics, and time anxiety are just a few forms of mental resistance that can leave us especially vulnerable in this regard.

Danger arises when this resistance persuades us that the rightful place of self-care is on the chopping block. 

Over time, such beliefs can become hard to shake. But by making some of the adjustments proposed above, you can take small steps towards becoming a personal wellbeing champion.

You can read more social work-related posts here.

5 key skills that can make or break your social work career

Essy Knopf social work career skills
Reading time: 5 minutes

Throughout your social work career, you will be asked to do the seemingly impossible.

Whether working with clients in therapy to repair psychic injuries, or campaigning for social justice, such feats depend upon a set of specific—but surprisingly mundane—skills. 

While some of these skills could certainly apply to other professions, others are specific to the nature of social work, and the demands it makes of us not just as professionals, but as human beings also. 

One obvious example of this is the “use of self” in a clinical setting. From time to time, social work clinicians are called upon to appropriately self-disclose. 

The openness and authenticity with which we present our humanity can go a long way to facilitating a client’s growth and achievement.

Serving others in such a fashion, however, requires we first have some ability to self-regulate—one of the hallmarks of emotional intelligence. 

Here are some top skills I believe can help you on the journey towards becoming a better social worker.

1. Goal setting for your social work career

The only way we can ever get to where we are going is by first clearly defining our destination. This is where S.M.A.R.T. goals come in.

S.M.A.R.T. stands for five categories: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. 

This goal tracking system helps break often vague objectives into concrete plans with easy-to-follow steps while accounting for any contingencies that can impact our ability to achieve them. 

Sure—the exploration and depth demanded by S.M.A.R.T. goals can often feel mentally taxing—but don’t let this deter you from using them. S.M.A.R.T. goals exist to help you work smarter, not harder.

Simplify the process by starting with a free S.M.A.R.T. goal planning spreadsheet. Set a maximum of three goals. 

Once you’ve decided upon the tasks that are necessary to fulfill them, it’s time to deploy skill number two…

2. Time management

For those of us already time-poor, the very idea we should try to wrangle order out of our already packed day is enough to evoke dread.

The following two-step process will go a long way to dispel that feeling.

Using the list you generated from skill number one, begin by organizing each task in order of priority:

1. Prioritize your to-dos 

Create a rank-ordered to-do list by sorting each task into the following order:

  1. Urgent and important (do first)
  2. Not urgent but still important (schedule)
  3. Urgent but not important (delegate)
  4. Not urgent and not important (don’t do)

Action each step accordingly. Any item with a #4 ranking can simply be deleted from the list.

If you’re in any way confused by this method, consider using an Eisenhower Matrix. An array of free templates can be downloaded for free

2. Schedule 

Anything that needs to be scheduled should be recorded in your calendar. If you use a service that syncs across all your devices *such as Google Calendar or Apple iCloud Calendar), all the better. 

Next, set reminders so you won’t miss your commitments. I personally prefer to set at least two reminders, one via email and one via instant notification.

Most of us are usually within arms’ reach of our computer or phone, so this can be a great way of ensuring we stay on track.

3. Communication

Communication can play a vital role in connecting, building bridges, and facilitating positive change, and this is no less the case during our social work careers.

Whether it’s verbal, nonverbal, written, or visual, good communication is always a question of clarity. 

Be direct and succinct, then elaborate, if required. Avoid drowning the receiver with information. Do away with round-about explanations. Make your requests explicit.

Also, this goes without saying, but we all need to follow basic rules of courtesy. Here are five basic rules of thumb I’ve borrowed from a classic book on personal effectiveness, How To Win Friends & Influence People:

  • Be friendly
  • Respect other’s opinions
  • Do more listening than talking
  • Try to take others’ perspectives
  • Sympathize with their ideas and desires
  • Be quick to admit your errors
  • Avoid arguments, criticisms, condemnations, and complaints

Always try to put yourself in the shoes of your communication partner. What kind of reaction may your words trigger? 

Finally, when undertaking a task, we should also strive to identify relevant stakeholders and communicate our projected timelines to them.

If you think you’re going to miss a deadline, let people know. Then negotiate a revised due date.

Writing that extra email may feel burdensome, but know that others will almost always be thankful that you kept them in the loop.

Essy Knopf fundamental skills social work career

4. Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share others’ feelings. It is the glue that holds individuals—and society—together.

Expressing empathy may come naturally to some, whereas for others, it may need to be honed. 

Listening attentively is one way we can practice empathy. We can start with body language. By making regular eye contact, we convey we are interested in what the other person has to say. 

Uttering “mmhmm” or nodding and shaking our heads are some popular verbal and nonverbal cues commonly used to show one understands and cares.

These responses are also examples of furthering responses, which are the equivalent of asking the speaker to tell you more. 

Reflection responses go one step further by addressing both the content of messages and the emotions with which they are expressed. 

Our goal when offering reflection responses is to mirror what we, the listener, think we are hearing. “So what I think I’m hearing from you is…”

When we use reflecting responses, we are checking that we have correctly understood whatever has just been communicated to us. 

We can also try to summarize or paraphrase our communication partner’s words in a thoughtful and respectful way. 

There will be times when our partner responds with, “Actually…” and goes on to tell us how off base our interpretation was. 

Know that misunderstandings are par for the course. What matters most is our willingness to keep working with our conversation partner to get on the same page.

5. Self-awareness

Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman defines self-awareness as ongoing attention towards, observation, and investigation of one’s internal states. 

To be self-aware therefore means to be “aware of both our mood and our thoughts about that mood.”

We typically cope with and respond to our emotions in one of three ways:

  • Becoming engulfed: Being completely taken over by our feelings. 
  • Practicing acceptance: Doing nothing to change our moods, even when they cause distress.
  • Staying self-aware: Mindfully managing emotions and refusing to ruminate on negative feelings.

Whatever your chosen social work career, acceptance, or engulfment can open us to the possibility of countertransference.

Clinicians who fail to reflect on their feelings in such situations may act out patterns of behavior that damage the therapeutic alliance.

We all have our blindspots. But self-awareness can be actively improved, for instance, by cultivating a mindfulness practice.

6. Boundary setting

Bodies, words, physical space, emotional distance, time, and consequences. These are some of the categories of personal boundaries, write Boundaries authors Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

A common boundary violation in social work is long hours and high caseloads

Most of us would agree that our ability to flourish depends upon our ability to keep stress to moderate levels. We also require plenty of time to rest and recharge.

When these two things are denied us, however, it is our responsibility to clarify and assert our boundaries. This may mean saying “no” to taking on more work than we can manage, or it may mean leaving an exploitative situation.

Should we choose not to, we may otherwise succumb to compassion fatigue and burnout.

Another way we can set boundaries is by choosing to not bring work home. This includes refusing to respond to non-essential communication with colleagues and clients outside of work hours. 

Doing this also has the added benefit of safeguarding us against creating dual relationships with clients.

