Other People’s Pain

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on vicarious trauma lately (click here for a quick backgrounder) and I’m starting to think that we as a helping sector really undersell the potential impacts of working with youth in trauma. The dramas and histories of the youth that we engage with don’t only impact them, they have the ability to impact us as well.

I used to work with an agency that couldn’t pay us much (hands up if that’s a common refrain!), but I was just starting out and I liked the work.  They told me: “We know we can’t pay you what you’re actually worth, but working with us comes with all kinds of soft benefits like feeling good about helping someone make positive change in their lives, and getting to know all kinds of young people from all walks of life.  You’ll be able to go home at night and know you’re making a difference.”  Never will I ever underestimate or belittle the power of those soft benefits; I have been the recipient of them since I first started in this field more than 10 years ago. Some of the most incredible, humbling, positive relationships I have ever been in have come as a result of this work. My life has been forever positively changed because of those soft benefits, and I wouldn’t give that back for anything.

All that being said, there is a precarious side to youth work that we don’t often articulate with much clarity.

Often, when dealing with youth who’s values lay outside of social norms (e.g. settling beef over name calling by stabbing someone) we become desensitized. During the process of working with these youth, their pain rubs off on us. Their values have the ability to shift ours ever so slightly, degree by degree. There is a dark humour that many in the helping professions have.  To people outside of this world, some of what we think is funny, seems way out of line and completely unprofessional. I assure you all, it’s a coping mechanism for the tragedy that we see daily.

Yes of course there are amazing, positive things that we see all the time too; I would never suggest otherwise. The focus however is too often on crisis response. I recall distinctly a social worker from a child protection unit bemoaning her job asking “why can’t we have a feel-good story for once?!” The response from her colleague was immediate and on point: “because feel-good families don’t sexually abuse their children; feel-good families don’t hit their kids; feel-good families don’t need us.” So we continue to toil away in the trenches, surrounded and impacted by all this tragedy.

We need to be continually aware of the shifting limits that we have as we move through our days, our relationships and our work.  The heart of self care is the ability to know and understand inherently our own values, as these values define our boundaries. Having healthy boundaries plays a huge role in our ability to maintain a balance in our lives and goes a long to ensuring our overall health and wellbeing.We throw around the concept of self care with some regularity, but I would argue most of us don’t actually know what it means. Self care isn’t simply about getting your hair did or taking a bath, or snuggling with your favourite animal (living or stuffed). These things may be a part of it, but self care is something much more deliberate and profound than that.  Self care can be a balance to the impacts of vicarious trauma; self care can keep us healthy and able to give the best of ourselves to every person we work with.

We need to seek out ways to build our own professional capacity to handle other people’s pain. Further than just tolerating their trauma, we need to learn how to deflect their issues, rather than absorb them.  We need to remind ourselves that it’s okay to feel things; it’s okay to be angry or sad about the things that we see.  We need to recognize that we are doing what we can to change things for the better, but that it is not solely our responsibility to make the world a better place.  We need to remember that we are part of a team; we are part of an international patchwork of people working for the same end goals, and we are not alone in our experiences.

Above all, it is imperative that we have time to ourselves, to focus on things in life that are blissful, and are outside of the drama of youth in crisis.  We need to connect to healthy, strong, supportive individuals.  We need to build a community where we are one of many that understands these issues, but does not dwell.  We need to support one another too.  It’s okay to share with a colleague that they’re looking a little stressed.  Sometimes (often, in fact) we don’t know we’re tired, until someone points it out to us.

If you are mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually well, then you are infinitely better suited to give of yourself to others and help them on their journey.  There are lots of awesome places to look (isn’t the internet simply amazing!?) for ideas of where to start your own self care plans.

I wish you luck on your journey.  Remember that to be helpful to others, you must first be healthy yourself.  Be good to yourselves, folks.  There’s a lot of work we still need to do.