“I am a survivor of [childhood trauma/mental illness]. I have struggled with [self-destructive behaviors like disordered eating, addiction, risky sexual behavior, self-harm and/or suicide attempts]. I have been diagnosed with [diagnoses] and take [medication] and have done therapy and am doing better. I want to help people like me—should I?”
Two extreme answers are:
a) of course not—you are way too fragile!
b) of course you should—peers are the best kind of support there is!
These may sound like caricatures of real answers, but I find it helpful to think of extreme examples to yes or no questions, since the truth is usually somewhere in between. Naturally, there are arguments for either option, and questions to consider to help you make your own decision, rather than providing one for you.
I remember in grad school that it wasn’t unusual for people to want to work with a population with whom they had a personal connection. An alumnae of the foster care system would want to work with foster children; a survivor of sexual violence wants to help other survivors. This personal experience with an issue can be highly motivating and really helpful in empathizing with clients. But empathy means vulnerability, and if people haven’t dealt with their stuff they can become overwhelmed.
I remember many episodes of sitting in field seminar, where we met for an hour to talk about our internship placements, listening to a handful of my classmates cry week after week because of the impact their placement had on them. They questioned whether they should even continue in social work. Whether or not they should was only something that they could answer, but it was clear that they were overwhelmed what they were experiencing.
Does this mean that trauma survivors shouldn’t do trauma therapy?
I don’t think it does. For one thing, trauma in the broad sense is so common that it would eliminate a lot of candidates. Another is that most of us in the room weren’t overwhelmed and many of us were survivors of different experiences and diagnoses.
Also, my personal experience is that it is people who know pain who are most drawn to sit with others who are hurting. My mother, a very wise woman, says that it takes pain to know pain. That is, only people who have endured hardship are truly prepared to endure other’s people’s hardship with them.
So what does this mean for the many “wounded healers” in the profession? My next post discusses how to know if you’re ready, how to get there if you’re not and how to stay there through the challenges of working with vulnerable populations.