The Helper’s Balance When Encountering Trauma and Suffering

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Length: 30 minutes

Bill Gorman, PhD, ABPP

The helper engaging with an individual in distress may be confronted by two opposing dangers.  The first is enmeshment in which one becomes overly absorbed experientially into the person’s plight with the consequences of transgressing essential boundaries or developing secondary trauma.  The second is detachment in which one becomes defensively removed from any real appreciation of the plight with the potential for connective failure or burnout.  The solution for avoiding both outcomes is to work figuratively with “one foot in and one foot out,” a dualistic stance often easier cited than effected.  It is also a balance constantly shifting, within and between meeting intervals, and even more so from one individual to another and one cultural framework to another.

This complementarity can require acute self-awareness, self-care, and flexible equilibrium on the part of the helper.  In one classic therapeutic system, it was referred to by Harry Stack Sullivan as the dynamic process of participant/observer.  It encompasses the dialectic simultaneously of seeking subjectively to understand phenomenologically, or from “within,” the other’s reality while also maintaining objectively a more critical monitoring of theory, context, and one’s own reactions, including counter-transference.  The former aspect is a function of one’s empathic and relational capacities, and the latter draws upon one’s psychological knowledge, self-reflection, and use of training, consultation and supervision.

Both sides present challenges of continued development for the helper, demanding honest humility in acknowledging that in every endeavor to engage there can be more to learn, about both oneself and the other.  And it is all the greater when the other is in some respects in extremis, for example, by reason of a psychotic condition, a severe trauma, or a significant cultural difference.  However, this presentation will argue that the common existential grounding and a disciplined compassion for the other can bridge many such chasms with benign effect.

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