When your daughter experiences trauma, you want to be there for her and help her through it. However, during the process, you may notice that you start to experience the signs and symptoms of trauma yourself. This is known as vicarious trauma.
What is Vicarious Trauma?
If your daughter has experienced trauma, such as sexual assault, at any point in her life, it is going to be tough for you to hear of her experience. As you are trying to help her work through what happened, you will feel your own emotional well-being tested. It is natural to experience traumatic symptoms yourself.
You may be experiencing vicarious trauma if you notice you start to feel some stress, emotional exhaustion, or even compassion fatigue because you are hurting for your daughter who had to experience something so awful.
"You may be experiencing vicarious trauma if you notice you start to feel some stress, emotional exhaustion, or even compassion fatigue because you are hurting for your daughter who had to experience something so awful."
You don't want to risk burnout from the secondary traumatic stress you are feeling, so it is best to establish healthy self-care activities when helping others who had a traumatic experience. The best self-care practices to take part in when you experience vicarious trauma stem from self-compassion.
What is Self-Compassion?
A lot of people get confused about what self-compassion really is. The best way to look at self-compassion is by breaking it down into three parts: being kind to yourself, practicing mindfulness, and understanding the common humanity that you share with others.
Being kind to yourself.
When you are helping someone who has traumatic stress, pay attention to the thoughts you are feeling and how you are talking to yourself. Are your thoughts self-deprecating? Are you letting those negative thoughts overpower you?
Giving yourself permission to be kind to yourself ultimately puts you in a healthy state to work with others who have had traumatic events happen to them.
Don’t get lost in the forest. Be nonjudgmental about your thoughts and feelings about the situation and about others. Be present in the moment—don’t future trip or dwell in the past. You may notice after talking with someone who has experienced trauma that you are experiencing secondary trauma yourself. Maybe you are feeling anxious, sad, or angry. It’s common for people to get down on themselves and start thinking, “I didn’t have this trauma, why am I feeling this way? What’s wrong with me?”
By practicing mindfulness and self-compassion, you are going to take a look at your feelings and say, "Yeah I’m feeling this way, but I’m not going to judge it. Rather, I am going to just recognize it." By doing this, you give yourself the space to be kind to yourself and the space that you personally need to heal.
When you are not getting lost in your feelings, then you are able to step back and observe the situation unbiased. This is vital because by practicing self-compassion yourself and being present in the moment, you are in a more stable position to help your daughter. This helps her learn by your example how to also practice that and heal.
Understanding that there is a common humanity in what you are experiencing is another part of self-compassion that people miss. You are not alone. There are many others who have experienced similar things to what you are going through. The ability to accept this knowledge can really empower you to not be discouraged and isolated and to move forward.
How to Utilize Self-Compassion
Self-compassion can be used in many different ways. You can use it formally and informally. You can use it while in a group of people or when you are alone. When you are alone you can do a much more in-depth practice of self-compassion that can go a long way. It is also something that you can use and practice all throughout the day in small moments or large moments.
Imagine you are at the store. You get in line to check out. As you are standing in line, you notice a young girl in line with her mother. This girl looks to be the same age as your daughter was when she experienced trauma. You may start to feel those vicarious trauma symptoms creep up.
If you are not practicing self-compassion, then you will get in a space of judging your feelings and feeling guilty. This is a tough space to be in and you can get stuck.
If we look at this same scenario with someone who is practicing self-compassion, then it will look a bit different. The feelings will still creep up—having self-compassion doesn’t mean you won’t feel them—but you can recognize it and remind yourself that you are not alone in the world and that you are not a bad person for feeling this way.
"The best part about this is that having self-compassion allows you to still experience those vicarious trauma feelings but not get stuck. You are able to move on, grow, and heal."
Recognize that you are judging yourself as a bad person and then from there tell yourself, “You know what, that may not be true.” The best part about this is that having self-compassion allows you to still experience those vicarious trauma feelings but not get stuck. You are able to move on, grow, and heal.
How to Practice Self-Compassion
The best thing you can do is to practice self-compassion even when you feel happy. Familiarize yourself with the different components of self-compassion. What are they and what can they mean for you? Notice the connection you have with humanity in the happy moments. Be mindful and present in your happy moments and always be kind to yourself.
Common Pitfalls to Avoid When Practicing Self-Compassion
The biggest mistake people make when they are practicing self-compassion is that they think they have to do it perfectly. They think if their mind wanders then they have done it wrong. That if you end up feeling this one time then there’s no hope—this is not accurate.
Self-compassion can be life-changing. It is something that you can utilize in many different scenarios that come up in your life. For example, perhaps you just had a really tough conversation with your daughter. She just disclosed something to you that was very difficult to hear. You are devastated that she went through this. It could bring up feelings of guilt for not being able to protect your child. Utilizing self-compassion allows you to give yourself space to heal. You can realize you are not alone in the world and so you don’t need to isolate yourself. You can make a choice to do something kind for yourself that will help to heal your own wounds.
"With self-compassion, the best advice is to practice practice practice. Every time you practice, you are getting more information."
With self-compassion, the best advice is to practice practice practice. Every time you practice, you are getting more information. You are gaining more skills. When you practice self-compassion and you are not judging your judging—that is when you know that you are on the right road.
How Can New Haven Help?
New Haven is a mental health residential treatment center that helps teen girls who have had traumatic experiences. We specialize in helping families heal from the traumatic stress they experience through vicarious trauma.
New Haven's staff consists of mental health professionals who know how to work with clients who have experienced trauma. Our therapists have experience working with trauma and they can help clients learn to develop self-care strategies that will help decrease the PTSD-like symptoms they may be feeling.
Your daughter will be able to heal from complex trauma in a safe, home-like environment here at New Haven. Our therapists work not only with teen girls but also with their parents and families to help them navigate the vicarious trauma symptoms they experience.
Working with trauma can cause emotional burnout if not done correctly. If your family has experienced trauma or any type of post-traumatic stress, please don't hesitate to contact one of our mental health professionals. There is hope after trauma.