Wrap up

Newly minted social workers are like first-time tennis players, struggling to defend themselves against a volley of balls from a merciless pitching machine.

Faced with such challenges, we may stop to peer into the depths of us our generalist’s toolkit, struggling to find the best—and fastest—solution. 

The result may be decision paralysis. Failing to deliver a return may leave us with a figurative black eye, in the form of professional self-doubt. 

But competency in social work is rarely the product of quick thinking or specialized education alone. It’s also about building and maintaining core skills.

By mastering goal setting, time management, communication, empathy, self-awareness, and boundary setting, we position ourselves not just for social work career success and career sustainability.

You can read more social work-related posts here.

Stop wasting time, social work students. Go digital-only.

Essy Knopf social work go digital
Reading time: 6 minutes

When I started my undergraduate degree, virtual study platforms like Blackboard were very much in their infancy, and digital-only learning was still a fair way off. 

For example, tests were still paper and pen-based, and textbooks and course readers were only available in hard copy format.

Today that’s all changed. Most reading material is now accessible in PDF or eBook format, freeing us from the burden of toting around massive textbooks.

Going digital has brought other benefits. With the right adjustments, device-based reading can actually be a timesaver, thanks to the inbuilt highlighting and notetaking abilities.

If you are yet to purchase your textbooks and have a functional tablet or tablet, here are some reasons for going the digital-only route, plus tips for an optimal study experience.

Comfort vs convenience of digital-only study

If you, like me, grew up reading books the old-fashioned way, you may drag your heels when it comes to reading off a screen.

But course readings are increasingly being provided in PDF format, so going digital-only may be a natural conclusion.

Given the difficulty, expense, and environmental cost involved in printing these materials out, it might be worth exploring how to make screen-reading a more enjoyable experience.

But first, it’s important to understand some technicalities. e-Textbooks are usually made available in PDF, EPUB, or MOBI/AZW format (Amazon’s proprietary eBook file format).

Textbooks in AZW format sometimes have limits on the amount of content you can highlight and save as notes due to digital rights management (DRM).

These restrictions will vary from publisher to publisher. In recent years, many have recognized the importance of notetaking and relaxed DRM restrictions.

To save yourself hassle down the line, read each e-Textbook’s product description page before purchasing. Alternatively, contact your online bookstore’s customer service department for more information. 

1. Take notes with e-Textbooks

While not all eBook reading apps or devices offer notetaking abilities, most do. And this is one of the advantages of going digital-only.

If you’re using a computer, you can access EPUB or MOBI files with Calibre, a free eBook library manager. PDFs can be accessed using Adobe Reader

Supposing there are no DRM restrictions, these readers will allow you to select passages of text and copy them straight into a Word or Google document.

Should DRM prevent you from highlighting and recording your notes, you can always just manually type them out.

To do this, open two window panes on your computer—one for your eBook reader app, and one for your notes document—then transcribe any content you need directly into the latter.

For those using an Amazon Kindle, know that anything you highlight is automatically recorded to an internal document, which will then need to be accessed using this method.

2. Try text-to-speech

“But I don’t like to read things on the computer,” you say. Fair enough.

Give your eyes a break and have your content read aloud to you with Adobe Reader’s built-in Text-to-Speech feature

Alternatively, you can convert a text document into speech using free web-based services.

The resulting MP3 file can be played on your computer or transferred to your phone for easy listening while on the go.

3. Use dark mode

If you can’t stand text-to-speech, ease your eyestrain with dark mode.

Calibre will automatically match your current system setting, so turning the dark mode feature on can be as easy as flipping the related toggle in Windows or Mac.

In the case of Adobe Reader, you will need to tinker with the settings first in order to get dark mode working. 

To do this, go to “Edit”, followed by “Preferences”. A new window will appear. Under the “Categories” column, click “Accessibility”.

Under “Document Colors Options”, tick “Replace Document Colors”. Tick the “Custom Color:” box. Set “Page Background” to black, and “Document Text:” to white. 

Finally, tick the “Change the color of line art as well as text” box. And you’re done!

You can also enable dark mode in your browser using the free extension Dark Reader.

If you find dark mode disorienting, at least initially, know that it will ultimately add an extra level of comfort to your digital-only study experience.

4. Convert readings to PDF

Typically when lecturers provide URLs to readings hosted online (such as articles), I find it worthwhile to convert them to PDF format for easy reading/notetaking.

Several free services can assist with this. Note that in some cases, one service may break text formatting or produce excess white space. For this reason, some experimentation using all the services listed here may be required.

The first service is Print Friendly. To access it, paste your link into the main field, hit “Preview”, then “PDF” and “Download your PDF”.

The second is Simple Print. Paste your link into the main field, click “Create PDF”, and click the image that appears. 

A PDF will appear in your browser; all that needs to be done now is for you to right-click the page and hit “Save”. Note, you can also install this service as a Chrome browser plugin

Once you’ve installed the plugin, navigate to the webpage you want to convert, tap the Simple Print icon next to the address bar and let the plugin work its magic.

The final PDF conversion service is Mercury Reader, available as a Chrome plugin. The process is much the same as that involving the Simple Print plugin.

Essy Knopf digital-only social work school

5. Keep a master notes file

To manage all your school notes in a single Word doc would be unwieldy, and devoting a folder to multiple notes documents can also get messy.

OneNote, which is included in Office 365 and Office 2016 suite, is a note-taking program that can help you keep all your notes organized within a single document.

With OneNote, each sub-document is separated by individual tabs, which are searchable using the search bar (shortcut “CTRL + F”). 

Where one might spend minutes thumbing through a notebook in search of specific notes, with the OneNote app it’s never more than a few keystrokes away. This is one of the many benefits of a digital-only approach.

If you don’t happen to have the editions of Office mentioned above, know that you can still download the cloud-based version of OneNote free of cost

I would also recommend checking out Scrivener, which matches the functionality of OneNote—and then some.

Initially marketed as a tool for writers, Scrivener is simple to use but offers an insanely complex array of features. 

The app presents all content in a binder format, much like a file directory tree. Each document you create within a Scrivener project can be sorted into folders with unique icons.

All documents are organized and stored inside a single master archive file.

Like OneNote, all Scrivener content can be searched with a quick CTRL + F. The app also offers the ability to split your display between two documents, which helps for referring to notes when writing an essay.

You can also create multiple “snapshots” of each document, allowing you to roll back any changes in the event you want to revert to an earlier edit.

For anyone looking to create a “master document” or notes archive, Scrivener can go a long way to helping you efficiently organize your data.

If you’re curious to give it a spin, Scrivener can be run for free in trial mode for the first 30 days.

6. Back up your data

Computers crash and hard drives fail. This is the reality of digital-only work in the Information Age.

Thankfully there are measures you can take to avoid losing all your work, should a data-loss disaster strike.

A simple way of doing this is working exclusively in the cloud using a free service like Google Docs. The downside is that you will need a constant internet connection in order to work, although there is a way around this.

