Sometimes it really is all too much…and that’s OK.

You may have noticed fewer blog posts lately. I’m not writing as much since December 14. Something about that event – that particular explosion of mass violence – feels like it shattered some part of me.

Usually joy fuels my writing, but right now my joy is scattered jagged fragments littering the soft floor of my gut.

I have a theory about why I’m feeling this way, and since I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one, I thought I’d share.

A good friend of mine (Elizabeth Venart) is a licensed professional counselor who educates other helping professionals about something called Vicarious Trauma (VT). Wikipedia defines VT this way…

Vicarious traumatization (VT) is a transformation in the self of a trauma worker or helper that results from empathic engagement with traumatized clients and their reports of traumatic experiences. Its hallmark is disrupted spirituality, or a disruption in the trauma workers’ perceived meaning and hope.

After listening to Elizabeth during several workshops when I was a guest presenter, I’ve become more aware of how something similar to VT (though not VT itself) might show up in my own practice. (Soul-Truthing can include witnessing some traumatic life experiences that influence how people are perceiving themselves.) I just wasn’t expecting it to show up in response to events outside my practice.

Here’s what caught my attention. VT is a process. It’s effects are cumulative, occurring when an empathetic listener repeatedly witnesses traumatic stories. And, as you saw in the definition above, it disrupts spirituality, meaning and hope.

Now for the theory I mentioned above…

According to research collected by Mother Jones, in 2012 there have been seven mass shootings in the United States. There have also been several huge natural disasters (Hurricane Sandy, the midwest drought, widespread wildfires…)

Because of the internet and instant media coverage, we witness these traumatic events with excruciatingly intimate immediacy. Raw, confusing, overwhelming…

Even if we were only attentive to coverage of major U.S. events this year, we still witnessed repeated trauma. Even if we avoid watching and listening to the news and reading newspapers we still met with these tragedies through social media. And none of this takes into account personal tragic events.

My joy shattered because I have an open and loving heart, because I’m a changemaker, and because the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school was the last trauma my system was able to accumulate in such a short time.

To be clear, I’m NOT experiencing VT (or PTSD or secondary trauma). But I have gone past the edge of my resilience. My shattered joy and lost writing mojo are signaling for my attention. Asking me to re-group and restore my resilience, hopefully before I’m witness to any more trauma. What about you? Have you ever experienced reaching the edge of your resilience after witnessing trauma from a distance?

There are no quick fixes for this. I don’t think there should be. Anytime something shatters you have the chance to learn, to transform, rather than sticking the pieces together and heading back to the way things were. The journey does take willingness, and patience, I can tell you that much.

Not knowing exactly how to repair my shattered joy is disconcerting. But, relying on my inner guidance, reaching out to friends and colleagues, and doing extra self-care seem to be a good place to start. I’ll let you know how it goes…

If you’re a mental health professional I welcome your thoughts (and corrections if I’ve inadvertently given any misinformation.)

(originally published January, 2013)

27 Replies to “Sometimes it really is all too much…and that’s OK.”

  1. Tracie, earth activist (and dynamic 80 + year old!) Joanna Macy talks movingly about ‘despair and empowerment” -about how the blessing of having our hearts cracked open -is the openness, to one another. In losing the insular protection of our small self we have the chance to re experience and reenact the truth of connection to /oneness with all that is.
    Id imagine that your ‘reaching out to others’ -and writing in this honest way you have here -must be the perfect apt medicine. And as for you -for us all. So, Thanks!

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    1. Anna, how perfect of you to mention Joanna Macy’s work! I love her wisdom. Certainly a big part of the motivation for sharing my experience was to offer a sense of solidarity and shared compassion to anyone who might be feeling like this, but not recognizing it or feeling shy about speaking about it. And, yes, it’s absolutely healing for me to reach out to others…

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  2. your blog caught my attention today. I am feeling the same. I thought it also might be the holiday blues. But what you wrote and your research has given me more to think about. It really has been difficult lately with all the crap going on in the world. I wish you well and thank you.

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    1. Thanks for speaking up Debbie. As Anne mentioned in her comment, reaching out to community is a really important part of re-building our resilience. If you are feeling this way, I’ll bet there are others in your community, circle of colleagues, even family who might be also. A good conversation and a cup of tea can work wonders… Wishing you well, too!

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  3. I appreciate the part of your title “and that’s okay”. I forget sometimes that it’s okay. I forget that wading through the muck of messy feelings and intolerable events is part of our expansion.

