I’ve started—and subsequently wandered away from—a handful of blogs about secondary trauma and compassion fatigue. I’ve managed to write about the beginnings of burnout and a lot about self-care and self-reflection. But I was having trouble writing about the intense issues of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. Let’s face it, these aren’t the cheeriest of topics. But last week I was fortunate to attend a continuing education program that inspired me to finally finish a post about the emotional risks we face as social workers and how to manage those risks.
The event was offered by my hospital for social work month. We watched a deeply moving video about ow to heal caregivers. First responders, firefighters, police officers, nurses, and, of course, social workers spoke about their experiences with secondary trauma. I cried a couple of times, feeling the pain of strangers who joined a helping profession to help and found themselves mired in suffering. They talked about how their bodies reacted to stress over time or how they found themselves unable to sleep. Each of them showed an enormous amount of vulnerability as they shared some of the low points of their careers.
It was riveting. And it also showed me some beautiful interventions for combatting vicarious trauma. What follows are some takeaways from the video that have really changed my perspective; I hope you have a similar reaction.
Do you have a safety plan for burnout? We use safety plans for our patients all the time: for those who live with abusive partners or those suffering from suicidal thoughts. It never occurred to me that as helpers, as witnesses to that kind of intense suffering, we too could benefit from a safety plan. It doesn’t have to be dramatic: my go-tos have always been long lunches and journaling. The occasional root beer float has also greatly helped me on the hardest days.
Do you honor your grief? The program’s facilitator pointed out that secondary trauma and compassion fatigue are often grief. We use ourselves in our practice: we open our hearts and humanity to others and share their pain. It only makes sense that over time, the grief begins to pile up. As helpers, we need to honor our losses. I can tell you the names of patients I loved, who touched my heart and changed me; I honor those relationships by holding their memories close, by telling stories about them and smiling.
Do you celebrate your successes? My favorite part of the program was hearing the phrase “compassion satisfaction.” Of course there is fatigue in caring for others, but we are also drawn to this work for a reason. As social workers, we are trained to constantly reflect on ourselves and our work but I think we tend to reflect on our challenges and our failures. Instead, the facilitator of this presentation encouraged us to focus on our successes. I challenge you to do the same: what have you done well? What joy did you get to take from your work?
I love being a social worker. It is one of the great pleasures of my life to do this work. As we end social work month, I hope you feel honored by your co-workers and by our profession. Share your joy; we are helpers and healers and we deserve to be recognized for our good and useful work.