Saturday, April 10, 2010

Vicarious Trauma and Personal Identity

Sometimes therapists exposed to the emotional traumas of their clients experience vicarious traumatization: they can become overwhelmed by their immersion in the painful memories and life events of others. Vicarious traumatization is most likely to occur when we identify and empathize with a person who has experienced disruptive threats to personal safety and security.

I had my first taste of vicarious traumatization when I worked in a rural community health center. Every day I met with people who were experiencing the results of sexual abuse, incest, physical violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and neglect. I found it difficult to separate myself from my work: I did not want to become hardened and jaded like many social service workers I encountered, but I also did not want to lose myself in the barrage of the worst of human nature.

Eventually, I did a 180 degree turn, moved to a major university, and specialized in student counseling with a young, relatively healthy population. The vicarious experience was upsetting to me, but also constructive in that it led me to a fulfilling application of psychology.

Since that time, I've become convinced that vicarious traumatization occurs in varying degrees throughout life. Whenever we are exposed to the pain and upheavals of people we care about, we internalize that experience. Their life crises can become our own turning points.

There is no question in my mind that working with traders who have experienced career-ending losses in markets has helped to shape my own views on risk and approach to risk management. Seeing the shattered marriages and relationships of people I knew and worked with led me to approach marriage very carefully and only commit when I was certain that this was the right decision.

A friend's horrendous experience with a drug overdose--and years of work seeing people's lives ruined by drugs and alcohol--totally ended my days of partying. If I am in a setting where there is excessive drinking or drug use, I leave. The connotations are all wrong for me. I viscerally experience the lives and relationships ruined, not the joy of a party.

I'm quite certain that I will never truly retire. Long experience seeing people languish and deteriorate during their retirement years have tarnished my view of those golden years. My personal experience of others' retirement is one of empty lives and motion without direction. Intellectually, I recognize that retirement does not have to become a living death, but that is not my vicarious emotional reality.

I could go on and on. Seeing the mistakes parents have made with their children has shaped my childrearing. Seeing traders fleeced by crooks offering phony holy grails has sharpened my views on integrity.

In each case, I have developed facets of who I am in response to traumatic outcomes I've witnessed among others.

I suspect I'm not alone in such a developmental course. The people we're close to are always role models: sometimes in a positive way, sometimes in reverse. That's not necessarily a bad thing: You can emotionally imprint some of the best trading behaviors by witnessing the consequences of some of the worst.



Jorge said...

Dr. Stenbarger,

Excellent post.

The people we're close to are always role models: sometimes in a positive way, sometimes in reverse.

Yes! I would say that the degree to which one has emotionally experienced violence, alcohol, abuse, etc. will influence in the strength of the response, not its direction.

Also, even though probably these responses are influenced by both genetics and upbringing, every single time there is a personal willful decision: to succumb or to overcome.

All the best,


PS: I guess in retirement you see who was just paying the bills and who was living his vision.

Roberto said...

A very interesting post, Dr. Brett. In my life I've seen a lot of abuse of all possible kinds and I managed to learn a lot from it.

I chose rightly. And I'm proud of that, yes, very proud indeed because it wasn't the simplest of choices, you know. I could easily have gone down with the others.

Best regards and a wonderful sunday, RDV

George said...

Ya' know that old trees just grow stronger.
And old rivers grow wilder ev'ry day.
Old people just grow lonesome.
Waiting for someone to say, "Hello in there... hello."

From the 1971 song:
Hello in There
by John Prine

Your post made me think of that song.

david said...

Great posting, thanks.

bobble said...

"Long experience seeing people languish and deteriorate during their retirement years have tarnished my view of those golden years. "

so true. i just retired, but my lifelong dream has always been to trade the markets. i never had the time or money, now i do! i'm still trading on paper and unfortunately not consistently profitable. but i get up every morning at 6am (on the west coast) and keep at it. i thank you for your excellent blog, probably the most overall helpful that i read.