It is said that the darkest part of the night happens just before the light of the dawn emerges. At that point ‘the night, the light and the half-light’ (WB Yeats) weave together. Neither one can exist without the other. The nature of working with people who are struggling is like these woven forms of dark and light. The emotions we feel in the work, from elation to doubt, from despair to hope, all exist because of each other. Moreover, as a worker we would not feel them if we are not present to the work. Here lies the power we can harness as part of self-care.
The emotions we feel from working with people—feelings like frustration, sadness or despair—tend to get labelled ‘negative’. But they shouldn’t be. While these feelings can cause discomfort within us, they are part of the complexity of the human condition. They are life telling you something, and they are waiting for a response. These emotions may impart negative effects upon you, depending on how you relate to them and the messages you attach to yourself, the work you do, and the people you work with.
It is vital for self-care to give a voice to these emotions in a way that serves both you and the people you work with. It is important to guard against the felt experience of the work either with self-blame (e.g. ‘I should be more professional’) or self-absorption (e.g. ‘I feel totally despairing’). In approaching the emotions of the work with a sense that you should not be feeling them, adds guilt to already existing emotion. You may then add impatience as you feel a need to stop these feelings quickly, followed with a dose of critical judgement for feeling them in the first place. Adding guilt, impatience and criticism to a situation that was already causing you some discomfort, deepens our distress and strips away compassion for who you are.
In approaching the emotions of the work from a place of your own despair dishonours the clients’ experience. While listening to someone’s experience and feeling it, it is important to remember it’s not your experience. If you focus on your own reactions too much, you risk losing the purpose of your work and placing your own feelings over those of the people you are working with. As the emotional reactions to a client’s situation arises, the first thing to recognise is the reason that you are feeling this emotion is because you are doing the work. Your presence in the work is already an ethical statement, it is saying for example, ‘I am choosing to do this work to assist this person in front of me achieve their goals and hopes for the future.’ Furthermore, there is another layer of ethics in this emotional experience. It speaks to you and to you as a worker. It is important that you locate what it is telling you, for example:
If you feel anger about a client’s situation, could that indicate your belief in social justice? If you feel sadness for a client, could that point to your compassion? If you feel despair, could that be showing your hope for humanity.
Whatever the emotional experience, walk it through the darkest part of the feeling to the light of ethics. From this ethical position you can illuminate all that is powerful about you as a worker, all that is honourable and all that is worthy. And from this place you can choose time and time again, how you want to treat people, no matter how anyone else does. How you want to see the world, no matter what anyone else describes it as. How you want to be, no matter what anyone else says you should or should not be. That is a powerful way to walk through life, to be bringing to work and look after yourself. That is the wonderful weaving of light, night and half-light.
Cara House was one of the first trauma centres in Sydney and is still considered one of the leading trauma services to date. Cara House delivers creative and innovative services to children, young people and their families. These services are human rights, trauma specific, attachment, reclamation and renewal based. Learn more.