It is a staple of every conference in the non-profit world: the survivor of the very issue we are all there to discuss, shares their story. The conference center salad is served: pale romaine leaves, the one sort of red cherry tomato, the two gravy boats of dressing. And out comes the Inspiring Person.
Inspiring Person shares their story, and those of us in the audience who work as service providers are inspired to keep going. The speaker is the culmination of all of our hopes for our clients. And they may also be a mirror for ourselves. Because if you've ever worked on a social issue, you know that many of your colleagues have direct experience with the issue at hand. And that can be an overwhelmingly powerful thing--or a dangerous phenomenon that will impact that survivor, their colleagues, and your ability as an organization to deliver effective and ethical programming.
Social media has taken sharing our stories to a new level. What used to be reserved for our friends and family, our therapist, our congregation, has an audience. And it's not just a memoir book deal, or selling the film rights-- our life's greatest challenges and triumphs are now easily posted by any of us on our blog, as an Instagram caption, or regular Facebook updates. Brene Brown's work on vulnerability has inspired many people to share their stories. And sharing can be empowering. But Saint Brene did not give us carte blanche here; it is not always healing and empowering when we share. She reminds us that we have to decide who has earned the right to hear our story. And that we should not be sharing we have not yet processed for ourselves.
In my most requested training, Trauma-Informed Radical Self-Care for Service Providers, I share the highlights of my resume--and then how those highlights align with some of the most profoundly personal pieces of my life. I share that it didn't occur to me when I took a job in HIV prevention that I was perhaps working to right the wrongs against my close family friend who had died of the disease. Or that serving refugees was in some way serving my immigrant grandmother who boarded a ship to give me the kind of life she never could have imagined for me. Or that my work around Adverse Childhood Experiences helped me answer life-long questions about my reactions to losing my parents at a young age and a childhood with a chronic health condition. I was drawn to work in the domestic violence field and it took me training others on domestic violence to name that it had happened to me years before.
And in all of these instances, I am far from alone. I have always worked alongside colleagues who came to the work via their own personal experiences with the topic at hand. Non-profit break rooms, blogs, and interviews are full of "I wanted to give back after I had received help" and "I wanted to use my experience to help others" and "I think this happened to me for a reason, and helping others is it." These are some of the most dedicated employees I have ever worked alongside.
But I have also seen them burnout at alarming speeds.
When we are confronted daily with our own trauma, especially trauma we may not have fully addressed and integrated yet, we can have the same trauma responses that we are trained to see in our clients. We can easily project onto that client, rather than empathize. What if the client isn't doing it the way you did it? We can become frustrated and self-righteous. What if the client has more resources than we did to resolve the problem? We can become defensive and withholding. We know these are not pathways to healing, but if we are not engaged in our own healing, we cannot walk with others on their journey in ways that are effectual, and I will argue, even ethical. If we are asking our clients to show up for themselves, to put in the hard work of self-exploration and healing, we must be engaged in that too.