When we love or care for someone deeply, our lives may easily get wrapped up in someone else’s experience. Even a little bump or scrape can cause an emotional pang if someone close to us expresses pain. It is no surprise then, if a friend or partner or family member lives through or recalls to us their trauma, we might take on a great deal of anxiety that does not seem to belong to us but that we cannot shake.
You don’t even need to know a victim of trauma very well to take on their emotional pain. Social workers, healthcare professionals, even journalists who work in areas burdened by war or natural disaster or help individuals who have suffered any kind of trauma can suffer vicarious traumatization. According to Dr. Ellie Izzo, who literally wrote the book on the subject, even lawyers who are arguing acrimonious divorce cases can take on the pain and anxiety of their aggrieved clients.
It is important not to feel guilty or ashamed by vicarious trauma, this is happening because you have strong powers of empathy, and that empathy is being stretched across all your other feelings as you see people you know or have come to care about undergo terrible things that they don’t deserve. Any hope you might have in the goodness of the world seems to grow smaller each day, and your emotions feel like they are out of control.
Many symptoms are similar to those of firsthand trauma, but those suffering from the pressures of vicarious traumatization might also encounter difficulty in navigating what was once the easily distinguishable barrier between your life and the lives of others.
Humanitarian aid workers are particularly at risk, so be careful when joining that helping hands organization that it has a responsible and reliable support network for its workers so you are not left feeling like it is you against the whole world. If you find yourself becoming overly involved with a love one who has suffered trauma, remember that relying on a larger social network and immediately seeking help is best for both of you. Don’t shut yourself off from the other people who care, and remember it is not your responsibility to fix someone else’s life. Even if you have the best intentions, you can’t help anyone if you are harming yourself.