    I forget there is a way thru. I forget that this is when we reach for each other and mutual support. I forget that life is a series of ups and downs but overall the trajectory is always towards love. I forget that there is always love calling us even in the bleakest and repeated trauma of unfathomable experiences.

    And yes, forgetting is just a growing pain, both personal and collective.
    Thanks for the reminder that it’s all okay.

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    1. Deborah, I think that part of the title was as much me reassuring myself as it was me reassuring everyone else! Yes, it’s OK. We’re OK. And we are all heading deeper into love even when the landscape looks so very bleak….especially when we’re walking together. Thanks for being here with me.

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  4. Tracie,
    Thank you for writing. I have been feeling a bit blue too. We had a drought this summer, and a blizzard that just missed us on Christmas eve. I was riveted to the weather station during Super storm Sandy as areas where I used to live in Manhattan were flooded and without power. Then the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School trigged lots of feelings. I taught for many years at an Elementary School in Hartford CT and there were some difficult situations. Definitely more self care and feeling into loving possibilities is my direction now and connecting with others.

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    1. You’re welcome Catherine. Thanks for reading and commenting! It sounds like you were really in the thick of challenges this year. Glad you’re reaching out and claiming more self care, dear lady.

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  5. There is a component of collective soul loss that occurs with these sorts of events. The component of empathy for those who have lost loved ones is part of it, as well as the pulling on the collective bond we share in All Things. I think when we experience this sort of collective soul loss, we can’t seek to only repair ourselves, individually. We must be able to connect with resources that allow us individual healing, but also address that communal soul loss.

    Thank you for sharing this insight. Blessings.

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    1. Amen Kelley. Beautifully said. This is a journey of rebuilding my own resilience with such consciousness that what I do is done for the collective soul, too. Thank you for being here…

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  6. This doesn’t include all the violence we are exposed to on T.V and in movies. I reached my tolerances level after the Sandy shootings. I can’t take these violent movies anymore, even when they are brilliantly done. This saturation of violence isn’t natural and I agree with you in that we have to be even more conscious of our exposure to it as technology grows.

    Great post!!

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    1. True Monica! I’ve avoided violent, scary, dark movies for a while now. Just don’t see the point. I was blind-sided by the deep responses I had to the discussions and emoting on social media. Thank you!

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  7. Tracie – I just saw this post today. Did you write this with me in mind, because you’ve so accurately described what I’ve been feeling for the past two months. It’s why I have scaled back on the number of clients I am seeing and I’ve even questioned whether or not I want to continue with my practice.

    I’m coming out of it now, but still feel a bit fragile from time to time.

    Thank you so much for writing and sharing this. I thought I was all alone and that it was only me.

    Frd

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    1. Fred, I wrote it entirely from my heart, though there was an intuitive nudge to do so. I’ve learned those usually mean what I’m experiencing is something around which other folks could use a little dialog.

      Just a thought….they’ve expanded the list of helpers “at risk” for Vicarious Trauma to include clergy, first responders, aid workers, journalists, disaster relief workers etc…. I’d go a step further and include anyone doing healing work from a trauma-informed perspective. Which, I’m sure you know, includes you. If you’re interested in VT resources, let me know. I’m happy to pick Elizabeth’s brain.

      Hugs to you, Fred, for all you do. You’re not alone. It’s definitely not only you. And, judging by the responses here, you’re in pretty good company.

      P.S. I just posted this today, so you’re all over it 🙂

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  8. Hi Tracie,

    It feels like Newtown was meant to Wake us all up and propel us into Transformation. It was easier to hide from adults and teens and the occasional small child dying in mass murders or on other continents, but 20 little kids and 6 women who loved those little kids is just too much. I personally have been quiet concerning gun control so as not to offend anyone with loud, aggressive passions concerning the right to bear arms, even after the mass murder at Va. Tech that took place in buildings where I studied and in a dorm where I lived. Women, mothers and not, are now speaking up clearly and loudly and many men (and women!) in power, including Barrack Obama, see that they can no longer sit on the fence, that they can no longer allow themselves to be bullied and worn down, and that political service is SERVICE to the people and that can be hard. The feminine is coming together on something that matters and I think we are all being asked to add our energy, even if it’s just our signature to a petition and speaking our truth when we have the opportunity. I believe we are being asked to be part of the mass of energy, in a small way or large, that will change our current culture before we collapse.

    Just my take and hope it is in some way helpful to you. You are definitely not alone in your feelings!

