As human service providers, we bear witness to the joys and suffering of service recipients. We may serve as advocates, caretakers, guardians, teachers or stewards. As stewards of those who have experienced adversity, and as providers who may have our own histories of traumatic stress and adversity, we may become susceptible to developing a trauma exposure response over time.
The Trauma Exposure Response
In her book Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide for Caring for Self While Caring for Others, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky describes the trauma exposure response as “the transformation that takes place within us as a result of the exposure to the suffering of other living beings… or the ways in which the world looks and feels different as a result of doing your work.” Each person may respond differently and with varying degrees of intensity. There are a number of warning signs in the trauma response cycle. If recognized early enough asking oneself, “What’s happening?” can serve as a means of prevention and aid in mitigating the impact of the trauma exposure response.
These responses may serve as protective factors at first. Yet if not addressed, they can become harmful and unhealthy, resulting in disengagement with the work and the people we care about, advocate for and serve.
Guiding Ourselves in the Resilient Direction
Trauma stewardship refers to “the entire conversation about how we come to do this work, how we are affected by it, and how we make sense of and learn from our experiences… We know that as stewards, we create a space for and honor others’ hardship and suffering, and yet we do not assume their pain as our own. We care for others to the best of our ability without taking on their paths as our paths… We develop and maintain a long-term strategy that enables us to remain whole and helpful to others and our surroundings even amid great challenges (Laura van Dernoot Lipsky).” Trauma stewardship is a call to wholeness and self preservation.
The Five Directions
In her book, van Dernoot Lipsky presents “The Five Directions” as a navigational tool in strengthening our capacity for trauma stewardship. As you guide yourself towards trauma stewardship consider these Five Directions based on the cardinal directions of North, East, South, West, and one more, Center.
North: Creating Space for Inquiry
A space for you and your inquiry. Why are you here doing this work? Why does it matter? Is it working for you? Self-inquiry is about being honest with yourself and seeing where it leads you. Ask yourself questions and respond with honesty and no self-judgment.
East: Choosing Our Focus
A place to focus your energy and recognize your dreams. Where are you placing most of your focus? And what are your other aspirations and dreams? Pay attention to them. Keeping this window open allows for creativity, freedom, and choice.
South: Building Passion and Community
Me and We – compassion for self and others. How do you stay connected to humility and recognize the balance of vulnerability and power? Make an intention to practice self compassion and compassionate connection with others. In doing so you will give yourself the breathing room to evolve and keep going. Where is your sphere of influence, and how can you create and sustain resilient communities?
West: Finding Balance
Balance and harmony. Put yourself on top of the list and consider ways you can balance care for others with care for self. Nurture your mind and body and engage with your lives outside of work. Remember the body holds onto stress, tension, and even trauma. Find ways to move energy through your body and build in regular gratitude practices.
Center: Daily Practice of Centering Self
Back to the present moment. It just takes a few moments to center oneself. Try practicing small doses of mindfulness each day and setting daily intentions. This will help ground you and offer a place for you to reclaim your wellbeing.
By becoming aware of our trauma exposure responses and working towards trauma stewardship, we can continue to commit ourselves to the mission of serving others. And we can do so without sacrificing a commitment to our own well-being. We recognize that both joy and pain are real and that transforming trauma into meaning and growth does occur.
What direction is your trauma stewardship guiding you towards today?
Invest in your resilience.