Buenos Aires is my professional home in Latin America and I have been offering seminars, public lectures and sometimes living here in Latin America for over seven years now. This visit was especially gratifying since I was able to complete the offering of my two year systemically oriented social trauma modules and congratulate students who have completed this training. Their last module was about burnout…also known as “compassion fatigue.” Ideally, this module would be offered at the beginning and not the end of trauma training curricula because it is the absolute number one reason why we cannot keep people actively engaged within our field. Often, healing and helping professionals rush headlong into trauma work because they want to help and be of service. Just as often they are woefully ill prepared for oncoming and inevitable challenges. Many of these well intentioned souls soon find themselves caught up in complex and overwhelming situations where they are in too deep without adequate skill, experience, supervision or other appropriate support, are overcome by overwhelm and then, drop out.
I began to address this issue in my first book, Relative Balance in an Unstable World: A Search for New Modules of Trauma Education and Recovery (also available in Spanish and German). Those of us well experienced in trauma work know and understand the seductive powers of intensity and crisis and the comfort of being in the presence of someone whose pain is greater than your own. In some ways, crisis also serves as a kind of emotional undertow and pressure equalizer, where outside pain serves to offset and balance whatever pain still rests inside oneself. This process, however, has a tendency to become cumulative whereby the pain of others continues to become compounded with one’s own. The danger here is that gradually, or even suddenly, there can develop an ever increasing need to search out and find ever larger fields of intensity and crisis. It is not difficult to imagine how a process such as this can prove disastrous for intimate partnerships and pragmatic routines of ordinary family life, and how trauma specialists can become isolated from their loved ones. Over time, these patterns of ongoing intensity, overwork and isolation can also lead to serious health problems as the body breaks down from lack of maintenance and ongoing stress.
It has been my experience that what one chooses as a profession, way to earn a living or as a serious hobby often has to do with a conscious or unconscious desire to heal some unfinished business left over from previous generations. At times this can manifest as a conviction that one is destined to carry out some form of personal mission. These missions that stem from entanglements with previous generations or other members of one’s family system often contain a decidedly driven quality.
For those facing burnout or wishing to prevent this, it could be useful to ask “Who or what am I trying to save?” For whom or for what am I trying to atone?” “What is unfinished or unbalanced in my family system and does my choice of work have anything to do with that?” These questions and concerns are not intended to discourage those who might be interested in or already engaged in trauma work. The intent here is to raise awareness of some of the more obvious pitfalls and encourage anyone interested in healing, helping and trauma work to undertake a commitment to seriously pursue their own inner work as part of any effort to be of genuine service to others.