In order to be in a position of helping others, one must be ready to take great responsibility in a variety of challenging situations. In the social work field, there are many measurable ways to build the competence required to begin working with clients, but one of the most important qualities a social worker must have cannot be quantified: self awareness, which is developed through your own self-questioning and observation.

There are many reasons why self awareness can help people in life, from improving their ability to connect and empathize with others to helping them clarify their goals and how to make them happen. In a way, self awareness is a form of maturity, as it will help you acknowledge and remedy some of the things that challenge you and value the things that you excel at.

So why is self awareness important in social work? The article below will answer that question, helping you understand not only how to build your own self awareness but how it will enhance your performance as a social worker, with benefits to your personal life as well.

social worker talking with teen

What Is Self Awareness?

In a way, self awareness is as straightforward as it sounds: it is a recognition of one’s own perspective, from their in-the-moment feelings and responses to their surroundings to the way that their own background and experience informs their view of the world. Though this may sound simple enough, actually acquiring the psychological and emotional tools needed to reflect honestly on one’s position and perspective can be difficult. It is helpful to think of building self awareness as a journey with no endpoint – rather, one should always strive to be more self aware, for the sake of their interactions with the outside world as well as their ability to sense your own feelings and needs.

Self awareness is part of what the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) calls social and emotional learning, which is the way that children and adults alike perceive the emotional needs of those around them to build healthier and more supportive relationships.

People begin to naturally develop their self awareness in childhood and adolescence, as they engage in different contexts where they meet others and navigate experiences of difference. However, these experiences can make people feel as much confusion as clarity. This is why it can be helpful in adult life to reassess one’s own perspective and positionality, with the maturity to make an honest, compassionate, and constructive self evaluation.

Why Is Self Awareness Important in Social Work?

Social workers work with a huge variety of people who come from diverse backgrounds and have different specialized needs. If you are a social worker, chances are you will at some point end up working with individuals, families, or even communities that are different from your own. This means it must be part of a social worker’s agenda to bridge some of the barriers that might exist in the client-worker relationship in social work.

In most social work contexts, what’s crucial in providing assistance to a person in need is connection and trust. It can be daunting and intimidating for those who need social work services to take the next steps to get the help they need, and the presence of a supportive, empathetic, non-judgmental social worker will help ensure that they continue to take the initiative to get help.

However, bridging gaps between yourself and your clients does not mean that you need to change who you are, and of course it isn’t possible to change where you come from. People are able to connect and engage with one another across huge differences in their experiences. This is where self awareness comes into play.

Self awareness means knowing your strengths and limitations, allowing you to engage with your clients with honesty, candor, and integrity. It also helps you carry out your job with sensitivity and open mindedness.

So what is self awareness in social work, and how can it impact one’s performance as a social worker? If you are in touch with what you’re bringing to the table, your humility and self effacement will build trust with your client. Further, it will make it easier for you to process your own reactions to the people and situations you are working with, helping you sense your feelings and dealing with them accordingly as you make efforts to help others. 

Therapeutic Use of Self

In fact, some practitioners have embraced self awareness not only as a governing principle of their practice but as an actual clinical method. This is known as the therapeutic use of self, which is when a therapist or social worker intentionally acknowledges and articulates their own perspective to clients as part of the therapeutic process. This can help your clients connect to you as a person, opening up opportunities to build trust and deepen the support you are able to give them. When considering the question of what is self awareness in social work, this is among the most clear-cut and actionable ways it might appear.

distributing food to the needy

Building Cultural Competence

One buzzword that’s often used in social work communities is “cultural competence.” In fact, the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) Code of Ethics names self awareness as one of its most important standards for building cultural competence, stating, “Social workers shall demonstrate an appreciation of their own cultural identities and those of others. Social workers must also be aware of their own privilege and power and must acknowledge the impact of this privilege and power in their work with and on behalf of clients.”

There are many different arenas that inform this concept of cultural identity. These can include:

  • Socioeconomic differences
  • Racial and ethnic differences
  • Gender identity differences
  • Sexual orientation differences
  • Religious differences
  • Differences in physical and mental ability

Indeed, these factors can greatly inform one’s experience of the world, affecting how they are treated by others, what types of opportunities they get (or do not get), what the norms and values of their community are, and more. This is why for a social worker, it’s imperative to reflect on one’s own cultural identity, understanding the biases and values that you might bring to the table.