While it doesn’t appear likely that Google cloud servers will suffer a catastrophic failure any time soon, it’s best not to bank upon such a possibility never happening.

According to the 3-2-1 rule, we should regularly make and keep a total of three backups at all times. 

In my case, I use a modified version of this rule. Firstly, I make a physical backup of all my files on two different external hard drives.

Note that USB thumb drives can be unreliable so I would recommend avoiding them completely.

Secondly, I keep all essential working documents synced with free cloud-based backup services like Dropbox and Google Drive

For extra protection, I would recommend using both of these services at the same time.

Wrap up

If there’s one educational trend we can be certain of, it’s that classroom integration of digital technologies will only continue.

Whatever your feelings about this new norm, it’s still worth leveraging the unique strengths of digital mediums to your benefit.

The tips I’ve included here are a small sample drawn from my personal experience. If you’re interested in going digital-only, I recommend also checking out these tech-based study hacks.

You can read more social work-related posts here.

Surviving in the social work field boils down to this single habit

Essy Knopf social work habit self care
Reading time: 4 minutes

What is your number one priority as a social worker? If self-care is not the answer, we need to have a chat.

Most Master of Social Work (MSW) programs will emphasize the importance of self-care upfront. It doesn’t take long, however, for this call-to-arms to butt up against reality. 

We as social workers must navigate many competing and conflicting priorities daily. This begins as early as school.

With so much to do during our relatively brief degree, our days are often dominated by assignments and course readings. 

Setting aside an extra hour for “you” time can come to resemble an unnecessary luxury. You may find yourself asking, “How can I afford to stop and relax when I have so much work left to do?” 

It’s a question I promise will continue to challenge you over the course of your career. For this reason, self-care is a habit you would be best served by building right now.

Here are some ways you can get started.

1. Make a commitment to self-care

If you can exercise enough discipline to study for multiple hours every day, you can certainly commit a minimum of one hour to self-care.

In strict cost-benefit analysis terms, your brain may try to argue with you about the necessity of relaxing.
It may feel good to have dedicated downtime. But time away from your desk may also put you behind in our work and feed your anxiety.

This can become a vicious circle: time anxiety persuades there is never enough, and while this might certainly feel like it’s the case, it’s not true.

The issue is not whether you have enough time to take care of your personal wellbeing. Rather, it’s your willingness to re-prioritize it. 

Let’s suppose you do. If you have time anxiety, this may worsen. But rest assured that over time, its death-grip on your psyche will weaken.

2. Block out downtime

Personally, I’ve found there are usually three windows each day in which most people can block out self-care time: 

  1. First thing, straight after waking up
  2. Midway during the day, such as during a lunch break
  3. Before bed, when one typically unwinds

The morning window works best for me (that is, supposing I get to bed early).

This period seems to afford me enough time to do a self-care activity such as meditation before my brain jumps aboard the “work ‘til you drop” train.

Another option is to dedicate a single day of the week such as Sunday to “you” time.

3. Permit yourself a personal life

Work is a hungry beast, and if we continue to encourage it, it will inevitably consume our personal lives. 

We may suspend social outings and quality time activities with our loved ones. Or we may sacrifice a hobby that previously enriched our lives.

Diligence and dedication in professional settings are admirable traits. But when taken to excess, they can lead to workaholism.

Having healthy boundaries quite simply means saying “yes” to all that is conducive to our welfare, and “no” to things that aren’t. And workaholism is definitely something that qualifies as the latter.

Don’t neglect your personal relationships for the sake of your calling. Refuse to become a martyr for your chosen social work cause. 

Instead, strive for a work-life balance. Schedule at least one social meetup a week. Revive that cherished hobby. 

Rather than constantly drawing from your well, take time out to replenish it.

Essy Knopf self-care social worker

4. Don’t go at it alone

Further to the last point, healthy relationships are like armored vans that can carry us through a warzone of difficult times. 

These relationships are thus crucial to our mental health and serve as an invaluable buffer during difficult times.

But they are only as helpful as we allow them to be. In times of need, don’t hesitate to reach out to coworkers, supervisors, partners, friends, and family members.

5. Self-care through the support of a therapist

None of us come to the social work field a clean slate. Each of us has a history, and the work we do can cause parts of it to resurface, both good and bad.

A therapist can help us with processing our experiences, as well as professional challenges like countertransference.

The insights of another professional can go a long way to supporting us in becoming better practitioners. 

6. Start meditating

Mindfulness-based strategies are an effective way to support mental resilience and ward off overwhelm and anxiety.

The most commonly known strategy is meditation.

Guided meditations can be found in person or online. UCLA Health for example has many recordings on its website, and there are subscription-based meditation apps such as Calm and Headspace.

An example of a self-guided meditation I use daily is breath counting. This is very simple to practice.

First, get into a meditation posture. A common one is sitting upright, with your feet planted on the floor, your hands resting on your lap, and your eyes either open or closed.

Next, count one, inhale, two exhale, three inhale, four exhale… Go right up to 10, before resetting to one. 

Every time your mind wanders or you become distracted, bring your attention back to the sensation of your breath and resume counting.

The breath counting meditation has the most beneficial effect for me when performed one to two times a day for 20 minutes at a time. 

If you are new to this kind of meditation, I would recommend beginning with a three-minute meditation, slowly work your way up to a longer session.

Whatever method you choose, know that finding your meditation groove can, at least, initially, be a struggle—especially if you’ve had no prior experience with mindfulness. 

For that reason, I would recommend starting with guided meditations or exploring free resources such as these five mindfulness-oriented phone apps.

7. Explore yoga or prayer as self-care

Another mindfulness-based strategy is yoga. If you can’t make it to a studio, try a virtual class. Many are available free to watch on YouTube.

Another mindfulness practice worth mentioning mention is prayer, which has been found to offer similar benefits to other forms of mindfulness. 

For these reasons, if you are spiritual or practice a religion, it may be worth incorporating a prayer practice into your daily self-care regimen.

Wrap up

If you’ve ever caught yourself saying “There is no way I can humanly do all of this,” know that you by far are not the first social worker to feel this way.

Feeling overwhelmed as we so often do in these instances is an opportunity to pause and check in with ourselves.

Are you getting enough time to recharge your batteries each day? If not, maybe it is time you carved out a slot in your daily schedule for a self-care activity.

Sure, it may not always seem practical. But let me ask you this: how much more practical is the alternative…professional burnout?

You can read more social work-related posts here.

These 6 tech-based study hacks will transform your social work school experience

Essy Knopf Technology Hacks
Reading time: 5 minutes

As most attending social work school can attest, stress is the water we figuratively swim in every day.1

It is also a very normal part of being human. In moderation, stress can help us. But when sustained at high levels over long periods, it can devastate our wellbeing.

Strung out between study, placements, and what passes for our personal lives, it is very easy for us to experience the latter.

There are many strategies for minimizing stress, such as simplifying and automating tasks. This is where modern information technologies can assist.

