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Oh…You Work There

An otter covering its ears, with the caption: lalalalala I can't hear you!

I have been in the anti-violence field as a counsellor and activist for more than 25 years. Over this time I have encountered many reactions to my work and also heard from others in this field about their experiences. I have written this post with the intention of representing both my perspective and my perception of others’ experiences. I do not mean to suggest that every person doing this work thinks as I do, nor that this post reflects the entirety of how people react to us. Nonetheless, what I am about to describe is not uncommon.

Let’s tune into a conversation in a social setting, when I am first meeting someone.

Other Person: What kind of work do you do?
Me: I’m a counsellor at the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre
Other Person (pick one or more):

Oh…… that must be really hard.
How do you do it?
I could never do that.
Gosh, and you seem so cheerful.
….silence…
Wow, these appetizers are amazing!

For most of us, the truth is we don’t usually enjoy such conversations. If one reads between the lines, here are some of the assumptions people seem to be making when they respond in these ways.

Assumption: You hear horrible detailed stories of violence all of the time.
The reality: While we do sometimes hear stories of terrible things people have experienced, we do not hear them every day, and often not in great detail. We probably hear more explicit information about violence in the daily news. In fact, from a trauma therapy perspective, it is often not helpful to go in to “nitty-gritty” about traumatic experiences over and over, or before someone has the skills and resources for managing the emotions that come with the details (see Why We Work the Way We Do – Stages of Trauma Healing). Thus, a lot of the healing work at our Centre is about building those skills and working towards a solid foundation of safety in all realms of life (physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual).

However, this work does make us very aware that violence is a reality and not nearly so rare as one would like to think. (Which reminds me of another question I get asked – “is there much of that sort of thing [sexualized violence] happening in Victoria?” Answer: about as much as anywhere else, and we have no shortage of clients at the Centre.)

We bring that awareness of sexualized violence and other forms of oppression with us into the world and it informs our choices – how we live, how we raise our children, how we interact with other people, what movies or entertainers we are willing to see, and so on. When we aren’t at work and don’t want to be thinking about work, we are sometimes reminded of these work- related things from the news, social media, and of course when we learn of or witness violence in the lives of loved ones, or in our own lives – because there is no doubt that, whether you realize it or not, everyone knows someone who has experienced some form of violence or oppression.

This next point might surprise some: we also hear amazing stories of resistance to violence and oppression, resilience, and creative ways of surviving and coping. In fact, it is a regular and significant part of our work that we witness challenges overcome, resourcefulness, courage, resistance, healing, empowerment, and growth.

Assumption: You are self-sacrificing or, in some other way, extraordinary!
Perhaps underlying the assumption (whether conscious or not):

• If I hold this work as beyond any normal person’s ability then I, as a normal person, do not have to take responsibility for effecting change (working towards ending violence and oppression).
• I’m uncomfortable with witnessing others’ emotions, therefore you must be as well.
• I’m uncomfortable with facing the knowledge that people are capable of heinous acts, therefore you must find it uncomfortable and must be wonderful to tolerate this.

The reality:We do try our best to face the truths about the violence and oppression that individuals, communities, organizations, governments and society can inflict on others. We also believe that many others are capable of facing these facts, whether or not they realize it. Although it may take courage, you do not have to be amazing to hear and acknowledge a truth.

We are people who believe in the work we are doing, want to see change in the world and have found ways to work towards it. We are committed and dedicated, just like millions of other people who do their work with integrity. None of these things make us saints or martyrs. However, we would like it if more joined in.

Assumption: If you spend time with trauma-survivors you will be damaged/ harmed/infected in some way.
The reality: you may have heard of vicarious trauma, and it is true that a person who witnesses trauma, either seeing it happen, or learning about by hearing about other’s experiences, may experience responses that are as if they experienced the traumatic incident directly. However, vicarious trauma is not a foregone conclusion or a mysterious thing that just somehow happens – there are ways to prevent it and deal with it (for example, see this information sheet about Responding to and Preventing Vicarious Trauma).

A newer, but equally important concept is vicarious resilience. My resiliency can be increased by witnessing all of those things I mentioned earlier (courage, resistance, etc.). Stories of overcoming adversity teach us that we too can survive, have hope, and even thrive.

So, the next time you think, “wow, I could never do what they are doing”, ask yourself, “why do I think that?” Are you making some assumptions? If you want to know more about what I do and what it is like go ahead and ask, but try something that does not imply you know the answer:

How do you like your work?
What does your work look like?
What do you like best or least about it?
Even better: That’s important work, how can I be a part of it?

Like the academic stuff? Here are a couple of links:
Article which first introduced vicarious resilience.
Slide presentation for clinicians working with survivors of torture that has good information about the many different ways that working with trauma can influence us.

Image is from:  http://www.sadanduseless.com/image.php?n=667