Monday, October 26, 2009


One of the most insidious dangers to all helpers of the suffering or the traumatized is denial - denial of the impact of secondary traumatic stress in our work and denial of the primary traumatic stress that may have drawn us to our work in the first instance.

Denial is an unconscious defense against knowing that which is too threatening to know. It is denial that allows us to remain unaware of our compassion fatigue until we grind ourselves into the ground, no longer able to ignore our own symptoms.

Denial comes in different forms including minimizing. To minimize means to trivialize a painful situation by comparing it with another that we deem to be worse. In Trauma Stewardship, author Laura van Dernoot Lipsky says,

"This coping strategy is at its worst when you've witnessed so much that you begin to downplay anything that doesn't fall into the most extreme category of hardship ... internally, you are thinking something like, 'I cannot believe this conversation is taking 20 minutes of my time. There wasn't even a weapon involved.' "

Denial is also evident when we intellectualize or rationalize our pain, stripping a traumatic experience of it's emotional impact or explaining away our responsibility for it.

Some degree of denial (functional denial) is healthy when it helps us through situations that would be otherwise overwhelming but deep, prolonged denial can cause us to ignore symptoms that are potentially psyche-threatening or even life-threatening.

So, how are we to deal with our denial so that we can recognize and heal our compassion fatigue? The first answer is, "gently". It rarely helps to wrench away the protective layers of denial. It is usually best to come at it obliquely, within a context of safety and support.

To come through our denial of primary traumatic stress, secondary traumatic stress, burnout or compassion fatigue, we need to move through a process of validating our trauma and loss experiences and acknowledging the feelings associated with those experiences. We need to reclaim the details of our trauma story, in our current work and in the past, and as we reclaim our truth, we can move on from denial and pain to transformation and resiliency.

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