How to Deal: When Your Empathy for Clients Is Overwhelming
Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be introducing some new columnists to the site. These columnists will be professional psychologists and social workers from across the industry who will be sharing some of their professional experiences with us. The hope is to shed some light into the day-to-day responsibilities of these professionals and maybe provide a little bit of professional advice from someone who has been there before. First up is clinical social worker Cherilynn Veland.
One of the first and most powerful things I learned was how to handle the depth and enormity of people’s burdens and difficulties. People often ask me, “How do you deal with all that hard stuff you must hear about and see? Don’t you take it home with you?” I usually assure them that most of what we clinicians do is so positive that it is rare to “take stuff home”. Most of that response is true. It is easier than it used to be, that is for sure.
My first job was at a battered women’s shelter in the South. The shelter was responsible for handling women and children from 10 counties in rural Alabama. All of these women came to us in the middle of the night, by virtue of the emergency room. Besides physical, emotional and sexual abuse, the majority of these women suffered from poverty and lack of education.
I used to take the kids who were staying at the shelter on walks and on “field trips” when I worked there. I found that broadening their perspectives and getting time away from their family and mom’s stress was a respite. One day, I took a 9 year-old young man named Marcus for a walk around the around the college campus at the University of Alabama.
Marcus studied and kept up with his homework. He seemed bright,had good manners and he didn't exhibit the ADHD type behaviors that were so common among the children from abusive homes. Sadly, the lack of hyperactivity made it so much more pleasant to spend time with Marcus. He was African American, like his mother, and had moved to the shelter after a middle of the night rampage. His father had beaten his mother, whom he adored.
As we walked around the campus, he asked lots of questions. It was a sunny day, and the university is set up on a quadrangle with a gorgeous bell tower in the middle. Right across from the bell tower, is the president of the university’s home. It is a white antebellum mansion, straight out of "Gone With the Wind". It has large white pillars and tall doors. This sight seemed to put us in a story book mood of dreaming and imagination.
He got excited as I explained that the Civil War had been fought here. I told him that General Grant had supposedly run his horses straight through the inside of the house. I told him I had heard the wood floors still had little dents in them from the hoofs of those horses the soldiers rode.
Then I showed him behind the house, “Those are probably where the slave quarters were, right behind there,” I pointed. “Slave quarters?” he asked. “What do you mean? Who was a slave?” He looked up at me with such an innocent face. Apparently, he had no idea what slaves were and had heard nothing about the challenges of his African ancestors.
In that moment, I was overwhelmed at the enormity of what this young boy had to handle in his life. He had seen his father beat his mother; he had been moved away from his town and everything he knew. He was attending a new school. He was impoverished with an unknown future. On top of that, he now had to hear about the history of generations of his people. He was gaining hard insights into some of the challenges that he will find in his life, as an African American male in our society.
I suggested he talk with his mother about “slaves”. I felt like it would have been disrespectful for me to have even tried to explain. I did tell his mother about our encounter and she appeared shocked at his lack of knowledge.
What to do with the hard stuff? At that age, I didn't know what to do with it. I just had such empathy. I just felt sad and pitied Marcus.
I now know that pity is not what anybody wants or needs. As my career progressed, I witnessed many difficult situations. If I could talk to myself now when I was that age, I would advise myself the following:
- Understand and know that everyone has a journey and an experience that he/she has to have. It is theirs to have and there is nothing I can do to stop or change these journeys. Nor, should I. Providing helpful resources, support , and by doing my job I can support their journeys.
- Treat all clients with respect. Providing even the smallest sampling of the good that is out there is part of their experience and learning.
- Don’t assume that Marcus (or any client) will do poorly based on their maltreatment or lack of opportunity. Spiritually, Marcus has a Higher Power (or whatever you want to call it) that will care for him and be there for him along the way.
- Expressing the emotions that his situation brought up in me to someone else is a must for processing these difficulties successfully. I am a big believer in therapy. This is a place where you can rely to get those feelings out in an honest and practical way. Storing that energy is too much for anyone. It has to be released. If therapy isn’t an option, group support is important.
- Group supervision or individual supervision is a powerful “burn out” antidote. Use whenever possible.
- Know that your clients are empowered and strong in their own ways. Even if trauma is currently hiding it temporarily from themselves and you. The stronger you believe they are, the more empowered they will become.
The tools that I have developed are uniquely mine and everyone has to develop their own set of tools. Whatever strategies you develop will be specific to you. Hopefully, some of these ideas will help.
Marcus’s mother did go back to her abuser, and I never saw Marcus again. I still think about him and wonder if the light in those brown eyes saw him through his journey in life. I feel like I am honoring him and his experience now by using his story to help others.
Note: The names, identities and descriptions of the people in this story have been altered and fictionalized to provide anonymity.
Cherilynn Veland is a clinical social worker licensed through the State of Illinois to provide counseling for individuals, couples, and families. She has more than two decades of experience in areas including in-patient psychiatry, child welfare, domestic violence and sexual assault, and substance abuse treatment. She currently runs her own private practice called Lincoln Park Counseling and agreed to share some of her most memorable professional experiences for us. Follow Cherilynn on her blog Stop Giving It Away, Google+, Twitter, Facebook. Also check out her expert interview on crisis management.