Helping the Empathetic Individual

Working in a helping field can feel like a roller coaster…with all of the twists and turns, ups and downs of leading with empathy for others perils. Within the arena of helping not only are you presented with the immediacy of services but also presented with holding onto the experiences of those being served. As such experiences build upon themselves (via intensity and frequency) the trauma worker, in particular, can experience what is known as vicarious trauma.

Vicarious trauma by definition: is the emotional residue of exposure that counselors have from working with people as they are hearing their trauma stories and become witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured (American Counseling Association).

Not to be confused with burnout (which can lessen or disappear via self-care or changing job positions), vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue results from an absorption of the experiences reported by clients; to the point of feeling numb or demonstrating persistent arousal in the face of expressed trauma. 

Why understanding vicarious trauma becomes important in the helping field is that it not only has the potential to impact your professional life but your personal life as well…as the ability to “turn off” the exposure to the trauma details does not happen once you clock out for the day.  While there are many avenues for addressing the symptoms of vicarious trauma building a system to prepare, manage and thrive in spite of the trauma experiences presents as the most helpful. Being proactive in anticipating/protecting oneself as well as addressing and transforming the pain of vicarious trauma presents as the key to change the impact of the trauma exposure. Recognizing that helping others does not alleviate you from helping yourself is an important tool within the helping field…as we are humans helping humans, building upon empathy and care for the greater good to thrive.

Rachael Zutty