Other Circumstantial Factors

In addition to the cultural factors outlined above, there are also many factors that are not related to one’s demographic position that inform can one’s perspective including the following:

  • One’s family life growing up
  • Experiences of trauma
  • Addiction issues
  • Health issues
  • Unhealthy and abusive relationships in past and present life

These circumstantial factors can have a tremendous bearing on one’s point of view. By reflecting on how factors like this may influence your own approach to the world, you can start seeing how your own reactions to people and situations are unique to you, and develop a better ability to understand why others navigate in the way they do. This is another important dimension of the question of what is self awareness in social work.

Appreciating Difference and Finding Common Ground

In building cultural competence and considering the other circumstantial factors that can shape a person’s point of view, it can be easy to focus on the differences between you and those you work with. But it’s important to remember that for as many points of divergence you may have with someone, there are also other important factors that you share. These could be easily nameable things, such as a shared religion, or things that emerge as you get to know them better.

In finding places where you and your client relate, you’re building your own ability to empathize with their experience. You’re also laying the foundations for your client to trust you, building a relationship from which you can truly offer your help.

This approach can help you see the positive in challenging experiences and help you navigate your social work job with confidence.

woman looking up

Self Awareness Tips

So what is self awareness in social work? How can self awareness be incorporated into your work life? If you are trying to learn how to be self aware, take a look at our tips below to help enhance your client worker relationships in social work and your overall job performance as well.

  • Ask exploratory questions to reflect on your perspective. If you’re wondering how to be self aware, a few of the best questions to ask yourself include the following:
    • What aspects of my background influence how I see the world?
    • What opinions do those in my community share that might not be held by other communities?
    • Are there those in my life who challenge my assumptions and beliefs? If so, how do I respond? If not, how could I respond compassionately even while in disagreement with someone?
  • Take stock of your strengths and weaknesses. Most importantly, when thinking about the question of why is self awareness important in social work, it’s worth reflecting on in regards to your own job performance. Maybe you’ve received a performance review with explicit feedback on areas where you need to improve, or maybe you have had professional experiences where you’ve felt especially challenged. Knowing your strengths helps you identify how you can most help people. Knowing your weaknesses, meanwhile, can in some cases show you what kind of responsibilities just aren’t right for you and in other cases identify areas where you can build skill and understanding.
  • Know your own sensitivities and triggers. Many social workers go into the field because they have experienced their own hardships and would like to put their hard-earned wisdom toward helping others. This is admirable and can provide a tremendous help to those in need. However, it’s important that those who have chosen this path recognize when they are personally triggered or upset by a situation that arises at work. For the sake of your own mental health and your ability to help your clients, it’s important to protect yourself from cases that will emotionally impact you in a way that is overwhelming or destructive.
  • Define your boundaries and set them with those around you. It can be intimidating to set boundaries out of a concern that others will want more from you. However, by setting boundaries, you’re actually investing in a long-term relationship, offering what you think is sustainable and productive. This requires self-awareness, because you will have to reflect on your own needs (as informed by your strengths and weaknesses) in order to define the boundaries you need.
  • Reflect on your own habits. Take a look at your day to day life and identify your habits. Beyond setting the pace for your day, habits can be outlets for emotional, physical, and psychological needs. At worst, habits can be unhealthy, taking up too much space in your life. But not all habits are harmful, and you don’t need to evaluate yourself harshly. Rather, it’s just important to be aware of what behaviors and expectations might be particular to you and not apply to others.

Of course, the question of what is self awareness in social work can vary dramatically depending on the context, the clients you work with, and who you are. These methods are just a few of the best ways to open up a dialogue with yourself about what you are bringing to the table and how you might best be able to reach people.

More Resources for Social Workers

Now that you have answered the question, “Why is self awareness important in social work?,” you may want to look into additional resources to help social workers do their best work while optimizing their work-life balance to protect their mental health in the long term. If you are a social worker looking to build more tools and strategies to effectively help others, take a look at our guides on the importance of empathy in social work and how to set professional boundaries in a social work setting.

It is a point of pride for social workers that their profession has been integral to important civic causes, from the Civil Rights Movement to disability advocacy to welfare reform. To learn more about the inspiring history of social work and its meaningful relationship to societal change, take a look at the pioneers of social work.