The most essential thing that a program can do to insure the energy, hopefulness and longevity of its staff is to imbed attention to vicarious traumatization into its daily life.

What is vicarious traumatization (VT)?

Laurie1Vicarious traumatization refers to the negative changes in the helper as a result of empathically engaging with and feeling, or being, responsible for traumatized clients. (Saakvitne, Karen et al.(2000) Risking connection: A training curriculum for working with survivors of childhood abuse.  Lutherville, MD: Sidran Press.)

The term was coined in 1990 by Laurie Pearlman and further developed by Kay Saakvitne. At that time it was very unusual to talk about the impact of trauma work on treaters. In many settings, it still is.

Kay1VT is result of giving our hearts in our work. If we didn’t invest in our clients, protected ourselves, didn’t risk our hearts, we probably wouldn’t have VT AND we wouldn’t be very effective.

VT is an inescapable effect of trauma work — an occupational hazard.

It is neither the fault of the client, nor a result of “weakness” on the part of the treater.


Vicarious trauma can be seen:

  • In the parent who cannot trust her child with a babysit because of stories she has read in client files.
  • In the worker who sees a father playing with his daughter in the park who thinks “I wonder if he is molesting her”.
  • In the mother who goes home after a long work days and can’t bear to listen to her children’s problems because she has been so filled up with problems all day.
  • In the isolation that you feel when you cannot explain your work to your friends
  • In an inability to sleep, or scary dreams about a client
  • In doubt about one’s own work and efficacy
  • In stomach aches and headaches
  • In excess sick time
  • In cynical statements like “these kind of clients never change”.

VT damages hope and optimism, which are essential gifts we bring to our work.

Like a construction worker has to deal with falling debris, this is our occupational hazard. The bad news is that is inescapable. The good news is that there are things we can do to minimize it.

The hallmark of VT is damage to hope and to the sense of meaning in our work. Like for our clients, giving up hope can be adaptive – if we give up hope, we can’t be disappointed. BUT, having hope is essential to our work.

The single most important factor in the success or failure of trauma work is the attention paid to the experience and needs of the helper.

Addressing VT is an ethical imperative.

VT can impact:

  •  Our identity, worldview, and spirituality
  • Our core beliefs about safety, trust, esteem, control, and intimacy
  • Our own ability to manage feelings
  • Our bodily feelings and experience including our sexuality
  • Our sense of meaning and hope

With survivors of trauma there are certain areas or domains that are impacted. Many of the same domains are impacted by VT.

For the rest of this month we will examine aspects of vicarious traumatization, what to do about it both personally and as an agency, and how to promote vicarious transformation.

Click here to download a vicarious traumatization checklist adapted from Risking Connection®.

Click Here to Get Your Checklist

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