There is so much talk about trauma informed practices. It is so easy to speak of these practices and implement strategies that help people survive in times of chaos. Usually, it is a person that is not steeped in the midst of a trauma that is practicing these strategies for someone else. There is another part of this equation that we need to tandemly teach and think about in a way that leads us to a greater understanding.
Resilience and secondary trauma. When things are going well, it seems we can plant seeds of resilience easily by providing support to those experience life altering experiences. However, continually providing this type of care can deplete you of the necessary tools you might need to deal with your own walk with trauma. This is called secondary trauma. It is a real thing. Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, a leader in secondary trauma states, “there is a price to pay for witnessing mass extinctions ….” She also begs us to realize that you don’t remain unchanged in trauma.
In her book “Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others,” she tells us: “Rather than staying in touch with the heart that was breaking, again and again, as a result of what I was witnessing, I had started building up walls.
In my case, this meant becoming increasingly cocky. I had no access to the humility that we all need if we are to honestly engage our own internal process. Rather than acknowledge my own pain and helplessness in the face of things I could not control, I raged at the possible external causes. I sharpened my critique of systems and society. I became more dogmatic, opinionated, and intolerant of others’ views than ever before. It never occurred to me that my anger might in part be functioning as a shield against what I was experiencing.
I had no clue that I was warding off anguish, or that I was secretly terrified that I wouldn’t be able to hold my life together if I lost my long-held conviction that all could be made well with the world if only we could do the right thing. Without my noticing it, this trail I was blazing had led me into a tangled wilderness. I was exhausted and thirsty, and no longer had the emotional or physical supplies I needed to continue.”
The message I gleaned from her is the same message we get in the airplane when the flight attendant tells us to put our oxygen mask on first. We don’t have time to build up walls. We must be available to those around us. It may seem we are planting seeds in mud but really, we are loving with each response whether big or small. It is in that call to take care of ourselves first that we can answer the call of resilience. That call seems so big amid crisis. Our humanness is recognized in the mess but the seeds, even planted in mud, can grow to be strong beautiful flowers. There is a line in my favorite movie, Black Panther, that is part of my oxygen mask: “In times of crisis the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we are one single tribe.” -T’Challa.