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This work changes us (and we should be talking about it)

by David Mandel

I  want to recommend a book that I just finished reading.  It’s  “Trauma Stewardship: An everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others” by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky with Connie Burk.     The book, which is about the impact of working with trauma, should be mandatory reading for anyone in the domestic violence and child welfare fields. I felt so strongly about this that I ordered a number of copies and gave them to the Domestic Violence Consultants who work in Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families.   When I gave them the books I told them, “We make sure you have computers and other things to do your job. This book is just as important a tool for you as those things.” (I’ve been also “seeding” this book among key colleagues hoping to promote more dialog.)

Why am I so enthused about this book? Because I found it profoundly useful for me as a person who has worked on issues of violence and abuse for over twenty years, as supervisor who is committed to attending to the health and well-being of the people who work for him, and as consultant who is committed to improving the response to domestic violence.  On a personal level, I found my own experience reflected back to me in Laura’s words.  I was supported by her identification that the ” conversation stopping”  nature of my work (telling people you work with domestic violence doesn’t usually lead to lots of follow up questions) is related to our society’s aversion to dealing with trauma.  I heard my own words to my staff reflected in her insistence that acknowledging our limitations is healthy and doesn’t mean we are abandoning our clients or not committed to our work.  Reading this book helped me reflect on the ways this work has changed me (a narrow focus on work, a loss of creativity in and out of work, exhaustion and withdrawal), and reminded me that I have the capacity to make positive changes in how I care for myself.

As supervisor I found support in her writings for intensifying my commitment to discussing with my staff and others their trauma exposure reaction. (Laura uses the term “trauma exposure reaction” instead of “vicarious trauma” or “secondary trauma.”)   Her naming of how we resist discussing our reactions to trauma in the lives of our clients because of our own fears of feeling weak or being labeled as weak by others (this can be very powerful dynamic within child welfare agencies) helped me raise the subject with my staff.

And as consultant interested in improving the response of our systems to children exposed to batterer’s behavior, I’ve become clearer that we need to create more space in our agencies and institutions to talk about how our trauma exposure is impacting us.   I don’t think we can make our agencies more trauma informed, or help clients heal from their traumas when we don’t have the language and skills to deal with our own reactions.   I don’t think child welfare supervisors can mentor new workers without being able to talk about how the exposure to traumatic material is effecting them. (Could there be  a connection between the high turnover rate in child welfare and the lack of institutional capacity to address new worker’s trauma exposure reaction? ) By looking at our own trauma exposure reactions, we help ourselves, go home healthier to our families, create healthier work environments and develop the compassion and skills we need to help families who have experienced trauma in many forms.

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