    All my best,

    Linda

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    1. Linda, thank you for offering us your voice, here. I value your thoughts, your experience, your story. And yes, most fiercely yes, to “I believe we are being asked to be part of the mass of energy, in a small way or large, that will change our current culture before we collapse.”

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  9. Thank you for sharing your story, your heart, and this important information with the community, Tracie. I was moved by your writing and also by the meaningful responses and heartfelt sharing that has followed. Vicarious trauma is a real and powerful experience – and an inevitable part of the work when we connect empathically with those in pain and suffering. While it is inevitable, it is also modifiable. Otherwise, I wouldn’t choose to do the work I do to educate helpers about it! (It would be too bleak a message.). The most powerful antidote is to do exactly what you do so poignantly: To talk about it. When we talk with peers and mentors and share our authentic experiences in an atmosphere of compassion and non-judgment, healing happens and our resiliency returns. The erosive effects of vicarious trauma need not lead to burn-out, although they sometimes do when caregivers fail to heed early warning signs. Those early signs, like vicarious trauma itself, are very unique to each person. The key is to know ourselves, listen to ourselves, trust ourselves, and – first and foremost – take really good care of ourselves. Sometimes we may feel an inner push to “do more” when we hear about the atrocities in the world. And sometimes a call to action (and taking some concrete action to help) can be helpful for ourselves as well as for others. Often, however, that inner tug to “do” more may actually be a sign that we’re triggered, feel vulnerable, and are getting overloaded. At these times, we need to slow down and do some good soul-nurturing.

    I have been leading trainings and providing individual, group, and organizational consultations on vicarious trauma and practitioner wellness for over fifteen years. As part of this work, I have pulled together some resources which you can find at http://www.counselorwellness.com. I hope you will find this useful. Please also feel free to reach out to me directly – or through Tracie – if I can offer additional support.

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    1. Elizabeth!! Thank you for adding your wisdom and resources to the conversation. I so appreciate your presence in my life. Consider yourself hugged…

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  10. Dear Tracie,
    Thank you so much for this post. It helped me tap into why I have been feeling sad and teary lately, and to finally allow myself to cry deeply. And to understand why I also have not been feeling up to writing for my blog or on FB, etc.

    The massacre at Sandy Hook was some kind of last straw for me, and broke some layer of defense I had up against all the horrible news from around the world. I think Vicarious Traumatization is a very good term for what we are experiencing, even if not technically exact. Prior to the modern forms of communication, humans only had to deal with the disasters & crimes in their own neighborhood. It’s taking a lot of evolution to open our hearts wide enough to be with all the news of suffering that we hear of daily. No wonder we get overwhelmed at times.

    Your post is such a good reminder to be gentle with ourselves. I appreciate your sharing this with us.

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    1. So glad my story helped you understand your own experience more deeply Rahima. Thank you for sharing your courageous heart here. Yes, be gentle with yourself. Keep talking about this with loving listeners. Keep breathing and evolving…gently.

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  11. Tracie,
    I just saw this post. You have brought to the light feelings many are experiencing and may not know why they are feeling those feelings, or even be able to articulate those feelings. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and graciousness with us! ~ Harmony

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  12. I appreciate the distinction you are making here between a disruption in your spiritual flow (my words, not yours) and post traumatic disorder. Naming this allows us to face into the challenge, as you are suggesting, with an ever deepening maturity in our spiritual connection. Source, Great Spirit, Sophia, the Tao… whatever you call this primordial energy is infinite in its possibilities around every event that occurs in our world. However, we have tended to reach for this connection mainly for comfort in times of stress, and this can keep us immature. I hear you reaching for a different, more complex, more of the dark feminine, Persephone (Queen of the Underworld) wisdom. This route is less explored in our culture than the light-ascending route which often takes us up and out of our body. Resting in the mystery, waiting for wisdom, staying connected to the actual feelings without pushing them aside to avoid feeling pain… does ultimately yield wisdom. I hear it rising in you and through the comments of others on this blog. The New Age that we are in now is not all light and love. It is also about our ability to in great darkness and to wait… to allow the light to rise in its own time, its own way, within us, and then to bear that light in our hearts and bodies, the lumen natura, into the world. Thank you for opening this wonderful conversation, Tracie.

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    1. Thank you Andrea! You know how much I respect your wisdom and guidance… Yes, resting into this – allowing myself space – reaching out to community – wrapping myself in the dark womb wisdom — these were all essential to finally moving through the shattered-ness and emerging, as you say, more spiritually mature.

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