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Vicarious Trauma

Many therapists have been working with adult sexual assault survivors long enough to recognize their own signs of secondary or vicarious trauma and may have developed healthy coping skills. Working with child sexual abuse/assault victims can produce different trauma impacts that are not recognized until coping skills have eroded. We are forever changed by this work and must continue to be aware and to keep ourselves healthy.

To everything there is a purpose and a season. It is easy to lose sight of this. It is easy to believe that we control the universe, or at least our little corner of it, or at least that we should be able to. It is easy to believe when things seem to be going wrong it is someone's fault and that when things are going well it is someone's fault. We work hard to pull ourselves, our agencies and our clients out of times that feel bad to get back to the good feelings. When things are going well we may glory in our successes and believe we created them ... and of course we did and we didn't. As I watch the ebb and flow of agencies within my community (my own included) it becomes obvious to me that there are ups and downs, good times and bad, times of stability and times of change. Just when you get confident riding the wave... a lull rolls in and the sea is calm...just as you are getting comfortable floating --in comes a storm you are not sure you can weather.

What does all of this have to do with vicarious trauma? For me vicarious trauma is more likely when I'm identifying too much with the wave-- positively or negatively. When I believe the lows are a result of my own short-comings, inabilities, lack of hard enough work and the highs are a result of my own learning, abilities and perseverance, I am setting myself, my colleagues and organization up for vicarious trauma. I know how important balance is. But sometimes it's too easy to become short sighted and see only the clouds or only the sun.

John Lennon wrote, shortly before his death, in a song dedicated to his son, "Life is what happens while we are busy making other plans". While we are waiting for the conditions to be just right we deal with what is. Managing vicarious trauma isn't about our grand plans for how it should be addressed it is about how we make sense of and react to today. I'm not saying we should never congratulate ourselves and each other for a job well done or that we should not examine critically mistakes that we make. We do influence our clients and the field. But, we might not want to cling too strongly to the belief that we have ultimate control. Whether adults or children, many survivors of sexual assault want desperately to believe that they could have controlled what happened to them and can control future assaults. We as helpers may want desperately to believe that if we can just "get it right", find enough funds, hire enough staff, attend the right trainings... we can make everything ok. Sometimes we just have to laugh and be awed by the paradoxes that are inevitable in this work.

In this spirit I have started posting cartoons on the copy machine at my office. The cartoons (from the New Yorker) are taken from a wonderful new book by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky with Connie Burk called Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others (2006). Sometimes laughter is the best medicine. At times it is through laughter I can see a situation most clearly. There are many poignant moments in this book and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in better understanding vicarious trauma.

Laura is available for keynote addresses, workshops, retreats, organizational consultation, and one-on-one meetings. For more information on the book or to contact Laura van Dernoot Lipsky please email her at

Many thanks to Stephanie Sacks, Director of Therapy Services at the Sexual Assault Center of Pierce County for this "Tip" and resources.

Additional Resources

  • The Guidebook on Vicarious Trauma: Recommended Solutions for Anti-Violence Workers prepared by Jan Richardson
  • "Vicarious Traumatization I : The Cost of Empathy" (DVD) Cavalcade Productions (1995)
  • "Vicarious Traumatization II: Transforming the Pain" (DVD) Cavalcade Productions (1995)
  • Trauma and the Therapist: Countertransference and Vicarious Trauma in Psychotherapy with Incest Survivors by Karen Saakvitne and Laurie Ann Pearlman (1995)
  • Transforming the Pain by Karen Saakvitne and Laurie Anne Pearlman (1996)
  • Help For the Helper: Self Help Strategies for Managing Burnout and Stress by Babette Rothschild (2006)
  • Compassion Fatigue by Charles Figley (1995)
  • Treating Compassion Fatigue by Charles Figley (2002)
  • Children's book The Secret Keeper by Kate Coombs (2006)
Reviewed: July 11th, 2016