Here are some suggestions as to how social work students can turn them to their advantage.

1. Give task tracking applications a spin

In my previous article, “11 ways not to crash and burn in social work school”, I stressed that prioritizing and calendarizing are key to being a functional social work student.

If you’re in an MSW program, it’s worth considering keeping a running record of all your to-dos with a list-making application.

Apps like Apple Notes and Google Keep save your data in the cloud and share them with all your registered devices, making accessing and updating them a cinch.

Using colors and labels will help you with organizing information into categories. Adding checkboxes allows you to tick off completed tasks one by one.

Here’s one workflow I recommend following when using Google Keep: first, assign two cards to each grad school course you’re currently taking. Title one “Readings” and the other “Assessments”.

Give each card a different color to visually distinguish them. Apply a label titled “Study” so you can easily sort them from cards with a different category. 

Finally, add checkboxes for every pending reading and assessment. Make sure to update each card from week to week.

While Google Keep technically doesn’t have a dedicated desktop app, third-party versions such as EasyNotes are available.

2. Try using a Pomodoro timer

Finding that you’re not taking enough study breaks, or alternatively taking too many

Most MSW candidates will likely fall into one of these two camps. Sitting at our desk, we enter a state of flow, only to emerge hours later, glassy-eyed and ravenous for a meal.

Alternatively, we may struggle and study in fits and starts, interrupted by many a text message and checking of our news and social media feeds. 

Whether you suffer from tunnel vision or procrastination, the Pomodoro technique may be able to help you find a happy medium.

This time management technique works by breaking time up into intervals: 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off. After four of these intervals, users take a longer break of 15 minutes. 

Pomodoro timer apps, available on both phones and the web, automate the process, prompting users at the end of each interval with a chime.

Some of the more advanced timers can even track your productivity.

Essy Knopf social work school study hacks

3. Take social work school group work to the next level

If you find Apple Notes or Google Keep too simple for your purposes, check out Trello, another free cross-platform service accessible on your phone and computer. 

Trello’s design is comparable to that with Google Keep, with cards organized under vertical columns. But as a tool for collaboration, the app really flexes its muscles.

Trello offers a visual representation of the status of all tasks and subtasks, which can be particularly helpful when working on complex school group assessments.

Multiple users can also access and edit the board at the same time, “tagging” and delegating tasks to each other, while setting reminders.

To familiarize yourself with the app, you can create a personal “board” and set a title e.g. “Course X”. Create titled columns for each school course and another called “Completed tasks”.

Under each column, add cards for individual assessment pieces and homework tasks. Tag cards with a color and assign definitions. Red for example can represent “To do”, orange “In progress”, and green “Complete”.

When completing each task, drag the associated card to the “Completed tasks” column. Or right-click it and hit the “Archive” option.

For brainstorming, virtual whiteboards like Google Jamboard can come in handy. And when working on shared papers, Google Docs can also be a godsend, thanks to the collaborative, real-time editing feature.

If you are organizing a meeting in-person or virtually, try using a Doodle poll to identify everyone’s availability.

4. Communicate and community-build online

If emails are too arduous, why not switch things up with a feature-rich instant messaging app like GroupMe?

WhatsApp alternatively provides a more secure service, with end-to-end encryption.

If you struggle to keep track of text messages with other social work school students, check out Slack, a phone and desktop app that offers persistent chat rooms organized by subjects. 

While this level of functionality may be too complex for the average group assignment, Slack can be especially useful for students looking to community build, share information and resources, and organize on campus. 

5. Lift your grammar game

If you’ve been relying exclusively on Microsoft Word or Google Docs’ spelling and grammar check, there’s a good chance you’re not catching every typo.

Don’t believe me? Install Grammarly, a free service that can be accessed as a browser extension, Microsoft Office plugin, or desktop app.

Grammarly stands head and shoulders above most apps’ standard spelling, grammar, and punctuation proofreading features. 

If you’re willing to shell out for the paid version, you’ll also get additional features such as guidance on writing with clarity and automatic plagiarism detection. 

6. Jazz up your social work school presentations

Lack the design finesse and can’t be bothered scouting the web for inspiration? 

Transform your lackluster Google Slides presentation in a pinch with one of the many free presentation templates available for download on Slidesgo.

Editing these snazzy predesigned slides is as simple as drag-and-drop and cut-and-paste. 

As a bonus, most templates include unique design elements at the end that can be adapted for any purpose. 

Wrap Up

You may be comfortable with your current social work study workflow. And yet it’s possible that there are some inefficiencies that are costing you time and effort.

Many of these can be addressed with a few tech tweaks such as the ones I suggested above.

But if you’re intimidated by the prospect of learning new systems, don’t worry—I completely get it.

My suggestion would be to start small. Try one of the hacks I’ve mentioned for a few days and see if you notice any improvements. 

Give yourself enough time to get familiar with the new method before making any final decision. Also, try to keep in mind why you’re making a change in the first place. What do you hope to gain? 

If eased workloads and relaxed time pressures sound like your cup of tea, then maybe the risks are ones well worth taking.

You can read more social work-related posts here.

11 ways not to crash and burn in social work school

Essy Knopf social work school
Reading time: 7 minutes

If there’s one experience that unites social work school students, it’s a feeling of chronic overwhelm.

The Master of Social Work (MSW) program is a generalist degree, meaning it covers a lot of ground, spanning clinical practice, research, and macro advocacy.

Jampacked curriculums are how social work schools prepare students for the reality they will most likely have to wear many hats throughout their careers. 

To fulfill our (well-earned) reputation as masters of resourcefulness, our teachers pile reading after reading upon us, leaving students buried under an ever-growing pile of work.

To make matters more difficult, within weeks of starting the degree students are thrown into the field placement deep end. 

The rationale here is that the best way to learn is by doing. Without practice, there’s a good chance that much of the coursework—often covered at a breakneck pace—won’t stick.

Struggling to keep up, we let our self-care activities fall by the wayside. Anxiety, study burnout, and maybe even a sense of professional insecurity often result.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. Here are 11 tips I believe will go a long way to helping you not only survive, but flourish.

1. Prioritize with the 1-2-3-4 method

Your workload as a social work student is formidable. The only way you can ever hope to get (and stay) on top of it is through organizing your priorities.

To do this, rank all your tasks according to the following categories:

  1. Do first 
  2. Schedule 
  3. Delegate 
  4. Don’t do

Next, complete each act accordingly. When another task is added to your list, assign it a number and an action (if applicable). 

More information on the 1-2-3-4 method can be found in this detailed guide.

2. Learn the value of strategic “nos”

If you’re a perfectionist, completionist, and/or a workaholic, you may struggle with assigning items to the final category, “Don’t do.” 

The problem is that refusing to say “no” can come at a considerable cost to your wellbeing, not only during your social work degree but your subsequent career as well.

Your social work school may for example bombard you with invitations to extracurricular events. But between attending class and field placement and writing essays, you’ll probably lack the mental bandwidth needed to fully participate.

