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.