We have all taken seminars, classes and workshops focused on the importance of self-care. These forums generally highlight the importance of taking care of ourselves outside of work. We talk about the importance of finding balance, taking spin classes, kickboxing or engaging in hobbies such as drumming or knitting. But despite our best efforts to make self-care a priority, there are times when many of us still find ourselves feeling fatigued, increasingly irritable and disconnected from our personal relationships.
When we are merely burned out, all of those pickle ball classes we participate in or blankets we crochet can work to rejuvenate our spirits so we can continue engaging with our clients and within our own lives. Sometimes, however, we find ourselves unable to bounce back, stretched beyond our natural elasticity and resilience. Through our daily exposure to trauma, we are at risk of developing tilted vision without even recognizing that it is happening. At these times, our self-care may not be enough to prevent us from doubting our ability to effect real change for the people we are trying to help. Activated and overwhelmed, we can lose our way, maybe even seeing our clients as problems rather than people.
Vicarious trauma is like a slow-moving virus that weakens our muscles and compromises our immune system. The reality is that we are all at risk. As a therapist in the field for many years, I understand the weight of trauma both personally and professionally. I engage routinely in self-care, take mental health days as needed, strive to find balance and do my best to resist the urge to isolate when I feel particularly stretched. But it is important to remember that distraction alone is not enough to help us heal from the impact of trauma, whether that trauma is direct or vicarious. Sometimes, no matter what we do outside of work to protect ourselves, we still can’t stop the disease from spreading; we merely slow it down. We have to find a way to stop the poison from permanently impairing our system.
We can find openings with our clients to build our own resiliencies along with theirs. By reflecting on these sacred conversations, we can learn valuable lessons that allow us opportunities to heal within the storm. Longevity as a therapist comes from using (rather than avoiding) our exposure as a way to build immunity and ultimately to become even better healers. On-the-job resiliency training involves deepening our understanding of the value of human connection for ourselves, remembering that pain and discomfort are an essential part of living fully and that helping others is a direct pathway to helping ourselves.
“Patricia,” 36, lived alone and had come to therapy for issues related to the loss of relationships in her life, including a long-term boyfriend and the unexpected death of her mother several years earlier. Patricia was motivated to heal and live a fuller life. Her motivation was evident not only in her regular visits to my office but also in her diligence to practice various techniques and strategies in between sessions. She was also dedicated to other healing practices, including her work as an artist, seeing an acupuncturist and attending yoga on a regular basis. But despite all of these efforts, Patricia continued to talk about feeling stuck in the abyss and unable to find her way out.
She started coming to therapy frustrated, telling me over and over again that she was doing everything she was supposed to do to take care of herself, yet nothing seemed to be working to stop the pain. After acknowledging her incredible efforts along with her frustration, I reminded her that although she was engaging in several meaningful practices, she was doing all of these things by herself. We discussed how as human beings we absolutely cannot heal in isolation. We need each other. Rumi’s teachings remind us that it is the relationship that hurts, but it is also the relationship that heals. After exploring this concept, we discussed how Patricia could begin cultivating more meaningful relationships in her life moving forward despite a fear of further rejection and abandonment.
When the constant exposure to trauma begins to cloud our vision, our connections to peers, friends and family members are threatened as we begin to show the same symptoms of numbing and constriction that our clients exhibit. Whether we see our own therapists or choose to spread it around to our existing support network, others remind us that we are good, that we have experienced success in many areas of our lives and that we make a difference. In other words, we are reminded that it is not all bad. In graduate school, we are taught that the relationship with our clients is paramount to any therapies, skills or strategies we offer. Connection (or reconnection) is the most powerful medicine available to heal the isolation that comes from trauma.
As Patricia began to accept that building relationship outside of therapy was essential to her healing, we began to work with the rawness of her past through a broader lens of human experience. As she discussed moments when the emotional pain was so intense it threatened to split her open, I encouraged her to remember that her pain was not uniquely hers. Although experiences of loss may differ greatly from person to person, it is something we all have in common. Embracing the painful experience is an essential part of what it means to live fully. Through this practice, Patricia began to connect to others more deeply, growing in awareness that there were people everywhere who knew the pain of loss, the feeling of heart-crushing grief and the ache of abandonment.
As therapists, we remind ourselves — as we remind our clients — that the inevitability of change ensures us that pain, just like joy, will not last indefinitely. It is with this knowledge that we remind others to keep moving, to keep breathing and to not give up. It is the not giving up that is most essential. Remembering (or experiencing) the universality of pain can be incredibly humbling for us as healers. No one is immune, and life does not pick and choose who gets clobbered. It is through this knowing that we find humility and the sweetness of shared experience. We find our way and the courage needed to withstand the violent storm raging around us.
Tasting our words
Patricia eventually decided to take her painting to the next level by becoming an art instructor at a local studio. She discussed how it brought her happiness to know she could help others through creative expression and also by helping her students build confidence in their abilities to create beautiful paintings. We discussed her decision to help others as part of her healing because it allowed her an opportunity to reap the benefits of receiving what she gave away. Patricia’s choice to become a teacher helped her cultivate purpose, connection and success.
Therapists with potentially compromised systems are at risk of abandoning ship by closing their offices temporarily or, in some cases, leaving the field altogether. And although there is value in taking a self-appointed sabbatical, a radically different choice would be to continue showing up in the chair. The fact is, we cannot do the work we do as counselors without compassion, however difficult it may be to find at times. By keeping our hearts open so that we can be there for others, we effectively resist the urge to disconnect from ourselves and from the people that matter most in our lives. We are either open or we are not. By tasting our words, we offer comfort and reassurance to ourselves as we offer comfort and reassurance to others.
No one is immune to the impact of trauma, the devastation of loss and the activation that reminds us that although we are therapists, we are also carriers of the virus. Through our connections to the
caring others in our lives, we are able to integrate our own trauma stories while keeping a larger perspective. By helping our clients work through painful feelings, we are humbled, remembering that the experience of loss is an essential part of what it means to live fully. Furthermore, by helping others we can remain open, resisting the urge to close ourselves off from relationships and from our own lives. It is the work itself that helps us heal.
Perhaps over time we can treat ourselves with greater compassion and gentleness, not waiting to seek support but rather asking for it when we need it most. Perhaps by remembering our shared experience, we can hold steady in the storm. Maya Angelou spoke about how the universe continues to present us with opportunities to learn valuable lessons over and over again until we finally “get it.” Whether trauma comes in the form of personal experience or from the ongoing exposure to the trauma of others, this is an important concept for the wounded healer.
What is the universe trying to teach you?
Kim Johancen-Walt writes “The Hope Chest” column exclusively for CT Online. She is a licensed professional counselor with almost 20 years of experience. Her clinical experience includes working as a therapist for La Plata County Human Services, where she helped develop a treatment model for adolescents in Durango, Colorado. She has presented her clinical work at mental health conferences nationally, including at the annual conference for the International Society for the Study of Self-Injury. Additional clinical experience includes a position as assistant training director and senior counselor in the Counseling Department at Fort Lewis College. She currently operates a full-time private practice in Durango. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.