My suggestion would be to say “yes” only a handful of events you are certain will advance your learning or professional goals. Everything else can be ignored.

Remember, even if you can’t attend, you can always ask the organizer in advance for access to a recording or slides. 

If neither is available, a peer who is attending the event may be willing to take notes on your behalf.

3. Calendarize

With so many responsibilities to juggle, the only way you can stay on top of it all is by making liberal use of your smartphone’s inbuilt calendar. 

When scheduling, only add items from categories 1 and 2. Consider using a free service like Google Calendar or Apple iCloud Calendar to help you keep all calendar items synced across all your devices.

This final point may seem obvious, but there’s no point adding things to your calendar if you don’t also set up some kind of reminder. 

My suggestions are to use both instant notifications and email reminders to ensure you never miss an assignment deadline or another commitment.

When calendarizing assessment due dates, you may find it helpful to break the task into baby steps and set mini-deadlines for each. 

Before you can write a paper, for example, you’ll need to complete some often lengthy “pre-work”. For example, conducting literature searches, doing necessary readings, and completing an outline.

Allocating time and due dates to each of these activities can help keep you on task while conveying a sense of progress and positively affirming your efforts. 

This brings us to point four…

4. Reward yourself

All human endeavors are ultimately driven by the promise of reward. It makes sense therefore that when setting out to accomplish a task, we have first identified our expected payoff.

Rewards can be intrinsic: completing the task may be in itself an affirming experience. They can also be extrinsic, such as buying yourself a small gift upon completing a school semester. 

This may sound like self-bribery, but everyone can benefit from a much-needed boost to our motivation levels from time to time. 

Rewards don’t have to be anything huge. They can be something as simple as treating yourself to a coffee. 

Just finished a grueling paper on social work policy? Go out for a walk. Spent the morning poring over a stack of readings? Take the rest of the afternoon off to relax in the park. You’ve earned it.

5. Maintain boundaries

Boundary setting is crucial to remaining sane in the social work field. This applies as much to interpersonal relationships as it does to managing your time, especially where schoolwork or your field placement is concerned.

As you plan out each day, don’t forget to set limits on the amount of time you dedicate each day to work. Make sure to pencil in time for unwinding.

Set a window each day to reply to all non-urgent emails, calls, or text messages that relate to school and your placement. Once that window closes, don’t reopen it.

Treat “you” time as sacrosanct. The only thing you should be prioritizing during downtime is rest and rejuvenation. 

Maintaining boundaries in this fashion can help protect you against burnout, both as a student and as a fledgling social work professional.

6. Self-advocate

MSW teachers drill into us the importance of self-advocating. Social work school and your field placement present numerous opportunities in which you can hone this invaluable skill. 

If there’s something you need to know or want to learn, speak to your lecturer or field supervisor.

Given you are paying for access to their expertise, either through school fees or your labor, you have a right to advocate for as many learning opportunities as you feel you need to become a competent social worker.

If you require an extension on an assessment due date, ask for it. Your lecturer will likely be more than willing to accommodate your request.

Should any of your requests go ignored, persist, but be sensitive to the reality that what you’ve asked for may not always be possible.

Exercise the fine art of picking your battles, and be prepared to switch gears should the situation call for it.

Essy Knopf social work school

7. Manage up 

Fieldwork supervisors are usually torn between many competing responsibilities. What can this mean for you? Inconsistent supervision.

Meetings may be rescheduled at the last minute, or supervision sessions interrupted and even canceled. For social work students, these situations can be frustrating and demoralizing.

In such instances, I recommend managing up. Keep reaching out, asking questions, and making requests. Send emails to your supervisor daily, outlining your priorities and any tasks or activities you plan to undertake. 

Solicit your supervisor’s input, but should you not get it, be prepared to take initiative.

Keep your appointed field liaison apprised of the situation. Be accountable by keeping a log of all your activities, interactions, and communications as proof you held up your end of the field placement bargain.

8. Live and breathe win-win

Like any situation in life, we should approach the social work profession as an opportunity to champion both our interests as well as that of others. 

Invite the input of all with whom you work. Collaborate to find solutions. Embrace differing viewpoints, and always disagree without being disagreeable. 

Never leave anyone feeling like they’re “one-down”. This is a sure way to breed resentment and burn bridges.

We have all at some point encountered difficult people. We have all seen firsthand how their behavior hinders their success. We can learn from this by striving to model our personal best. 

See it as your job to leave a positive impression with all whom you cross during your educational journey. 

You never know if you will rub shoulders with these folk again later on—or if you might find yourself in the position of asking for their help. 

9. Elevate your classmates

All social work students are united by a common struggle…to survive school!

Try to grow your social work community by performing acts of service for classmates. 

Lend a hand when needed. Celebrate other’s wins, praise their achievements, and give without expecting to receive.

Again, there may come a time when you have to call in a favor. Now’s the time to start collecting brownie points.

10. Raise your voice

Whether it’s conducting a one-on-one therapy session, facilitating a group, or advocating for social justice, confidence is key to our success as social workers.

If you think confidence is something we are all born with, think again. Confidence is a trait that can be cultivated through practice. You can get the ball rolling while still in social work school by speaking up.

Sharing our thoughts and experiences in front of our peers is an act of courage. It requires that we be emotionally vulnerable and open ourselves to the possibility of being ignored, judged, or criticized.

Given many of our classmates are little more than acquaintances, we may have little cause to trust that what we say will be heard and respected. 

Still, there’s no better forum in which to make mistakes than in school. Mistakes are, after all, how we best learn.

Consider the fact that you have a unique perspective that others may from hearing. Silencing yourself thus deprives others of the chance to grow and learn. 

Speak your passion, and chances are you’ll energize others to do the same.

11. Be a proactive learner

We are all ultimately responsible for our own professional development. So any time you identify a gap in your knowledge or skill set, think of ways you can close that gap.

If you don’t understand course content, approach your lecturer after class and get them to clarify.

If you need to brush up on your clinical skills, ask your field supervisor for more in-depth training. Reach out to faculty members to see if they have additional resources that they can share. 

Should your budget allow, purchase additional trainings from a reputable nonprofit organization like PESI and split the cost with your classmates.

Failing that, a quick Google search can yield an array of free manuals, demonstrations, and tutorials.

If you think you’d benefit from constructive feedback, don’t be afraid to request it from someone you trust and know has your best interests at heart. 

Finally, consider finding a mentor to help guide you on your journey. You can start by identifying someone you admire within your social work school. 

Cultivate a relationship with this staff member. Then seek out their insights and support.

Wrap up

Social work school is certainly a challenging experience. But engaging fully with that experience will pay dividends.

The degree to which you exercise curiosity, organization, dedication, and resourcefulness now can help determine your ability to overcome many of the obstacles you’ll encounter later in the field.

You should treat your MSW as a trial run; a chance to internalize and embody principles so often preached by this profession. You can do this by advocating for yourself, while striving to empower others.

