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A Note On The Meaning of Professionalism

November 12, 2010

Years ago I participated in a  social work training in Salt Lake City under the auspices of the Division of Child & Family Services (DCFS). A group leader asked the social workers, most young and relatively inexperienced, what “professional” meant  to them.

“Someone who does his job exactly and follows all the rules,” said one.  “A professional doesn’t let his personal feelings come into play when he’s doing his job,” said a man.  “Professionalism means aways  diligently doing your duty, just doing your job regardless of how you  think or feel.”  These  responses left me dissatisfied and dismayed. These comments are not so much false as just… inadequate.

Here I must confess to a pet peeve: I think a real professional is someone with specific, special knowledge and skills most people lack;  who has an internalized set of values that includes a sense of responsiblity and compassion for others; who, because he is not just a generic “hired hand,” has greater autonomy when it comes to deciding how to organize his work and exercise his or her judgement in how best to proceed.

As yesterday’s blog entry about the ICF/MR shows, in the minds of many employers, corporate leaders, and bureaucrats, “professional” simply means a “good solider” who does exactly what he’s told. Someone who never questions but only obeys. A dutiful subordinate whose job is to sit down, shut up, and do what he’s told.  A mindless person who never objects to idiocy and destructive orders: “You are not paid to think!” On the contrary, any genuine professional is paid to think, to use his or her brains,  to exercise her or his judgment, and be guided in approaching tasks by his/her  skills, education, integrity, and experience.

*If your job is simply to sit down, shut up, and do what you are told, you are not a professional no matter what your employers tell you. 

A related trend that bothers me is that decisions about psychotherapy  appear to being made by people have no background in the field and don’t believe in it.  Many high-ranking decision makers in what is increasingly called ” The Mental Health Industry” are individuals who have no education, training, skills, or experience in doing psychotherapy. they think it’s just a fancy, pretentious  word for advice-giving. Others became administrators when they found out they had no success and no aptitude for psychotherapy and counseling. The trend seems to be towards “meds and case management”, that is, psychiatric medications and common-sense supportive counseling by bachelor’s level “Case Managers”. Many decision-makers ( in agencies and insurance companies)  I’ve listened to seem to have a simplistic, dismissive attitude towards genuine psychotherapy: “Heck, you let people ventilate and get it all off their chest. Then when they’ve calmed down you give them common-sense advice. What’s so complicated about that? Almost anybody can do that.”

Yes, there is lousy, ineffective therapy and almost no therapist is right for everybody (I know I’m not) but good therapy with the right therapist can really change you life and get you out of ruts you’ve been in for years.

Basta  ya! Enough! That’s my rant for this evening.  Time to get off my soapbox. It was getting kinda windy up there!

Thanks for reading.

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