Over the years, I've had many Highly Sensitive Social Workers ask me how they can stop taking things so personally at work. So, I’ve decided to share my experience with taking client feedback to heart. By the end of this blog post, you’ll have the steps I took to stop taking things so personally at work and some tips to help you do the same.
A few weeks ago, I asked my Instagram community if they had questions about High Sensitivity and Social Work.
This is one of the questions I received:
“How you don’t take things so personally?
For example, how do you not take it to heart when a client says you're not helping them?”
If you’re new to Social Work, feedback like this might be your worst fear.
And if you’ve been in the field for a while, you may have learned by now that clients don't always gush with gratitude after you work with them; some may not feel they benefited at all.
Wherever you are in your career, if you’ve put your heart, time, energy, sweat, and tears into supporting someone, it’s hard to hear that your efforts were not helpful.
This type of feedback may hit particularly hard if you’re a Highly Sensitive Person.
What Does Taking Things Personally Have to Do With Being a Highly Sensitive Person?
As Highly Sensitive People (HSPs), we tend to take things more personally than our non-HSP colleagues. This is partly because we have more active mirror neurons that pick up the feelings and energy of others. We process this information deeply and feel any emotions that arise strongly!
So when the client (that you’re doing your best to support) tells you that they don’t feel you’re helping them, you might deeply feel their disappointment, or frustration, or helplessness in your body.
Feeling others' emotions so intensely, might lead you to believe that their emotional response has something to do with you, and that you're responsible for doing something about it! Your strong sense of empathy means that you really care about what the other person is feeling. You want to alleviate their suffering.
But being an HSP doesn’t mean you’re doomed to always take things personally!
Not taking my clients’ emotional responses and comments personally has taken me years of practice (and occasionally I still get triggered). I’ve found ways to respond to my own discomfort when someone else is suffering or disappointed by my actions, and ways to maintain healthy emotional boundaries that keep me grounded when receiving feedback from clients.
Here’s What Has Help Me Stop Taking Client Feedback So Personally:
1. Working On My Self-Worth
Early in my career, my self-worth was deeply tied to my ability to help others. This meant that if my efforts were NOT helpful to the person I was supporting, I would feel unworthy, not enough, and like there was something wrong with ME.
I’ve learned that my worth is inherent and unwavering, regardless of whether I help others. Working on my sense of self-worth beyond helping others, and seeing my innate value as a human being has really helped me not take things as personally.
2. Establishing Emotional Boundaries
Previously, feeling other people’s emotions left me feeling like I was responsible for “fixing” them. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I actually had porous emotional boundaries and was unable to separate my own emotions from the emotions of others.
The reality is that we are each responsible for acknowledging, feeling, expressing, and processing our own emotions. Nobody else can do this for us.
As I established healthy emotional boundaries, I could recognize what was mine to carry and process and what belonged to my clients. As I worked at letting folks be responsible for their own emotions, I began to sit and witness my client’s emotions with compassion without feeling like they were somehow my fault.
3. Widening My Perspective
Over the years, I’ve learned that there are many reasons a client might feel like our work together isn’t helping them, many of which have nothing to do with me.
They may have different expectations about what I'm able to offer; they may be triggered by something in their past that makes them feel like they’re not being seen, heard, helped, etc. And some people are simply not ready or able to receive and engage in the type of help I'm offering.
This broader perspective (that it’s not ALL about me) allows me to approach my clients’ feedback from a place of curiosity. Hmm, I wonder what’s going on here?
It allows me to explore with them what they are feeling, what they are thinking, and what they need. Then I can assess whether there is something I need to change or can offer differently to better support them.
4. When Appropriate, I Make Amends
There are, of course, situations where I have made mistakes and unintentionally caused harm. I’m human, after all, and it's part of being in relationships with others; even with the best intentions, we'll occasionally cause harm.
In these instances, knowing that my worth and value are intact allows me to openly reflect on my actions with compassion, make amends, and learn from the experience. I view these situations as an opportunity to repair, rebuild, and learn. Like in any relationship, making amends can actually deepen trust and understanding.
Tips to Get You Started:
If you’d like to stop taking things so personally at work, here are a few tips to get you started…
Consider what messages you’ve received growing up in your family, at school and in your workplaces about what makes you valuable or worthy of attention, care, and love. Get curious about how these beliefs show up in your current work as a Social Worker.
Use your imagination to create an invisible barrier between you and others. You’ll be able to observe others’ emotions through this barrier, but you don’t have to absorb them and carry them around.
When you receive feedback from a client, write down your initial assumption about why they are telling you this. Then write down 2-3 other possibilities.
Think of a time when someone hurt you but apologized in a way that made you feel seen and heard. What was it about how they responded that helped you feel more connected with them? Consider how you can use this experience to improve your relationship with your clients when you need to make amends.
Don't Go It Alone
Deep inner work is required to improve your self-worth and implement emotional boundaries into your daily life so that you don’t take feedback at work so personally. I can help you along the way!
I’m taking everything I’ve learned through my 10+ years of being a Highly Sensitive Social Worker and putting it into a course that will launch this Fall! We’ll be diving deep into all things boundaries in the world of Social Work (including self-worth, emotional boundaries + so much more).