By setting good habits and establishing best practices now, you’ll both ease your way and lay the groundwork for a happy—and healthy—career.

You can read more social work-related posts here.

The first step towards an anti-oppressive social work practice? Understanding intersectionality

essy knopf intersectionality
Reading time: 9 minutes

Intersectionality teaches us that identity is complex, made up of a variety of factors including race, gender, class,1 ethnicity, age, sexuality, and physical ability.

How these aspects of self interact with power structures and cultural interpretations2 and shape our experiences of privilege and power, oppression and disadvantage, are the crux of discussions about intersectionality.

Critical Race Theorists argue that having a minority identity, such as being Black in a society in which White dominance and structural racism is the norm, will lead to some level of oppression while being the dominant identity—White—will result in the opposite experience.3 4

Racism, just like ableism, ageism, ethnocentrism, heterosexism, transphobia, and sexism are all forms of oppression. They are not universal, but reflections of power differentials produced by those with dominant identities. In North America, these typically are “White”, “male”, “heterosexual”, and “Christian”.5

The oppression experienced by a Black person is only further exacerbated when they also share additional “targeted” identities such as “having a disability” and being lesbian, which brings its own share of minority stresses.6

But say you were all three of these things and a member of the upper-class. This would complicate matters by adding some degree of privilege to the power differential equation.

Selfhood thus is the result of “potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties, and allegiances”.7 This is the puzzling truth of intersectionality: nothing is ever as clear-cut as it might seem.

In the following paragraphs, I will use my own experiences as a case study about the intricate—and sometimes contradictory—nature of having intersectional identities.

An introduction to intersectionality

I identify as a person of color and someone who has an intellectual disability (Asperger syndrome). I also identify as a gay male.

My identity thus is neither single nor unitary, but the product of innate traits such as genetics, gender, and sexual preference, as well as self-selection and social construction.8

To elaborate: while I was raised in Australia, I never felt anchored to this nationality, nor to that of my parents, given I had limited access to their home countries and cultures: Iran and the US. 

I was raised in what I perceived to be a White dominant culture, and knew that my olive skin color led people to view me as non-White, or at the very least an “honorary White”.9

My awareness of being non-White was only heightened through conflict or oppressive microaggressions—“small acts of racism, consciously or unconsciously perpetrated”10—such as being called a racial slur by a stranger at age six.

In the wake of 9/11, some high school peers began altering my name until it resembled either “Saddam Hussein” or “Osama bin Laden”.

While motivated by the desire to order the world, these categorizations marked me as both inferior and outsider, imposing upon me a racial identity that conformed with a racial essentialism stereotype.11

According to this stereotype, all Middle Easterners are Muslims, and therefore terrorists, patriarchs, misogynists, and anti-Western.12 These post-9/11 racial scripts13 were reductive and failed to respect the unique and multifaceted nature of my identity.14

My racial identity, in this case, was not an “objective, inherent, or fixed” quality corresponding to a “biological or genetic reality”, but the product of social construction;15 a shaping through “social and cultural contexts, public discourses, national myths, and intergroup relations”.16

In being identified as Middle Eastern, I was grouped with a devalued “target”, to be dominated, oppressed, and marginalized by “agent” groups.17 

the thoughtful gay intersectionality

The social construction of oppression

The oppressive experiences I described here were not the product of mere individual prejudices and attitudes, however, but rather a cycle of socialization designed to reinforce racist patterns of privilege and oppression.18

This socialization triggered in me a sense of shame and guilt about the way I looked, in turn giving rise to internalized racism. Those drove me to shun all aspects of my own perceived “otherness”19 during future social interactions.

Growing up in Australia, I learned in school that these racist patterns were the product of legislation, such as the cultural assimilation policies of the 1940s and 1950s.

There was also the White Australia Policy, which limited immigration of all non-British people and was only abolished in 1975 with the Racial Discrimination Act.20

Despite the Australian government’s subsequent embrace of multiculturalism, it seemed to me that the commonly held social expectation remained one of assimilation.

If you failed to speak English with an Australian accent or to use Australian slang, if you subscribed to “foreign” religions such as Islam, or if you refused to embrace tokenistic aspects of Australian culture such as enjoying barbeques, the beach, and sports, you faced possible mockery and marginalization.

This I now understand was more than standard “ingroup” behavior, whereby members’ identities are reaffirmed by their exclusion of “outgroup” members.21

It was, rather, a process of socialization oriented towards sustaining “White, male, heterosexual, Christian institutional and economic power”.22

The tyranny of heteronormativity

This process began in school, with the daily enforcement of rigid gender scripts.23 Males were expected to have a keen interest in sports, to regularly prove their athletic prowess, to speak in clipped, monosyllabic sentences, and to limit their facial expressions.

Any kind of weakness was not tolerated. Expressing emotions or empathy was frowned upon. Judgment, dismissal, or exclusion among boys and men were the three methods by which I saw this toxic masculinity socialized.

In this sense, one’s gender “membership” often felt uncertain—prone to being retracted by one’s peers at the slightest infraction. 

Every aspect of how one presented or conducted oneself felt open to scrutiny. If you had a lisp, gestured too much, or walked in a certain way, you could be declared “girly”, “pansy”, or even a “f****t”.

To be called gay was to be ruled an abject failure as a male, a dirty sexual deviant, and a threat to the social order.

Once accused, you would invariably find yourself pushed to the bottom of the social pecking order.

Given my various Asperger-related traits, such as my unusual gait and style of speaking, I found myself excluded and bullied by members of privileged agent social groups; specifically, White, neurotypical, heterosexual boys and men. 

How oppression can accumulate

This “othering” I think was also the product of ableist assumptions that those with disabilities lack intelligence and are helpless and incapable of assuming care for themselves.24 

In a culture that codes masculinity as being self-sufficient, people with disabilities accordingly fail the acid test. 

Consider that when my impairment was revealed—upon committing a social gaffe, for example—some people would respond by calling me “stupid” or “r*****ed”. 

While my disability might seem mild to some, my different style of thinking and behaving was nevertheless picked up by the finely attuned senses of agent group members, who would cut in line ahead of me at the cafeteria, turn away upon my approach, and exclude me from social gatherings. 

Where I had internalized racism as a survival mechanism, I also learned to internalize ableism and homophobia, hiding my struggles and my sexuality where possible.

I endured sensory sensitivities that made sitting in a classroom difficult, but fear of inviting victim-blaming25 however kept me from ever complaining or seeking support.

For to be perceived as disabled or gay would mean I would lose certain privileges, such as the social acceptance afforded to my “normal” and straight peers,26 and even incur their hostility and oppression.

A toxic masculinity cocktail

My aversion to revealing any vulnerability was the product of a socialized script of self-sufficient masculinity.

This script in turn stemmed from the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps/equal playing field” beliefs that have come to define both North American27 and Australian culture.

