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An Interview with Hariett Cabelly

hariett cabellyHarriet Cabelly received her master’s in social work (MSW) from the Wurweiler School of Social Work in Yeshiva University in New York City. She also holds a master’s in special education. Cabelly’s practice, Rebuild Life Now, specializes in helping those who are struggling with recovery from adversities such as divorce, illness, and loss.

Cabelly describes this in her own words: “I work with clients overcome by intense feelings of grief and are struggling with coping, who want and need relief from their pain and the ability to experience happiness. Grieve and grow is the process whereby I support people in transforming their pain into purpose. This is my life’s work.” Cabelly blogs regularly on her “Rebuild Life Now” site, and has been featured at the Huffington Post. As a public speaker, Cabelly presents her workshops “Rebuild Life Now” for a wide variety of demographics.

We thank Harriet Cabelly for taking the time to answer questions about her career and the field of social work.

1. Why did you choose the field of social work rather than psychology, counseling, or another helping profession? What circumstances or influences led you to pursue a career as a social worker?

I’d always been interested in psychology but pursued a teaching degree as my first bachelor’s and specifically in the field of special education where I got my master’s degree. I went on to become a special education teacher. After finding out my second daughter had neurological disabilities and being in therapy and a support group to deal with my grief and parental disappointment, I was most impressed and tremendously affected by my therapist and the facilitator of the group (two different people). I decided to return to school to pursue my “old love and interest”- psychology. I spoke to a lot of people and was advised that to do what I wanted – clinical practice – I could do it with a master’s in social work instead of the long haul of a doctorate in clinical psychology. At that time (late 80’s when there was no mental health counselor degree), social work was a very flexible field where there were many options in which to work. So I went to social work school, part time (the slow track as I had kids) with the intention of working in the field of loss and bereavement, specifically with parents of children with disabilities.

2. How has your career grown and developed over time?

I went off my track of intention when I became a newly separated parent. I heeded my mom’s advice to get a job in the school system so that I could be available for my children when they came home, during vacation breaks and summertime. Working in the public school system afforded that great time schedule. School social work was not what I had intended when I thought about doing social work. I did work in clinical social work for a couple of years at an agency, counseling and working with high-risk families, which I loved. But as I was getting divorced, I realized I could not exist on that salary. And so I pursued and landed a job as a Pre-K social worker in the New York City public school system. I stayed for 20 years.

Four years ago I “retired” (I don’t like that word – I prefer “moved on”) to finally give myself the chance to go back to what I had intended and wanted – to grow a private practice. (I did dabble with a small one throughout the years but it never took off and probably just as well since my time was pretty limited). When I knew I’d be leaving the school system, I started my blog on the pervasive theme of my life as I call it – transcending adversity or living well despite challenges. I recently got a certificate in positive psychology – a year-long program with Tal Ben-Shahar- given through the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. It has been the gift to me that keeps on giving. It has been truly life transformative and I bring it to every aspect of my work and personal life. I give classes, lead groups and give presentations on the concepts of living well. I also do a lot of parenting workshops as that was a big part of my school social work position and something I continue to be passionate about. If you would’ve told me years ago that a big part of my work now would be public speaking, I would have said you’re crazy. But that is exactly how it’s been evolving. I present to lots of different groups.

3. What do you see as the top social issues facing social workers today?

Keeping up with all the latest information and research on the brain, like neuroplasticity and mindfulness, understanding our multi-cultural world, individual preferences in identity, sexuality, religion which leads into helping people get to know, accept and embrace their authenticity.

4. What advice would you give to new social workers entering the field?

Keep yourself open to new opportunities and new learning experiences. You never know where something will take you. Things evolve in “funny” and unexpected ways. Allow for it. Say yes to new chances even if you’re nervous about it. Take it on.

5. What are two or three top recommendations that can help social work graduates keep their skills current and continue learning after graduation?

Stay curious! Love learning! Put yourself out there by giving voice to what matters to you. Give presentations – that’s a great way to continue to grow in your areas of interest. Find people you admire in the field- mentors. Model after them bringing your own self to the table as well. Read, read, read!

6. What is the key strength you bring to your career and how would you advise new graduates to mine their own strengths to further their careers?

My listening and keen, sincere interest in people and their stories. Encouraging people to be and live their best lives and discovering and pursuing their specific interests. Staying true to their authentic selves. Holding their pain and diving into the deep water of grief so they can come through it intact and go on to grow and rebuild their lives beyond their challenges.
Know your strengths and bring them forth. There’s a great survey on character strengths and a whole field has developed on strength building and using them to better our lives. Go to: https://www.viacharacter.org/www/ and click on the red button to take the free survey.

7. What can social worker students do to improve their competitive edge in the current job market?

Always be proactive and initiating. Don’t let the high walls of blockades deter you. And don’t let failure ever discourage you. As my mentor Tal Ben-Shahar says, “Learn to fail or fail to learn.” Be flexible and open to other possibilities.

8. Social work can be rewarding but challenging as well. What self-care strategies do you recommend for new social workers?

Take care of yourself from the inside out. Make quiet time every day – meditate, do deep breathing. Exercise is a must. Envision your best self and bring that forth. Stay connected to your values and what’s important and meaningful to you. Give yourself restorative time by bringing in daily bits of enjoyment to your life – happiness boosters. Small things go a long way in making a difference. Don’t only wait for that once-a-year vacation or weekend away. Burn-out creeps in quickly and our buckets of care get depleted. Fill it daily with daily self-care rituals. Reflect on the day – WWW- what went well, even within the difficulties. What we focus on expands.

9. Can you give an example of an interesting project or case that you have worked on and your role in helping to achieve a positive outcome?

My blog project has been my monthly interviews with people who have “successfully” overcome their adversities/losses. I’ve done 36 interviews with inspirational people who’ve shown incredible resilience and ability to rebuild their lives with renewed meaning and joy. I am now working to compile these into a book.

10. Is there any further advice you would share with students concerning social work as a career?

It’s a great career because it lends itself to so many various avenues of work, i.e., populations, venues, clinical vs. organizational. You can take it where you want. It’s a field open to many possibilities. Keep yourself the same.