I am not a youth worker. There I said it. I’m writing for CONCRETE and I’m not even a youth worker! I was employed as one for a long time – around the fifteen year mark. But I have not been employed as a youth worker, or done much more than pitch up for the occasional youth work session, for about seven years.
I have, however, continued to work in the ‘youth work world’ in various roles, and as each year goes by I have felt more and more of an imposter. This is compounded by the reality that I never really felt like a youth worker in the first place. (Well, maybe for about 5 minutes in my early 20s).
I certainly never felt like I was any good at it. (Well, maybe for a week each year at summer camp, when I got to hang out with nice Christian teenagers who were very similar to me and made me feel like their Fun Big Sister).
When it came to real-life, week on week, sleepless night kind of youth work, I lacked confidence. I am quite a shy person. I am anxious, self-conscious and over-thinky. I process internally and often very slowly. I thought that was something to be ashamed of as a youth worker.
In my mind, youth workers were meant to be confident, assertive, pro-active. They make quick decisions and adapt instinctively. They’re full of stories and they’re hilarious. They can make up a game to kill the dullest of time. They always know just what to say.
You’re probably thinking I’m going to say ‘but then I realised we need all types of people to be youth workers.’ And yes, in theory I do believe that. But the reality is it’s not easy to be a different kind of youth worker. The role demands a lot from anyone and, for a reflective introvert especially, those demands can be very costly – emotionally, physically and spiritually.
Ultimately I realised I would thrive supporting youth workers rather than doing face to face youth work. However, I believe I may have avoided burnout if I had seen and valued other ways of being a youth worker. Not always high octane, not always leader-centric, not always about entertaining a crowd.
I am convinced that youth workers of all personality types, backgrounds and contexts are needed, but to thrive they need support. This is why giving time to reflect and grow in self-awareness is essential. The more you know yourself, the more you will understand what kind of support you need and be able to prioritise it.
What you view as your weaknesses are usually just the flipside of your strengths. Instead of feeling ashamed, having compassion towards your weaknesses will help to nurture your strengths. And being real with others about the areas you struggle with will build trust and encourage team working.
Yes we need all types of people to be youth workers but we also need to allow youth workers to find their own ways of working which enable them to thrive.
What would help you thrive?