Australia for example has long conceived of itself as the land of the “fair go”, where everyone has a chance of getting ahead, with the nation priding itself for its apparent egalitarianism.28

The bootstrapping/equal playing field beliefs value self-sufficiency, as well as a formal conception of equality, whereby everyone is entitled to the same treatment.

That same conception however fails to acknowledge that people operate within power structures that either inflict disadvantage or fail to make adequate accommodations for those who face it, such as people with disabilities.29 

While I reconciled with my sexuality in my early 20s, it was not much later, after my Asperger diagnosis at age 26, that I was able to name the problem identified above.

By calling out this ableism for what it was and recognizing how it pervaded all aspects of my life, I was finally able to embark on the road to liberation as described by Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire.30

My reality was no longer grounded in the belief that I was a bad person who deserved rejection. Instead, I now saw that I was someone who had been oppressed and disadvantaged.

Without a diagnosis, I had never had an adequate way of explaining my difference, or of receiving the therapeutic interventions that might have otherwise helped me overcome my interpersonal challenges. 

Intersectionality: sometimes a target, sometimes an agent

I recognize that for all these difficult experiences, there were instances in which I nevertheless enjoyed some power and privilege.

In some instances, I was a target, but in others, I was treated as an agent. As a male, I had unearned advantages and conferred dominance over females31 which, historically speaking, had enabled the former to objectify, sexually harass, and menace the latter.

Besides never having to fear such treatment, I enjoyed other privileges, such as never having to devote much attention to maintaining a gender normative appearance. Nor did I ever have to fear that the way I dressed might be blamed for my later rape.32

My male gender identity has also meant that where it comes to employment, I have a better chance of securing higher pay and a managerial role. As someone with lighter-colored skin, I also enjoy skin privilege.33

Identifying as cisgender means I have never been subjected to the kinds of everyday and major discrimination prejudice that many of my trans individuals have faced,34 sometimes even from within the LGBTQI+ community.

For instance, I can successfully “pass” as my chosen gender and can use public facilities without fear of intimidation or attack. The humiliation and hurt of being dead named or having my gender identity questioned have never been a reality for me.

Growing up as a member of the middle class, I enjoyed other privileges such as a stable home, three meals a day, the occasional vacation, and so on. My parents at one point were even able to secure a private education for me and my siblings. 

As an Australian, I never had to endure disadvantages and dangers other people of other nationalities might, such as extreme poverty, civil rights abuses, war, famine, water/food scarcity, natural disasters, genocide, totalitarian dictatorships, energy shortages, a lack of public infrastructure, rampant corruption, deadly pollution, and environmental degradation.

Like other Australians, I have been blessed with a home country renowned for its cultural diversity, fresh air, intact natural environments, low population density, strong public healthcare and welfare systems, low-interest government college loans, a low unemployment rate, and low crime rates.

My nationality has granted me the comfort of knowing there was always a safety net there, waiting to catch me in the event of personal disaster.

The conflicts and contradictions of intersectionality

In short, I experienced disadvantage as a person of color who had a disability and was gay, while also enjoying privileges as a lighter-skinned cisgender male, a member of the middle class, and an Australian.

Understanding that we can have cumulative disadvantages, or simultaneously face privilege and oppression, is what intersectionality is all about.

The contradictoriness that appears during intersectional inquiry reveals the problem with assuming what it is like to walk in another’s shoes. 

Intersectionality invites us to ask and to listen, to adopt a position of humility.

From such a position, we all stand a better chance of truly understanding and empathizing with one another’s experiences.

Such an understanding is crucial to our struggle as human beings for collective empowerment.

You can read more social work-related posts here.

Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Here’s how to be a better social justice warrior online

Essy Knopf social justice warriors
Reading time: 9 minutes

The term “social justice warriors” should mean advocates for progressive causes. Internet trolls however have tried to paint SJWs as social media “slacktivists” and political correctness police.

There may be an element of truth to this. We may not all be keyboard warriors ready to hold every wrongdoer to account, but many of us still use these platforms for activism, consciousness-raising, and community organization.

Social media in particular has empowered many marginalized individuals to challenge dominant narratives perpetuated by mass media and the oppressive systems they serve.1234

But when we threaten the status quo, we also threaten the privileged few it has long served. Given trolls themselves are typically members of these empowered groups—White males with a “certain degree of economic privilege”5—it’s no wonder they can be such tough critics.

Whether we are calling out ableism on Twitter or criticizing microaggressions on YouTube (here’s a handy guide to SJW terminology), it’s important that we always hold ourselves to a higher standard. 

By this, I mean that we remember our goal is as much interrupting oppression as it is inspiring individual change.

As social justice warriors, we can help others navigate the process of revising their beliefs and behaviors—but only if we act in a way that does not first alienate or create a toxic “us” vs. “them” mentality.

Social justice warriors are kind

When confronted with injustice and oppression, SJWs naturally feel compelled to speak out. The problem starts when we believe that our capacity for critical thinking gives us a license to simply be critical

If we lean into this belief, we adopt a holier-than-thou attitude. We task ourselves with fighting our many “enemies”, rather than seeing them as potential allies and stakeholders in the change we desire.678

Furthermore, being publicly called out over one’s conduct, whether online or offline usually entails some loss of face

For me, being corrected over something I have said on the grounds of it being incorrect and/or offensive has—at the very minimum—evoked embarrassment and defensiveness.

There have also been instances where I have found myself on the receiving end of a global attack on my privileges, my conduct, or my character.

These kinds of attacks have the potential to activate what Brené Brown terms “shame tapes”: “the messages of self-doubt and self-criticism that we [all] carry around in our heads”.9

Brown describes shame as the belief that our actions or inactions make us unworthy of love, belonging, or connection. So corrosive is this belief that it can erase our capacity to change.

When it doesn’t lead people to flee, it can cause them to double down, or to go into attack mode.

Where it comes to online advocacy and activism, controversy with civility certainly is possible, and necessary. 

Yet no matter how abominable the other person’s point of view or egregious their conduct, we as social justice warriors must remember that another’s capacity to grow can only be tapped so long as they feel respected and safe enough to concede there is room for improvement.

If we are courteous and kind, we create a low-threat environment in which these self-protective mechanisms are not necessary, and transformation is possible.

If we want to achieve any mutual understanding and/or consensus, it behooves us to build bridges, not walls—to borrow the words of Pope Francis.10

Anger over other’s wrongful behavior can be justified, but rarely is anger alone a motivator to change. For us to move forward as a society, we must be willing to forgive.

By forgiveness, I am not suggesting we overlook individual responsibility or accountability. Nor am I proposing we permit or enable oppression.

Rather, I am reminding readers that—in the words of Desmund Tutu—”every one of us is both inherently good and inherently flawed. Within every hopeless situation and every seemingly hopeless person lies the possibility of transformation”.11

SJWs are humble 

Wise social justice warriors know that when we appoint ourselves the arbitrator of right and wrong, we fail to admit to our fallibility. We forget that we too at some point have been wrong.

