The joy - pain spectrum at work: vicarious resilience (Part 1/3)

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January 13, 2021

Post-traumatic growth is a familiar concept to many. But what about other positive impacts that workers can experience? Vicarious resilience and compassion satisfaction help us to understand the ways that workers in helping or caring roles can be positively impacted, or even transformed, by witnessing the strength and resilience of others. Holding an awareness of both ends of the spectrum - the joy and the pain in the work - may hold the key for a healthy, successful and durable career.

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Compassion and reciprocity in the helping professions

Most people enter work as a teacher, a health professional, a carer or a first responder through a sense of compassion: a desire to help others. This requires an ability to step into another’s experience, in order to understand, meet and transform it in some way. The experience is shared: both the struggles and pain, and the triumphs and successes. Workers are trained and practise keeping themselves out of the situation, but inevitably step into the joy and the pain of those with whom they work. And this, in turn, has an impact: it is a reciprocal, neurobiological phenomenon. Sometimes it brings joy and other times it brings hurt. We can conceptualise this as a continuum, with pain, fatigue and exhaustion at one end, and joy, satisfaction and energy at the other. Both ends of this spectrum are a natural and normal part of the work.

All emotions are contagious... both the ones that are pleasant and the ones that are unpleasant.

For better or worse, we are impacted by the people around us.

Consider the last time your best friend told you they were having a baby.

Or, what it’s like to be in the room with someone who is shouting at you.

Take a moment to reflect.

  • What were your feelings?
  • Did you have a different response to each circumstance?
  • What were the physical sensations associated with each feeling state?

If you stop and pay attention, you may be able to have a sense of these feelings in your body, even now? These are two very different, felt experiences that show just how powerfully we may feel, and respond to, each other’s emotions.

We’ve all heard of vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue; what are less well known are their lighter, brighter siblings: vicarious resilience and compassion satisfaction*.

Vicarious Resilience

Vicarious resilience, first coined by Hernandez & Engstrom in 2007, describes the unique and positive transformation that can occur between therapists and clients as a result of witnessing the resilience and recovery of trauma survivors.

Although research in this area has focused on relational trauma and torture, the focus recently expanded to explore vicarious resilience for teachers in schools, and in mothers, working to support families in their communities.

Take Alex as an example:

Alex is a social worker who supports parent victims of family violence. Every day, she hears stories of abuse, neglect and violence. Some days, these stories can take their toll on Alex – she may struggle to sleep at night, she may be irritable, have headaches and struggle to concentrate at work.

However, on other days, she feels energised and inspired by the stories of strength and hope that she hears, as her clients step their way out of danger and despair. Not only do they simply carry on each day, they aspire to a better, meaningful future for themselves and their children.

At these times, Alex marvels at the strength, perseverance and hope of her clients. It makes her reflect on the amazing resilience, tenacity and wish for a better future to which humans can aspire.

Alex reflects on this warm feeling of expansion and welling-up inside of her.

As she feels the light in the darkness, she feels empowered, inspired and hopeful.

This is vicarious resilience.

So, what are the most important things to know about vicarious resilience?

  • It is a dynamic and reciprocal exchange between worker and client that promotes growth.
  • It involves empathy, attunement and authenticity in the relationship.
  • The worker needs to connect with their clients’ growth, resilience, and pain.

Hernandez-Wolfe states that vicarious resilience is more likely to occur with the following attributes or practices:

  • increased self-awareness
  • healthy self-care practices
  • client-inspired hope
  • a capacity for resourcefulness
  • acknowledgement of the clients’ spirituality as a potential resource
  • worker-awareness of their power and privilege in relation to the client
  • capacity for the therapist to be able to attend to the narrative of the client

So what does this mean and how can we foster vicarious resilience?

Most workers in helping or caring roles would aspire to the above attributes.

The key is having

  1. an awareness of yourself, what is happening for you in relation to your client and your own needs
  2. prioritising self-care
  3. a supportive workplace

Workplaces that support workers to reflect, access adequate supervision and take the time for self-care are essential.

Just as vicarious trauma involves the transformation of the clinician through the empathic engagement with clients’ trauma stories, so too does the process of vicarious resilience, but in a different (more positive and healing) direction.

*Often a companion of vicarious resilience, compassion satisfaction involves the sense of empowerment and satisfaction that you may feel when you are doing your job well in a caring or helping role. Unlike compassion fatigue, which leaves you feeling drained and overwhelmed, compassion satisfaction is protective.

Read more about compassion satisfaction in Part 2 of the 'Joy - pain spectrum at work' series here.

Related Resources

Header image: Lina Trochez