No matter how well-read we are, whatever our qualifications, whatever our roles in helping people, sooner or later we are going to find a time when the situation or the occasion of service beats us, affects us or breaks us.
How did this happen? And how can we prepare, prevent and protect ourselves?
What is Vicarious Trauma?
According to Pearlman and Saakvitne (1995):
Vicarious traumatization is the transformation of the worker’s inner experience as a result of empathetic engagement with clients and their trauma material.
When we as a helping person, are caught up in a situation – the shock, the emotions, the reactions, and the outcomes can affect us because it may trigger a reaction in us also.
This can happen through a process called identification. We identify with the bereaved, distressed, abused or alienated person because we were there once. We may be there now. Or we could have been that person but for chance and the grace of God and we acknowledge that. This happens through a process of empathy with the person in their situation. We have heard counsellors and those in the helping professions say things such as “It was hard because I have a son or daughter the same age.”
It can happen through a process called transference, when we are the professional person or helper in a situation. For example, a person we are engaged with may turn to us and say “You remind me of my mother…” and the mother may be cast in a poor light. This may offend you or shock you. You may ignore the comment and absorb it and address it later. Or you may find yourself thinking “that’s not acceptable” and retaliate or push back as if you were in the mother role. This is called counter-transference.
Either way, either through these processes or simply through the magnitude and intensity of a situation, we may find ourselves in need of de-briefing and professional support.
The Role of Empathy
As professional persons or volunteers in a helping role, we are encouraged to purposefully use empathy. Currently, so many roles and occupations fall into this category. It is well documented in “The Managed Heart” by Arlie Russell Hochschild.
The concept of emotional labour is also an interesting one. Karl Albrecht in “Service Within” states:
Emotional labour is any kind of work in which the employee’s (counsellor’s) feelings are in some ways the tools of his or her trade. That is, the person’s psychological, emotional, creature reactions get involved as a consequence of some aspect of the job itself. Feelings are in some way a part of job performance. Examples of jobs that involve extreme degrees of emotional labour include psychiatrist, social worker, doctor, nurse, paramedic, firefighter and police officer.”
Add child safety officer, teacher, child care worker, airline cabin crew – the list goes on. Think how a manual labourer who works all day on a jack hammer feels at the end of the day – physically spent. So too a person in a role requiring a high degree of emotional labour can feel spent, exhausted, mentally fatigued and drained at the end of the day. To then be assessed on those qualities which are freely and generously given, and to be found wanting, can be a double whammy.
Another interesting aspect is not over-identifying with the main cultural theme of the organisation or employer: so those in policing and security may find that they are overly vigilant about safety, or not being influenced by criminal activity. Those working in banks or financial institutions may be very savvy about money and not being influenced by negative traits such as insider trading and shoddy financial arrangements. Ditto those employed in child safety, domestic violence counselling, teaching.
Professional Support for Helpers
So what can we do to practice self-care in our work?
We can address vicarious traumatization at an organizational/team level, and at an individual level. Remember we are here working by choice. So, we can also choose to address conversations, situations of blame and judgement, and feelings of lack of support and a sense of value in our work by talking about process, as well as content, in our de-briefing and professional supervision.
At the end of the day, I like to think of this as identify, expose, examine and dispose of the rubbish. Replace it with calmness, self-reflection, and nice sensory experiences. Sometimes it is hard at the end of the day to attend to our inner self as well. Don’t leave it too long!
Author: Susan Ward, B Arts, B Soc Wk, AMHSW.
Susan Ward has a wealth of experience in helping people with issues like trauma, grief and loss, eating disorders, interpersonal violence, social anxiety, stress, depression, and difficult relationships, as well as providing clinical supervision services to those in the human services sector.
To make an appointment for Clinical Supervision with Susan Ward try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422.
- The Managed Heart by Arlie Russell Hochschild (University of California Press, 2012)
- Service Within by Karl Albrecht (Richard D Irwin, 1990, Illinois USA)
- Vicarious Trauma: Individual and Organizational Impacts and Strategies presented by Penny Gordon at the Workforce Council Forum 26th. November 2010.
- Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman ( Pandora, London, 1997)