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Caring for Yourself Means Changing the System

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky Posted by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky.

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky is a trauma social worker, educator, and consultant.

Caring for Yourself Means Changing the System

Wikimedia Commons

A Q&A with the author of Trauma Stewardship yields helpful and compassionate insights; then, to be blown away, watch her TED talk on Beyond the Cliff. 

“Self-care,” is becoming an increasingly popular buzzword for people in social work and other caregiving professions. Both trauma-stewardship and self-care address the problem of burn-out. In what ways are the concepts similar and different?

Trauma stewardship pulls way back, and looks at caregiving in the larger context and lens of systemic oppression and inequality. Through this lens, we look at how inequality and oppression effect all the different levels of people’s lives. How does it effect their society, their community, their organization, their movement, their home? Trauma that is inflicted on many different levels can become cumulative. Trauma stewardship pulls way back, and looks at exposure to trauma, crisis, overwhelm in the larger context and lens of systemic oppression and inequality. Through this lens, we look at how inequality and oppression effect all the different levels of people’s lives. How does it effect one’s society, community, organization, movement, home? Trauma stewardship expands the conversation far beyond burn out. We are talking about the ways that one’s world view comes to look like a different place over time.

Why is it important that people in the caregiving professions look at this holistically and comprehensively?

It’s important because of our aspiration and commitment to Do No Harm. As Desmond Tutu and so many great teachers have said, our means must be consistent with our ends. The people I work with all have a shared ethic of aspiring to do no harm; and that means working to dismantle systems of oppression throughout ones’s community and in society.

I think I get it. People get burned out, if they are always putting on bandaids and never getting a chance to address what causes the bleeding. In this way, the concept of trauma stewardship, goes much deeper than “self-care” in addressing the problem of burn-out.

Next question: What advice would you give to the friends and relatives of people who do trauma work? How can we support our loved ones who do the work of caring for those in pain?

One of the most harmful things that can happen when we’re trying to work for social justice, environmental justice, social change or day in and day out trying to show up for others (whether it’s for your job, or whether you’re caring for someone at home) is that we get isolated. Even if there are many people at your home, even if you’re a community activist surrounded by other activists, you can still become isolated. You can be isolated in a crowd. And that isolation can also create a lot of harm. So I would advise loved ones to err on the side of over-stepping if you’re worried about a loved one.

As long as it’s done with humility and a beginner’s mind and some insight and empathy. You don’t want to be reaching out with exasperation, or rigidity, or judgment. Many people think along the lines of, “I want to give them space,” but the problem is if someone is suffering from vicarious trauma, secondary trauma, or compassion fatigue, sometimes it’s hard for them to be aware of it. It may be more obvious to someone watching them from the outside. It is good to interrupt the isolation if you see it occurring, and you can intervene with humor and humility.

Why do people resist feeling compassion for themselves? How do they move past this resistance?

Many of us resist feeling compassion for ourselves, because we’ve been raised in traditions that have either implicitly or explicitly taught us that if you care enough about your cause, if you’re dedicated and down with your cause… there is a merit and valor in sucking it up. Also, historically, there’s also been a real honoring of martyrdom, and that’s much of the conversation that we’re wanting to shift. We want to help people understand, that when you’re exposed to suffering, hardship, crisis, trauma, that there will be a toll. There are ways to metabolize the trauma, transform it and integrate it— but everyone is effected by exposure. It just manifests differently. It’s not about being tough, and committed, and down with your cause enough. If you are going to be in it for the long haul, you need more than just dedication— you need a daily practice.

Watch Laura's amazing TED talk below.  Or, to read an excerpt of her book, click here.