The use of self in social work practice

Book chapter
Cooper, Andrew 2017. The use of self in social work practice. in: Bower, Marion and Solomon, Robin (ed.) What Social Workers Need to Know: A Psychoanalytic Approach Routledge. pp. 109-123
Authors Cooper, Andrew
Editors Bower, Marion and Solomon, Robin
Book title What Social Workers Need to Know: A Psychoanalytic Approach
Page range 109-123
Year 2017
Publisher Routledge
Deposited 14 Feb 2018
ISBN 9781138905665
Web address (URL)
Additional information This is an Accepted Manuscript of a book chapter published by Routledge in What Social Workers Need to Know: A Psychoanalytic Approach on 25.08.17, available online:
Accepted author manuscript AC Use of self final for publisher.pdf


Relationship based and therapeutic social work practice relies on us ‘using ourselves’ as a resource in direct work with service users. But what do we mean by the ‘self’ in this context, and how do we ‘use’ it? In this chapter I explore some psychoanalytically based answers to these questions, and present a number of case studies and clinical vignettes that illustrate different aspects of the use of self. Effective therapeutic social work is not primarily about using theory to understand other people or ourselves. Rather, it concerns a capacity for attunement to our emotional experience of ourselves in relation to others; attunement to the flow of emotional transactions between ourselves and our service users and colleagues, which are occurring constantly whether we choose to recognize them or not. This is why the use of self is so important. Concepts like transference, countertransference, projection and splitting can seem daunting, but they describe powerful processes that will destabilize our best intentions to practice effectively if we cannot track them and work with them as they are occurring. Equally, understanding how to recognize, track and make sense of the emotional dynamics that are always alive in our work deepens our practice, improves our performance, and our effectiveness and decision making, and helps protect us from the sometimes psychologically damaging impact of the work we do. In other words it is a core professional skill, perhaps the most central skill we need to develop, sustain and hone. The chapter begins with a detailed case study of one to one work and a series of reflective commentaries on this unfolding story. It then offers a further case study of multi-agency practice with a family where a newborn baby is deemed to be at risk, and some further reflective commentary. Finally some brief extracts from a case and how it ended are presented. Along the way a number of key concepts are introduced and readers interested in pursuing the more theoretical aspects of the chapter can follow up the references provided. A very helpful concise introduction to key concepts is Marion Bower’s (2005) chapter. But the focus of the present chapter is on the immediacy and power of the ‘lived experience’ of practice encounters, making sense of these, and the meaning of ‘using yourself’ as a resource in the work. Originally published by UEL here.