For example, derogatory terms regarding people with disabilities are so ingrained in Australian slang that to call something “r******d” or “s*****c” often does not warrant a second thought.

It was only once I was diagnosed with a disability that I came to truly understand how hurtful and oppressive such terms could be.

In the years since I have encountered people for whom the use of these terms was also a product of habit rather than outright maliciousness. Offensive as they have since become for me, I have had to remind myself that I once was no different. 

Social justice warriors know that language can be oppressive. A humble SJW however understands that penalizing others over perceived technicalities or semantics does not facilitate dialogue.

Practicing humility also means being willing to front up to our own mistakes, before we expect others to admit to their own. It also means acknowledging we can choose how we react to those of others.

In the words of Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness”.12

When we lash out at those who trigger our emotions, we are also missing a valuable opportunity for personal growth.

If taking personal responsibility for our feelings feels impossible, then perhaps it is best we take a step back, reflect, practice self-compassion, and seek the professional support and healing we need.

Remember: feeling aggrieved or believing ourselves to be on the right side of history does not grant us a hall pass to punish, humiliate, antagonize, or bully.

SJWs are curious

Effective social justice warriors know that consciousness-raising does not follow a hypodermic needle model. We don’t simply “inject” information into our audience and expect our lessons to somehow stick.

Rather than brutalizing others with our beliefs, we should aim instead to sensitize them, through rapport- and relationship-building. 

Online, this may be difficult. Exchanges tend to be fleeting and sometimes ill-considered. Who here hasn’t once shot from the hip, firing off a furious email or direct message into the ether?

Digital environments remove many of the inhibitions that stop us from otherwise engaging in antisocial behaviors, resulting in a phenomenon known as the Online Disinhibition Effect.

We can see this effect at play when we try to set “wrongdoers” right online, imposing viewpoints and forcing confrontations. As noted already, these behaviors do not nurture empathy. Rather, they feed conflict.

Shifting worldviews requires that we and our dialogue partners unpack the thinking behind them. 

Broadminded SJWs recognize that worldviews are a product of valid life experiences and values—values which are not always self-selected but are imposed by “cultural norms, policies, laws, and public opinion”.13

With time and patience, and by getting curious and asking questions, we may be able to help others uncover discrepancies between our dialogue partners’ thoughts and values, generate cognitive dissonance, and, hopefully, action.

essy knopf social justice warriors

SJWs are empathetic

By modeling openness, we create an environment in which empathy can flourish. And to reiterate: unless a baseline of empathy has been first established, a stranger may not be willing to hear all you have to say.

Combining the qualities mentioned above—kindness, mindfulness, humility, and curiosity—can thus increase our chances drastically.

“We should look upon others with respect,” wrote Baháʼí leader ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

“When attempting to explain and demonstrate, we should speak as if we are investigating the truth. [We] should speak with the utmost kindliness, lowliness, and humility, for such speech exerteth influence and educateth the souls.”14

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s words are echoed by Buddhist spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh, who counsels us to employ “loving speech”.

By speaking in a way that inspires hope, forgiveness, and compassion, and by treating all who cross our paths with understanding and generosity of spirit—whatever their beliefs—we can move towards reconciliation and resolution.15

Nhat Hanh suggests that before trying to change others, we should instead practice “deep listening”: 

“Even if [the other person] says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion. Because you know that listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less. If you want to help him to correct his perception, you wait for another time. For now, you don’t interrupt. You don’t argue. If you do, he loses his chance. You just listen with compassion and help him to suffer less. One hour like that can bring transformation and healing.”16

SJWs pick their battles

A wise SJW seeks to clarify intent and meaning, rather than condemning others outright. Automatically presuming bad intent on behalf of our dialogue partner is a one-way ticket to nowhere.

That said, attention-seekers who have no time for respectful dialogue and are only interested in winning debates are best avoided. 

Likewise, when confronted by hate speech, the most judicious course of action usually involves blocking and reporting the perpetrators.

As per the aphorism “don’t feed the trolls”, we should avoid such toxic and ultimately futile exchanges, and consider instead engaging in self-care.

To that point, social justice warriors should recognize that some settings are not naturally conducive to meaningful or purposeful dialogue. 

For example, when we are interacting with strangers on Twitter, we have no reason to believe our point of view will be acknowledged, respected, and given careful consideration. 

Anonymity and the absence of the usual social checks and balances mean that exchanges of opinion on social media can quickly devolve into mud-slinging matches.

And given social media platforms abound with bots and trolls, we may have no way of knowing whether the views put forth in response even belong to a real person. 

Which begs the question: what is your goal in initiating or continuing an interaction online? What do you hope to achieve by challenging and contending? 

And more importantly, is there a basis for which you can cultivate awareness and change, or would your energies best be spent elsewhere?

For many of us, our first glimpse of social justice activism was a social media post. Yet so long as we choose to engage at the level of a Twitter argument—which, let’s face it, are rarely productive—we won’t be any closer to creating the better world we dream of.

This is not to say that calling out perceived oppressions in some situations can’t be a valuable practice. But doing so can potentially lead us to categorize and even demonize someone on the basis of some privileged facet of their identity.

Intersectionality teaches us that each individual comprises multiple “potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties, and allegiances”,17 all of which interact in different ways with power structures and cultural interpretations.18

Given our various identities operate in tandem, it is impossible to focus on one, to the exclusion of all others.19

Judging someone on the basis of a perceived privileged identity thus is reductive and presumptuous, especially when we know often know next to nothing about an online dialogue partner.

Social justice warriors practice self-reflection

Social media platforms, as we all know by now, rely upon algorithms to filter content, biasing what users see in their social media feeds according to what they have previously engaged with.20

This has resulted in an “echo chamber” effect, in which social media users are presented with information that confirms existing biases while ensuring the only contact they have is with others they perceive to be fundamentally similar.

This echo chamber effect has been credited with ushering in an era of post-truth politics, fueling tribalism, fanning the fires of culture wars, and contributing to the extremely polarized state of modern politics in the U.S.

The lack of transparency around how these algorithms operate unfortunately means that our ability to reach many people—especially those of opposing political views—is often limited.

Even more problematic is the fact that these algorithms may lead us into believing our chamber reflects an “essential” conception of reality, rather than one shaped by our values and opinions.

Not being exposed to anything that deviates from this perceived reality can have the effect of reinforcing existing worldviews. We may become less and less aware of our own biases and prejudices and prone to invalidating “the cognitions and realities of those who are different”.21

As aspiring changemakers, we can’t afford to be dogmatic. Rather, we must be willing to step out of our ideological echo chambers, reflect on our own biases, and be open to taking other perspectives.

Only when we do this can we truly “dialogue across difference”2223 and forge the relationships that are so crucial to change.

In the words of pioneering American social worker Jane Addams: “Social advance depends as much upon the process through which it is secured as upon the result itself”.24