“The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as being able to walk through water without getting wet.”
Rachel Naomi Remen
I was doing a presentation on wellness for a group of students last week, and I started the presentation by asking each person to check in with how they were doing, given everything that was going on in the world. A young woman started speaking, and she cleared her throat a few times as if she was struggling to push the words out. “I feel guilty about doing anything,” she said, “I can’t drink a glass of water without thinking about the people who don’t have water right now. I can’t enjoy myself at a friend’s birthday party because it doesn’t feel right to enjoy my life when people my age are dying halfway across the world.” I saw many students nodding in agreement, and a few students shared their own stories of feeling guilty, hopeless, depressed, and overwhelmed.
A few days later, I received a call from a friend who is a professor at a law school. She told me that she is planning to resign because she can no longer take the “pressure cooker of stress” that law schools have become. “Law schools used to be places where we could disagree with each other, even argue when we needed to. I can’t deal with how little of that there is now, how much there is anger instead of a desire for dialogue.”
On a Zoom call with a senior executive at a large corporation a few days ago discussing the content of an upcoming program, he abruptly stopped speaking and looked down at his notes. When he looked up, he had tears in his eyes, and he said, “It feels silly to be talking about inclusion and belonging when people are dying. These days it feels like everything we are doing is rearranging the deck furniture on the Titanic while it’s sinking.”
The stories above, unfortunately, have been more the norm than the exception over the past few weeks. Everyone is describing it slightly differently, but no one seems to be escaping a feeling of heaviness that is infusing their emotions and daily activities. This feeling of heaviness being experienced individually and collectively is very real, and it has a name — vicarious trauma.
Vicarious trauma is a complex psychological phenomenon that comes in many different multifaceted forms. I won’t attempt to explore all of vicarious trauma in any great length here, but there is a form of vicarious trauma that I’m seeing many people experience these days that is exhausting and burning out people in ways that surpass what I saw at the beginning of COVID or even during the summer of 2020. Maybe we never fully recovered from everything we experienced in 2020 and 2021, or maybe what is happening now is severe in a way that we won’t understand until we are on the other side. There isn’t much we can do about the causes of this vicarious trauma, but naming it and understanding it helps us to mitigate its impact on our health and wellness even as we continue to live through the experience of it.
The vicarious trauma that is currently being experienced en masse in our lives and workplaces is the type that arises from the cumulative effects of repeated exposure to pictures and information about extreme trauma being experienced by other people, especially trauma experienced by people we see as part of our communities. This cumulative exposure can lead to intense feelings of sadness, anger, hopelessness, disconnection from reality, and even survivor’s guilt. And with continued exposure, these feelings continue to intensify, sometimes to the point where they can dominate our thoughts and disrupt our ability to live our lives. This vicarious trauma, however, is different than the vicarious trauma we collectively experienced during COVID and the summer of 2020 because of deep-seated disagreements about what is right and wrong, about who is right and wrong.
When vicarious trauma becomes entwined with disagreements about what we deem to be fundamental values and beliefs, we lose access to one of our strongest allies in fighting vicarious trauma — our ability to be compassionate across differences. Our ability to feel and express compassion for others has nothing to do with whether or not we agree with them. We can disagree wholeheartedly with someone and still feel compassion towards them as a human being. We can even be angry as hell at someone, resent them for everything they have done, dedicate our lives to fighting against the injustice of what they have done, and still feel compassion for them on a human level. Disagreement is a cognitive activity; compassion is an emotional choice.
The impacts of vicarious trauma are intense and real, and one of the ways we can focus on healing ourselves and each other is to tap into our ability to be compassionate. Compassion is the active expression of empathy, and
if it isn’t inclusive, it’s not truly compassion. I’m not suggesting that compassion is an easy choice to make, especially in the middle of feeling rage and pain, but it is the only choice we can make to mitigate the trauma that we individually and collectively feel. The psychology truism that “hurt people hurt people” is playing out in each of our lives and on a global scale, and we have to remind ourselves that adding more hurt on any level does not help anyone.
Inclusion teaches us to honor and value the humanity of others, especially when we disagree with them. We wouldn’t need to work so damn hard at inclusion if it was easy, but we also keep working at it because we know it is essential to our collective wellness, prosperity, and peace.
When you are finding yourself getting angry with someone or something, see if you can bring compassion into the mix of what you are feeling. You don’t have to replace your anger with compassion…just see if you can allow your anger and compassion for the people who are causing your anger to coexist in your mind at the same time.