Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan once quipped, “If the temperature of the bath rises one degree every ten minutes, how will the bather know when to scream?” We fail to see the key dangers in being involved in standing in the darkness with others for a number of key reasons.
Acute forms of secondary stress (vicarious PTSD) are very dangerous, but even more dangerous is chronic secondary stress, which is often referred to as “burnout” or “compassion fatigue.” It can slowly drain you of the very psychological energy that was an impetus to entering the helping and healing arena in the first place.
When in South Africa after I was delivering a presentation to those seeking to build the country post-apartheid, a young social worker approached me and said, “I just can’t do it anymore.”
“What is it that you do?” I asked.
She responded, “I work with women who were sexually and physically abused. I try to get them justice and bring them to court. They need to take a day off from work to do this and they can little afford it since they are poor and often single parents but they do it. Then when we get there the judge, who is often male, glances at the papers I hand to him and he says, ‘Oh, I haven’t had a chance to look at them yet. Make another appointment.’ I am a failure.”
When the emotions settled down, I asked the social worker, “Who else was with this woman other than you at that moment?”
“No one,” she replied.
“Would it be an exaggeration to say you were closer to her than anyone else in the world at that moment?”
“No, it wouldn’t” she said.
To which I commented in as gentle a voice as I could muster, “And you want to leave that?” Then, after a space of time, I added, “Don’t you see in caregiving, we are not in the success business. We are in the faithfulness business.”
But what this caregiver was experiencing is what all of us must encounter from time to time. Without proper self-care, those of us in helping and healing professions are in danger of
Failing to value our own therapeutic presence
It’s easy to discount the importance of our therapeutic presence: “just listening” to another individual in trouble as children often do. Once, when coming home late from school, a child was berated by her mother for being late because it caused such worry. She then asked the reason for this tardiness. The child responded, “I was helping a friend who was in trouble.” “What did you do for her?” her mother asked. The child simply responded, “I sat down next to her and helped her cry.”
The negativity of burned-out colleagues (which can be contagious)
When working with burned-out colleagues, it is important not to give away your own spirit of compassion, remember not to return their negativity because their anger is often a cover for their own sense of hurt and despair, and finally if you feel you can, offer them a space where they feel safe enough to ventilate. This last step is only if you feel strong enough because chances are they will not show appreciation for your presence.
Failing to keep enough psychological distance from our work
This is not to say that you should be callous but we need to respect the power of what they are suffering so we don’t start evidencing the same problems by experiencing parallel process. The opposite of detachment is not compassion, it is seduction by the needs of others and the unrealistic expectations we have for ourselves. When dealing with emotional situations, especially with children, we must remember the Russian saying: When you sleep next to the cemetery, you can’t cry for everyone who dies. By “psychologically leaning back” when we are feeling great emotion within ourselves, we take a moment, reflect within ourselves, renew, and then reflect with the client or co-worker with whom we are serving.
Lacking a realistic, but ambitious, self-care protocol
As helpers we are often the worse persons when it comes to self-care. Metaphorically, we psychologically, physically and spiritually eat whatever comes along so we are fed haphazardly according to the circumstances and free time available. Humorist Erma Bombeck once commented that she believed that “any man who watched three football games in a row should be declared legally dead.”
Although, our situation may not be as bad as to fit into her classification, we often fail to ensure that we have time for friends, mindful moments during the day, at least a walk for 10-20 minutes, some reading to renew us, and times to visit museums where we can see that life is so much bigger than us so we can gain or regain a healthy perspective. With a healthy perspective we can then see that it is not the amount of darkness in the world or ourselves that matters. It’s how we stand in that darkness that makes all the difference. Knowing about secondary stress and building a rich self-care protocol that includes mindfulness meditation can make all the difference with respect to ensuring a healthy perspective.
Walker Percy in one of his novels said, “What if life is like a plane and you miss it?” In intense social work, it is easy to do since it is one of the few professions left where ignoring your spouse, friends, and even yourself is still considered to be socially acceptable. It is certainly worth it not to let this happen—not just for yourself but others as well because one of the greatest gifts you can share with others is a sense of your inner peace and resilience…but you can’t share what you don’t have.
Dr. Robert J. Wicks’ latest books include Night Call: Embracing Compassion and Hope in a Troubled World and The Resilient Clinician. He has presented on preventing secondary stress in the U.S. as well as in Beijing, Hanoi, Guatemala, Haiti, Hungary, and most recently in Beirut to caregivers living and working in Aleppo, Syria. He is Professor Emeritus at Loyola University Maryland and was on the full time faculty of Bryn Mawr College’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research.
Robert J. Wicks, PsyD, received his doctorate in psychology from Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital and is Professor Emeritus, Loyola University Maryland. He has published more than 50 books for professionals and the general public, including Perspective: The Calm within the Storm, Riding the Dragon: 10 Lessons for Inner Strength in Challenging Times, and most recently Night Call: Embracing Compassion and Hope in a Troubled World. Dr. Wicks has lectured around the world on the importance of resilience, self-care, and maintaining a healthy perspective. He has also served on the faculty of Bryn Mawr College’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research and received the Humanitarian of the Year Award from the American Counseling Association’s Division on Spirituality, Ethics, and Values. In 2006, he was recipient of the first annual Alumni Award for Excellence in Professional Psychology from Widener University. In the U.S. military, Dr. Wicks served as a Marine Corps Officer.
Website page: http://www.robertjwicks.com/books/night-call/