Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma is the term for what people in helping professions experience when they hear about or bear witness to the suffering of others.  Also known as “compassion fatigue,” “secondary post-traumatic stress disorder,” or more simply, ” burnout.”  It took me a while to realize it, but I’ve got a bad case of it right now.


I think the term originated from studies of counselors who assist domestic violence victims, and that’s actually the context in which I had my first experience of it. Through a clinical program in law school, I spent six hours translating a painfully detailed affidavit from Spanish to English.  For the next week whenever Bob tried to kiss me, those images of abuse were all I could think about.

The last two weeks at work have been pretty rough.  A case I did a lot of work on has come to a dead end, and a lot of people I’ve gotten to know and care about – including families with small kids – are now caught between a rock and a hard place.  In the short term, I’m worried for their physical safety; in a few weeks, they may be homeless.  And I’m powerless to do anything about it.

My previous experience with vicarious trauma was in many ways less difficult.  The danger my client was exposed to was in the past, and in the present, my lawyering skills were able to provide her with exactly the kind of help she needed at that moment.  This time around neither of those things are true.

This is the first time I’ve ever felt responsible for helping a particular person or group of people, and then failed at it.  I know this must be part of being a lawyer, but it’s not something I’m experienced at or know how to deal with.  I feel like I let them down, feel this irrational guilt even though I don’t think there is anything I could have done better or differently that would have changed the outcome.

After a week of unproductive days and sleepless nights since the end of the line became clear, I finally acknowledged what I was feeling.  Starting tomorrow I’m taking two days off of work, and Bob and I are going to take a little R&R in Durban.  Mornings at the beach,  afternoon naps, evenings sampling the city’s Indian restaurants.

It doesn’t feel right to be taking a vacation just as things are getting so bad for my friends.  Intellectually I know that detaching myself from their trauma and moving on is the only way to get back in a spot where I can do good work for anybody. But it feels uncomfortably like I’m becoming one of those veteran human rights defenders whose ability to detach themselves always struck me as jaded.

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2 responses to “Vicarious Trauma

  1. Back again. I’m sorry you’re feeling burned out and just wanted to say please do NOT feel guilty for recharging. The world needs some sprinters for social change, but many more marathoners–and marathoners need to rehabilitate or they will ruin their knees (well, literal marathoners will probably ruin their knees anyway, but you get the idea…).

    This is in many ways the logic of my trip in the face some guilt for not jumping right back into the fight after school.

    In the words of another pretty cool Bob, “keep on keepin’ on…”

  2. Well put, Adam. Enjoy your holiday, Lea and Bob. Well, the second holiday…

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