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Social Work's Identity Crisis, and Mine

Why should a profession built on such solid values question itself? Why did I?

Key points

  • An identity crisis can lead to a new identity. Having a profession is an important marker of identity for many people.
  • Social work as a field is having its own identity crisis, but it coheres around values of empowerment, advocacy, and social justice.
  • The drive to self-actualize and self-transcend, identified by Abraham Maslow and other humanist psychologists and psychiatrists, is compelling.

I began writing this blog to help me figure how to define myself as a successful person when I had experienced very little of what the world considers success for an individual. And by world I mean my own part of the world, the world of educated professionals. I was not a professional, despite my education, and this ate at me most fiercely. I washed up on the shores of Regret and Should’ve, questioning my focus on writing novels and on being a mother. Worthy endeavors, but I couldn’t see them that way, because they didn’t amount to resumé entries. They were not professional success. I became something of a psychologist-manque, reading up on success and flourishing and goals, steeping in the tea of Positive Psychology and serving it up to you, entertaining myself and others with my forays. Then that work led me to teach at the college level, teaching students how to write and research through the lens of defining success. That was fun for a while, but I realized I was more interested in what my students were going through and in the ideas I was introducing to them than I was in teaching. I made another change.

A pivot.

And now I am almost through my first year of a Master’s in Social Work, on my way to becoming a psychotherapist. I will have a profession for the remainder of my working life. I have solved the question of my professional identity, or at least resolved it, or in fact, re-solved it, and I feel satisfied and energized by my choice. One of the things that brought me here was Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which supposes that humans are born with an inner drive to self-actualization and self-transcendence. I guess I buy it. My basic needs are met, and I have really examined myself by this fifth decade of life, and now I’m on to self-actualization and self-transcendence, characterized, according to Maslow, by a desire to give to others. Oh, it sounds lofty and kind of embarrassing, but it is true. I want to turn outward and help others. If I can help others to find their own selves, then I will be helping make the world a little better.

Tikkun Olan. This is a Jewish value: Repair the world. Make the world a little better any way you can. Maybe I won’t make art through writing novels, but maybe by becoming a therapist, I will do my small mending.

Indeed. It is with irony that I report that through my own identity crisis, I have found a new identity in a profession that turns out to have its own identity crisis. I have read many articles this academic year that touch on aspects of the social work identity. The field of social work: it’s vast and encompasses many job descriptions, from policy wonk to hospital administrator to school counselor to social justice advocate to community organizer to organizational consultant to my goal, the psychotherapist LCSW in her office seeing clients. Most recently, I read an article about how social work has influenced psychoanalysis, and along the way, how psychoanalysis has informed social work to the frustration of the Ph.D., those who are annoyed when social workers practice psychotherapy (Goldstein, 2009).

This seems to the good, I think, this convergence of psychoanalysis and social work. To the social work focus of how external systems—family, community, polity—affect an individual’s psychological state, psychoanalysis has admixed theories of human development and its disorders; to psychoanalysis, social work has lent its wisdom of advocating for social justice and viewing some of the individual’s problems as originating not in the Unconscious, but in society. Person-in-environment is a phrase in social work that reflects the belief that problem-solving with clients must take into account not only the person but also where they live and work. Tikkun Olan aligns well with social work values, too, values such as social justice, empowerment, and advocacy.

Why should a profession built on such solid values question itself? Perhaps questioning is good, leading to reaffirming or realigning as necessary. My period of questioning myself has passed. Yet the article angsts about the bleeding of the social work identity through this mixing (Goldstein, 2009). Social workers are looked down upon by Ph.D. psychologists, who are looked at askance by M.D. psychiatrists. Should social workers be allowed into psychoanalytic training, or should it be reserved for the M.D. and Ph.D.? What about the Psy.D? I find it exhausting, to be honest. Does it matter? I find myself wondering. Does the jockeying for position, the angling for credibility, the angsting over reputation matter? What’s important is the work. Social work is a helping profession, and we all know how much respect the helping professions garner.

I find this position of mine ironic since all these concerns really etched my life for several years while I tried to find a position with a label that I felt I could be proud to wear. Prestige mattered. The labels were judgments. I view this whole struggle within my new profession with a gentle, distant empathy, while I plod on, looking forward to my next year’s classes and to my license.


Goldstein, E. (2009). The Relationship Between Social Work and Psychoanalysis: The Future Impact of Social Workers. Clinical SocialWork J (2009) 37:7–13. DOI 10.1007/ s10615-007-0090-8