I sat in a meeting once with a high ranking bureaucrat who was clearly delusional and expressing acute paranoia. What troubled me was not his breakdown. I had compassion for him. What blew my mind was that 40 other professionals sat quietly and behaved like nothing was happening.
That kinda sums up what it’s like to work in social services sometimes. We’re f@cked up people.
Nobody ever had a happy childhood and thought, “Gosh darn it, I’m just so ridiculously altruistic that I want to work very hard for lousy pay to help people!” We came to the helping and healing professions to give that which was denied us.
There are two types of us. There are those who accepted that we needed help and got it. We are the exception to the rule. I’m a good therapist primarily because I got a lot of really good therapy. More importantly, I’m a genuine person because there’s nothing to hide anymore. I released a lot of pain and I became the person I wanted to be. This allowed me to let go of shame that didn’t even belong to me.
Too many of my brothers and sisters maintain personas. They get lost in the hollow experience of the person they pretend to be. They’re trying very hard to earn redemption and it’s sad, especially because it’s unnecessary. It’s the endless pursuit of being good enough. Clichés are painful. For all that we’ve learned and given, we’re still trying to make our moms and dads proud of us.
Those of us who pretend don’t practice what we preach. We give and don’t receive. As if burnout isn’t inevitable this way.
“I live in conflict and contradiction. But it can be so beautiful when I don’t reject what lies within.” Eyedeas & Abilities “Smile”
I went to a seminar last summer that I didn’t want to attend. I sat and listened to my Higher Power laugh at me. Every time I think I’m where God wants me to be, S/he reminds me that I’m a work in progress. I affectionately refer to these times as the “Oh cool/oh f@ck moments.” It’s cool because there are always more learning experiences and there’s always more to let go of. It sucks because emotionally I’m a slow learner and I tend not to get the lesson until my HP whacks me in the back of my head.
The first speaker of the day was a man I’ve long resented (bet it really burdened him that I was harboring hurt feelings from how he treated me years ago, huh?). I remembered the exchange from long ago and prayed. I asked my HP to help me to forgive and be more loving.
I couldn’t listen to a single word of his presentation. His face was so sad. His tone of voice, his body language, his eyes…all of it was a cry for help. We all sat there like it was okay – like we were fascinated by everything he had to say and nobody gave him a hug.
“You don’t know me but I’m your brother.” – Doobie Brothers “Takin’ It to the Streets”
I’ve found that the easiest way to offend a counselor is to suggest that they could use some counseling. My friend Ardis would often say, “Every good counselor has a counselor.” We forget that we are fallible and we view vicarious trauma and burnout as though they’re things to be ashamed of admitting.
I’ve taken an interest in the Sanctuary Model. It’s a very common sense approach to creating organizational climates in which we meaningfully support those who do the very difficult and draining work of supporting survivors of trauma. It’s affirming to find out that others do what me and mine do but it’s hard for me to see the model becoming widely used because it’s success hinges on our willingness to stop pretending and be genuine.
My hope is that collectively we can reduce the stigma of being a wounded healer. Here’s my part in that:
I’m Jim. I’m a therapist specializing in trauma and addiction recovery. I LOVE my work. I have experienced burnout many times in the past. I have experienced vicarious trauma. I have done a great deal over the past several years to address this and take better care of myself and those who work for me.
I absolutely depend on a HUGE and holistic support system to keep me healthy. Left to my own devices I would be a mess in a very short period of time. My HP loves me – S/he surrounds me with people who get me, challenge me, support me, and hug me a lot. I am forever a work in progress.