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Helping Hurts
by
Alicia Jones and Don Bosch
on
October 18, 2012
| Resilience |

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

There's a story about a New York Times reporter who interviewed Mother Teresa, an Albania-born Indian Roman Catholic nun ministering to the poor of Calcutta.  He followed her for a day as background for a story.  After a few hours, they had walked only two blocks, stopping repeatedly as she knelt to pray and hug the poor living on the streets.  He finally blurted out, “How do you ever expect to be successful when the need here is so overwhelming?”  After a few moments of silence, she responded, “It never occurred to me to be successful.  I’m just trying to be obedient.”

By all accounts, Mother Teresa was an exceptional humanitarian worker.  She was someone you would be proud to know.  Since her death in 1997, she has been nominated for formal sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.  Few would doubt her deep faith, sincere motives, and far-reaching effectiveness.  Yet, many were shocked when her private diaries revealed that she was tortured by a growing sense of unworthiness and nagging questions about whether God had abandoned her. Rather than the result of a lack of faith, I believe Mother Teresa may have been the victim of vicarious trauma resulting from decades of work with victims of poverty, famine, and disease.  Perhaps she was eventually exhausted and overcome by the human suffering that surrounded her.  She took on the emotional wounds of others, leading to her own mental and spiritual depletion.  Quite simply, Mother Teresa seemed depressed in her final years. She’s not alone. 

Our own research and clinical experience demonstrate that this is a common experience for many of you working in humanitarian relief or development careers.  More than 25% have struggled with emotional problems caused or made worse by this work.  The things you’ve done, seen, and heard have changed you deeply and permanently.  You may be stronger and wiser than ever, but you may also feel sadder, less optimistic, or even numb.  Years in the field can have a lasting impact – helping hurts. That’s the sobering truth - but not the entire story.  Here’s why I’m at the Headington Institute: there is much you can do to help yourself with this challenge.

  • You can build your emotional capacity to cope with the hazards of this work.  We have identified attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that build personal resilience and help maintain general wellbeing.  These can be found on our website and in our training workshops.
  • Should you experience burnout, vicarious trauma, or compassion fatigue, there are things you can do to promote your recovery.  You’ll find them mentioned in our online resources and in-person training and counseling services.
  • By seeking understanding and support from family, friends, and colleagues, you can assemble a vital community of encouragers who will accompany you on the journey back to wholeness.  Don’t do this alone.  You need the love and help of others.

After 12 years of serving the humanitarian aid community at the Institute, I’m convinced that an effective “self-care” plan reduces the likelihood of vicarious trauma.  While “helping hurts,” maintaining personal resilience “helps.”  It’s worth your time and effort. In my daydreams, I imagine the privilege it would have been to offer psychological assistance to Mother Teresa.  Unfortunately, that was not possible.  But, we have that same opportunity today – to support you.  And I’ve found that to be a similar privilege, based on a desire to keep the Mother Teresa’s of the world thriving in their work. Peace. 

-  Alicia Jones and Jim Guy

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