Raise your hands if you have ever been to a training about compassion fatigue or secondary trauma. Now raise your hands if it was helpful. I suspected as much. If I had a dime for every time someone said the words self-care, I could retire. Cue the eye rolls. What people who treat trauma know is that a scheduled bubble bath is not going to negate the effects of being in the trenches day in and day out. But we want to be able to continue to do the hard work, right? There is something inside of us that is instinctually good at it and there is nothing quite so fulfilling as easing another person’s pain. So, I want to go to a training that talks about how to create an armor to shield your heart from the anguish while still being able to be effective. I want to hear about lines drawn in the sand that don’t get crossed regardless of who is asking. I want to create an internal compass that lets you know when you have veered off track and a mechanism that helps you to regain your footing. I believe that therapy can do just that if we get past our shame, if we can lay down the idea that we can do it all and never falter. We don’t have to see it or experience it to feel it. Isn’t that the definition of empathy and compassion after all, the ability to feel for another person?
If you are a helper, please don’t ignore your own distress. It won’t make you a hero, it will just prevent you from showing up for yourself and others when it counts. Just because you joined a helping profession doesn’t mean that your feelings and needs no longer count. I would argue that if anything we need to model the healthy boundaries and coping skills that we hope to see in those we have helped.
So, if someone hasn’t said this to you lately, let me be the first: You matter. What you do matters. Protecting yourself and addressing secondary trauma is the only thing that is going to make those first 2 statements maintain their integrity.
Shanna Dickens is licensed clinical social worker in Wilmington, NC. Shanna has been a therapist for over 12 years specializing in the treatment of adolescents and adults who experience trauma, anxiety, depression, chronic pain and secondary trauma in helping professionals.
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