NCFY Reads: 'Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others'

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Photograph of a green healthy tree growing on a hillside.

“Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others”

by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky with Connie Burk

A social worker encourages a healthier approach to professions that aid people who have experienced violence and trauma.

Everyone brings their job home from time to time. If you work with families and youth who’ve experienced violence and trauma, you may have more than a report to read or email to answer. You might be carting around a feeling of always needing to be there for your clients, a sense of hopelessness, mental exhaustion, maybe even physical aches and pains.

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, a social worker and educator who has worked with the homeless, with victims of domestic violence, and on a hospital’s trauma unit, knows exactly how you feel. She’s stood at the edge of a breathtakingly beautiful cliff while on vacation and, instead of enjoying the view, worried about imaginary people who might jump to their deaths and what it would take to save them. Her intimate knowledge of what it’s like to be exposed daily to other people’s pain and her strong sense of empathy are the key ingredients in “Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others."

Lipsky makes a strong case that social service workers need to be encouraged to care for themselves. Otherwise, their exposure to other people’s trauma not only harms the workers themselves, but also the people they aim to help.

Thinking of the Work in a New Way

The problem, Lipsky says, is not the nature of the work itself. She describes working for an organization that combatted HIV-AIDS, a place where staff buzzed with inspiration despite the sadness and despair they often faced. Other places she worked left her cold.

“It wasn’t about the condition of the carpet or how many multicultural posters were on the wall,” she writes. “It was whether light and hope and feelings of possibility were emanating from the institution or whether the organizational culture felt negative, exclusive and hopeless.”

Central to Lipsky’s approach is the idea of “trauma stewardship.” She writes:

When we talk about trauma in terms of stewardship, we remember that we are being entrusted with people’s stories and their very lives … We understand that this is an incredible honor as well as a tremendous responsibility. We know that as stewards, we create a space for and honor others’ hardship and suffering, and yet we do not assume their pain as our own.

Lipsky describes in detail 16 “warning signs of trauma exposure response,” ranging from fear, guilt, and anger to “a sense that one can never do enough,” diminished creativity, chronic exhaustion and the inability to listen. Anyone in youth and family services is likely to recognize their own symptoms, or ones they’ve noticed in peers, bosses or direct reports.

Lipsky’s antidote is rooted in self-knowledge. Be present, she says. Notice what is going on around you. Know what motivates you and where you want to go. She also lays out what she calls the “Five Directions”: North, a place where we can ask ourselves why we’re doing what we’re doing. East, a space for prioritizing and choosing focus. South, the direction of compassion and community. West, the direction for finding balance in our lives. And the fifth direction, in which we center ourselves.

In the Five Directions chapters, the book offers exercises and practical suggestions. Make an intention for the day. Tell a person you’re grateful to them. Choose a supportive person to talk to about why you’re doing the work you do. The tips are helpful both for individual readers looking for self-care rituals, and for managers in search of exercises to share with staff.

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