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'What about me?’ Author-researcher-insider-outsider-imposter conundrum

All professionals in health, social care, or education, have personal lives and experiences that influence who their values and practice. Gaining insight into who we are, what we bring, and how this impacts on every aspect of what we do – developing reflexivity – is a critical part of any vocational student’s journey. My teaching is saturated with the why and the how of managing our ‘selves’ as social workers. This week, in my role of research student, I was being asked about how I will manage the emotional aspect of my research. ‘What will be the impact on you, Caroline, and how will you manage it?’ A fair question. One that everybody asks me because my research topic is highly sensitive and involves parents whose child has died due to their mental health. I realised that I get defensive when I am asked this. This made me wonder how it is for my students when I’m drilling down into how they will protect their emotional wellbeing without avoiding what needs to be done. In this blog, I shall try to answer the question ‘what about me?’ and share my reflections in the hope that it might be useful for people trying to unpick their positions.


I am no stranger to reflecting on and dissecting how my personal and professional life inter-twine and sharing my musings with others. My recently published book, He Died Waiting, is a creative life narrative about my son, Tim, and what happened to me after his death. People tell me it’s a compelling story. It could also be described a hundred-thousand word critical reflection. But it is only a tiny part of a bigger story. A story that is my (somewhat complicated) life. Working out how the different aspects of my life interplay requires reflexivity. This is an ongoing, never-ending, thing that is sometimes hard and uncomfortable.


Never one to take the easy option, in 2019 I embarked on a part-time Professional Doctorate in Health and Social Care and settled on a research topic that looks at the lived experiences of bereaved parents in the aftermath of the death of their child. From the outset, I have been engaged in working out what my position is, where my boundaries will be, how I should approach the research without re-traumatising my participants, and throughout I have been considering what can I cope with. I have agonised over whether, and how, I should research this topic. I have read, and read, and read some more, to see what others have to say and how they manage similar concerns.


This week, I gave a presentation about my insider-outsider position to academics and other doctoral students. Imposter Syndrome surfaced as I exposed my ‘hokey-cokey’ like positioning dance to the scrutiny of people who are experienced researchers. I had a flash of empathy for my students with their assessed presentations as we managed the technology, timings, and questioning.


I was asked about the impact on me. Of course I was. It happens every time I talk about my research. I have spent months thinking really deeply and working this out, so why do I get a sinking feeling every time I am asked? I know, in great detail, how I plan to address this but it’s the question that blanks my mind and vague responses. I recognise that I feel irritated and defensive when people ask this perfectly reasonable question. Reflecting on why this might be, I think this is could be because the feelings, of being an imposter in the world of academic research, mirror those I have had at times about being Tim’s mum and the judgements heaped on me by others (and myself). I know that what worries me, about the emotional impact of my research on me, is not listening to other people’s traumatic stories or managing their distress but managing my feelings of not being good enough. If I feel I am 'doing something' it I feel good enough. My research will amplify some silenced voices. That will satisfy my need to act. I cannot take away their pain but I can be an activist. I do worry about re-traumatising people but I am much more likely to have an emotional wobble if I feel exposed as an imposter-researcher-academic than I am from my inadequacies in engaging with participants.


How do I know this?


From the moment Tim died, I have been managing (or sometimes not managing) how to juggle my personal and professional life. It’s been a journey and what I am prosing to do in my research would have been unthinkable, inadvisable, unsafe a few years ago. Newly bereaved, I was isolated but I found I had joined a peer group. Not one I ever wanted to join but whether I like it or not, I am ‘one of them’. Inescapably an insider researcher but not completely because everyone has a different experience. So, an outsider too because I am no longer in the awful aftermath of a traumatic death and I don’t know how other people feel. I’m embracing my bias and my insider position but I’m also genuinely curious to know more about different people’s experiences.


Writing He Died Waiting was therapeutic. It really helped me process my experiences and emotions. All I need with my continuing grief/love for Tim journey are the things that have served me well. Things that have proved to be effective self-care. My closest family and friends, my self-soothing strategies (sewing, writing, playing with my grandchildren) are sufficient. If I feel the need for an emotional top up from someone neutral I will get some counselling. The time is right for me to be doing this.


Sadly, I have got masses of experience in hearing bereaved people’s traumatic stories. Publishing my book has tested how I cope with this. I have had hundreds of messages and emails from people who listened to me on Woman’s Hour or who have read my book. What a privilege it is to hear these. I have developed a whole range of strategies of being caring and kind whilst protecting my emotional wellbeing. Hearing peoples' experiences does touch me deeply and I do have emotional reactions, but I somehow don't absorb them. I think in the early days of my social work career, sometimes I would find I was experiencing vicarious trauma particularly if I felt powerless to improve things. I haven't become immune other people's trauma, I have just found ways of processing it. I have ways of being clear about what feelings are mine and what are theirs. My strategies have been tested and I have coped without a research team to support me. Because it’s not research, it’s part of my everyday life. Asking me how I will manage the emotional load, of having painful conversations of someone who is bereaved, is like asking my husband how he lifts enormous planks of oak on a daily basis. He just says:'It's not heavy' when to everyone else it clearly is. He can heave wood that I couldn't even begin to shift because he's developed muscles and technique. Occasionally, he injures himself but he knows to rest and heal if he does. Similarly, if I need to rest and repair I will.


I wonder if people question how I will manage because they find it hard to conceptualise how they might undertake what I am proposing. Losing a child is not the ‘natural order’ of things so, thankfully, most people do not experience parental bereavement. There is a research void when it comes to the lived experiences of bereaved relatives exposed to inquests, NHS investigations, or professional responses following a death. Being a bereaved parent who is researching other bereaved parents’ experiences is not something many people do. So, I understand peoples’ concern for me. When I answer people, saying: ‘I’m okay I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think it was important and that I have the skills and self-care strategies to do it’, isn’t enough. I need to be more specific when I am asked about it.


And I’m back to thinking about my role as a lecturer. I am reflecting on the way I might ask questions that are intended as support but might feel like a criticism. Is this how students feel when I harp on about self-care or reflexivty? When I ask them how they are, if they need support or a break, or how they might be impacting a situation, do they feel scrutinised? What do I bring as the questioner? These are things I shall mull over and think about.


The icing on this week’s cake, was being sent a (very good and helpful) paper that pretty much summed up everything I have spent 18 months exploring to get to my justifiable, in-between, dynamic insider-outsider position. I laughed. Then, those all too familiar imposter feeling surfaced. Did everyone else already know this stuff? And, as is my way, I processed those feelings and restored equilibrium.


Feeling something of an imposter is pretty much part of the social work journey. I will continue to grapple with my author-researcher-insider-outsider-imposter conundrum. And brace myself …. because there are bound to be some unforeseen emotional difficulties to overcome.


For more information about my book please see my other blog posts. Particularly He Died Waiting: A Book with a Purpose, which explains what the book is about and why I wrote it.



References:

Aldridge, C. (2020). He Died Waiting: learning the lessons – a bereaved mother’s view of mental health services. Norwich. Learning Social Worker Publications.