Everything I Know About Vicarious Trauma in Five Minutes


I was the poster child for Vicarious Trauma at least that’s what I liked to tell myself. In the great oppression Olympics that belongs to folks who have done human services over long careers, sometimes too long, it’s a coveted moniker. Why did I think I got this title?

Several years ago, when I was at the peak of my clinical practice, I ran six group therapy sessions a week for men referred for sexual offenses, many of whom I also saw in individual and family counseling. It was all sex offenders, all the time.  Impressively–again, this is what I liked to tell myself–I could hold it together for a 50-hour work week. I  had mastered the “pose of equanimity,” as they euphemistically called it in graduate school.

But a more savvy observer might have said my “pose of equanimity”  looked more like a frozen, coma-like state of emotional numbing. When I went home, I’d fall apart: a mess of eating and sleep problems, disengagement from family and spouse, flashbacks, startles responses, and nasty dreams. My gastrointestinal tract was a roller derby rink.

Of course, this notion of an oppression Olympics where I get the gold medal is foolish.  Even though I know this to be true in my heart, nevertheless, as I go about, years later, as a consultant facilitating dialogues about vicarious trauma at human services agencies, I notice that other folks in my field jockey for the same distinction.  I’m not the only social worker vying for this same validation. Among ourselves, we social workers love to tell war stories.

Generally, when social workers launch into tales of the “worst of the worst” stories of what they’ve seen with disadvantaged and troubled clients, I recognize a very human tendency:  that longing for validation of one’s suffering and appreciation for one’s personal sacrifices within beleaguered, feedback-starved environments. There’s something about thinking that my professional travails are the worst that is validating, even sustaining, bordering as it does on the heroic.

Now that I’ve affirmed my recognition that I think the oppression Olympics is a fallacy, I do want to note the two times I trained at agencies when I actually thought for a moment they really should get the prize. One was at a local program that works with a high volume of undocumented, impoverished immigrant families. I had never seen social workers embedded in such intensity of critical, unmet needs. The system was so closed and the resources were so paltry.

The other experience was at the drunk tank in my town, where inebriated folks are kept on 48-hour holds to get them off the street. The Emergency Medical Technicians had cleaned out one of the dingy, concrete-walled tanks for me to set up my laptop and infocus machine. While I clicked through my slides, I could hear the fury of involuntarily confined drunk people in the adjoining locked cells, screaming “FUCK YOU! LET ME OUT OF THIS HELL HOLE!” at the top of their lungs. My training group of twenty participants didn’t even flinch.

When I heard about the Portland Ignite event, it seemed like an opportunity to connect the common experience of vicarious trauma, which is epidemic in our field, with another event World Social Work Day on March 18th. Of course, I had known about World Social Work Day for years in the same way that I knew about National Doughnut Day (First Friday in June), Pi Day (March 14th), and National Tattoo Day (June 5th). Why did World Social Work Day exist, I used to wonder, if no one, at least in my experience, really did anything about it? Having another bogus, fluffy holiday seemed to trivialize the hard work we do.

I always tell my social work colleagues that the antidote for vicarious trauma consists of three strategies: authentic connection with fellow travelers, exceptional self-care, and validation by our organizations of the work we do. I decided to get up at Portland ignite because I wanted to send a 5-minute message of deep gratitude to all social workers as well as appreciate all the folks who do social work without the benefit of a formal social work degree.

So here it is “Strong @ the Broken Places.”  Everything I know about vicarious trauma in five crisp minutes (20 slides, 15 seconds each, no stopping, no second chances). Happy World Social Work Day everyone!

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Wayne Scott

Wayne Scott, LCSW no longer does clinical work with sex offenders, but he does teach at human service agencies on the topic of vicarious trauma, as well as in the School of Social Work at Portland State University. He can be reached at wayne.scott.lcsw@gmail.com. View all posts by Wayne Scott

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