Monday, October 10, 2011

Vicarious Transformation

I have had the privilege of hearing Dr. Laurie Pearlman speak twice in the last month. The first time was at the ATTACh conference, where she was a keynote speaker. The second was in a distance learning training that the Traumatic Stress Institute did for its trainers. This was an interview with Dr. Pearlman by Dr. Steve Brown of TSI.

Laurie is developing the concept of “vicarious transformation”. We always discuss vicarious traumatization (a term she also invented) which refers to the negative effects on helpers of working with trauma survivors. Vicarious transformation refers to the positive changes in the helper which come about through empathetic engagement with traumatized people and active engagement with the changes in ourselves.

In Risking Connection© training we do an exercise which draws from participants both the negative and the positive ways that their work has affected them. In the positive section, people often say that they have grown as a person, become more patient, more tolerant, a better listener, a better parent. They also report that they are more grateful for what they have been given, and that they are inspired by the courage and resilience of the people they work with.

It is these effects which Laurie is naming vicarious transformation. She says: “through opening ourselves to the darker parts of the human experience, we may grow. When our hearts and minds are open to whatever we encounter, our humanity is enhanced.”

Dr. Pearlman stresses that in order to experience this growth, it is necessary that we turn towards the suffering we see. We of course want to deny it, to diminish it, to turn away, We convince ourselves that this could never happen to us. But when we are receptive, it is easier to care, and to enter into a genuine reciprocal relationship with our clients. Just as we feel their pain more acutely, we appreciate their strengths more directly. We experience the human potential in a deeply heartfelt way.

Dr. Pearlman recommends some techniques that can help us maximize the potential for vicarious transformation. These include receiving psychotherapy, journaling, yoga, meditating, praying, symbolizing our experiences creatively, and befriending emotion.

This exciting new concept helps us articulate why we stay in these difficult jobs. I look forward to further exploration by Dr. Pearlman, and by all of us in the treatment community.

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