Being a helper or healer is an honor and a privilege. We do the work because we love it; it is so rewarding to walk beside someone on their journey of growth (and in turn, grow ourselves). Yet this work can also break our hearts, over and over. We may feel despair due to the tragedies we witness. We may feel helpless or hopeless in the face of seemingly impossible obstacles. We may pretend “everything is fine” for our clients or peers, because we are afraid to acknowledge our own suffering. We may have confided in our employers about our feelings and received no support, which continues a cycle of suppressing those feelings. All of this can make us cold and lose sight of our empathy; not just towards our clients, but towards ourselves. Our job that once seemed like a calling may now feel like a burden. In addition, we are also trying to deal with our own life events and stressors related to our families, health, finances, etc. Supporting clients or patients through the collective trauma of the pandemic has deeply increased compassion fatigue for so many helpers and healers.
As someone who has experienced all of the above, I know how harmful it was to my health and my life. Part of my own healing was learning how to maintain the boundaries neccesary for self care, and addressing unhealthy patterns. Another piece was learning more about what was happening to me, and so many other people in my field. So what was happening?
Vicarious trauma is "the process of change that happens because you care about other people who have been hurt, and feel committed or responsible to help them. Over time this process can lead to changes in your psychological, physical, and spiritual well-being... [it is ] a process that unfolds over time. It is not just your responses to one person, one story, or one situation. It is the cumulative effect of contact with survivors of violence or disaster or people who are struggling."
-Pearlman and McKay, 2008
Some signs of vicarious trauma are difficulty managing emotions and making decisions, boundary issues, relationship troubles, physical problems likes aches & pains or illness, feeling detached, and loss of meaning and hope.
Burnout is another condition that is sometimes confused with vicarious trauma. Burnout is "a physical and emotional exhaustion that workers can experience when they have low job satisfaction and feel powerless and overwhelmed at work. However, burnout does not necessarily mean that our view of the world has been damaged, or that we have lost the ability to feel compassion for others."
-Mathieu, F., 2007
Getting relief from these symptoms is possible, whether you have the early signs of burnout or full-on vicarious trauma. It is an ongoing process that looks different for everyone. My own ongoing process is represented by the following quote from Buddhist teacher Roshi Joan Halifax: "It is the strong back that supports the soft front of compassion." This means developing a strong and resilient foundation, yet maintaining compassion and tenderness for the clients we serve. We don't have to stay hardened or rundown. Vicarious trauma and burnout shouldn't be the norm for any of us, and I look forward to helping you find your own "strong back and soft front".