“It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
We have a saying around the office that goes, “You can’t give away what you don’t have.” This quote was born out of a trauma training and now acts as a mantra for all of us at FCNI to continue to cultivate our reserves of the many skills that we utilize serving in the helping profession. This quote also reminds us helpers that we need to care for ourselves in order to be effective in the work we do.
We all have different ways as helpers to “fill our cups” so that we have “something to give” to the children, youth and families we serve. For some, this means having quality time with their pet or pets, going for a bike ride, playing a mindless online game, or even just spending time alone. Hopefully, whatever we choose to relax and revive, is a healthy activity that gives our mind a break, and helps us to reset and restore our reserves so that we can continue to be an effective “giver” without going bankrupt.
For us helpers--foster parents, teachers, social workers, therapists, case managers, rehabilitation specialists, family/youth partners--empathy is such a valuable tool in caring for the many traumatized children and families we serve. The emotional bond that can be created in these helping relationships is healing and effective because we can empathize with the pain our youth and families have experienced.
The good news is that as a helper, we learn, grow and hone our skills in being a helper the longer we are in this field; this includes remembering to put ourselves on the priority list by taking the time to care for ourselves. The even better news is that we personally benefit by helping others physically and emotionally. Don’t you just feel better when you give back or have you ever experienced a “helper’s high?”
All that said, this empathetic approach can leave us vulnerable to internalizing the emotional pain we witness and the trauma that survivors share with us. Hearing or seeing trauma, or helping another person process their pain and trauma can leave us traumatized.
Helpers might reach a point where they are just plain exhausted, “tapped out” or “fried.” This point of exhaustion, which almost always has been gradually building up over a period of time, is called burnout. Often, this person has been emotionally taxed over and over again during a long stretch of time; they simply “don’t have anything left to give.”
Secondary trauma is different than burnout. Secondary trauma is the “absorption” of trauma and emotional pain as experienced by a helper who is trying to support someone who is suffering. Secondary trauma can develop out of one or several interactions. As an empathetic helper, you are at risk of experiencing secondary trauma when you help and may even experience physical and psychological manifestations of trauma yourself.
So as a helper, please inventory yourself for signs of distress. You and your wellbeing are important. You probably have natural inclinations, skills and innate abilities that make you a passionate, effective and wholehearted helper--you probably give until it hurts! But you have to stop that right now!
What would distress look like for you in coping with burnout or secondary trauma? Inventory your emotions. Are you experiencing feelings of anger? Grief? Sadness? Anxiety or depression that may be attributed to your helping relationships? How about physical symptoms that might be related to emotional pain, such as headaches, digestive issues, insomnia, or chest pains? Inventory your mood or attitude. Are you more cynical? Sarcastic? Moody? Irritable? Have you been isolating yourself? And lastly, inventory yourself for signs of distress related to your productivity or follow through. Are you being avoidant? Are you missing work or appointments? Are you often late because you are distracted or lack the motivation to be on time or engage?
If you find that you are experiencing any or some of the indicators listed above, and have concerns that they are a result of secondary trauma or burnout, here are some ideas that could help.
- Take a break. As a helper, you need space and time from hearing stories that are heartbreaking, sad, and just plain painful. You need time to recover and recharge your reserves of compassion, empathy and the long list of interpersonal skills that you use to build relationships as a helper.
- Get support with triggers or reminders of your own traumatic life experiences.
- Get angry in a healthy way. Being a helper who has served traumatized children and teens for almost 20 years, I still struggle with the stories I’ve seen and heard. I just don’t understand the maltreatment of children, and I know I never will. I get mad that a child is sexually abused. I get angry when a child is exposed to domestic violence. I get sad when I hear another child say they were abandoned at a bus stop or at school. I get angry when a child is introduced to drugs by a parent and they “get high” together. This anger and sadness can really shake my faith in humanity, but I keep trying to help by turning my anger into a passion for helping and providing preventative measures.
- And don’t forget to have grace with yourself, gratitude for others who help you and make sure others know that you value them as they help you get through your days. Expressing gratitude is proven to lower stress, and being in an environment where you feel valued, respected and cared for will make it easier for you to cope with secondary trauma.
I am hopeful that helpers don’t need to get to a point where they “give until it hurts.” Please take some time to “fill your cup” today, and every day!