Vicarious Trauma: Do You Have To Carry Client Struggles Home?

Being a lawyer is a stressful job; the hours are long, clients are in difficult situations, and every situation is an adversarial one. In certain legal specialties, though, client trauma can be particularly extreme, and this can lead to a state known as vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma occurs when someone is repeatedly exposed to another’s traumatic experiences. Overcome by hearing about other’s experiences, you may experience PTSD symptoms similar to that of your clients. It’s an unfortunate consequence of caring about people who have been harmed.

Living with vicarious trauma is overwhelming and can even make it difficult for you to do your job, but is it inevitable? Proper stress management strategies can help minimize the impact of vicarious trauma on your life and your practice.

Identify Stress Sights

As a lawyer, one of the best ways to manage stress is to stop it before it starts. That means, if during the course of a day, you notice you’re multitasking, distracted by clutter, or your to-do list grows, be mindful of that. Rather than just pushing through, observe what makes you stressed and determine what you might do to diminish that strain. Maybe you can take a short walk or a few deep breaths, or perhaps you need to reorganize your desk. The goal is to take a step away from whatever is causing that anxiety.

Acknowledge Client Trauma

Another step to minimizing your own experience of vicarious trauma is to directly engage with clients regarding their experiences and processing some of that together. Though you’re a lawyer, not a therapist, if you simply nod and move on when clients tell you about their painful experiences, you’re keeping what health psychologist Kelly McGonigal calls your emotional armor on. By removing that emotional armor, you’re better equipped to offer client-centered services, make your clients feel heard, and establish clear goals.

In practice, taking off your armor means letting a little bit of your client’s stress in and this actually protects you more than if you were to completely block out your client’s experience. For example, if you deal with a lot of workers compensation cases involving serious injuries you may experience vicarious trauma and anxiety about being injured yourself, or experience nightmares or obsessive thoughts. Don’t let professionalism get in the way of expressing honest empathy for your clients so that you can move forward together.

Emphasize Mental Health

Discussing mental health is difficult for a lot of people, and lawyers can be especially hesitant to bring up the topic since those with the most serious issues have even been suspended from the practice of law. Unfortunately, according to the American Bar’s research into lawyer well-being, those in the field are at an increased risk for depression, addiction, and other mental health issues. Though it’s understandable that you would want to keep your psychological distress quiet, speaking out can help destigmatize mental health issues and allow you to get the help you need.

Addiction is especially common among lawyers, and that’s precisely because of issues like vicarious trauma; lawyers struggling to process their clients’ experiences turn to alcohol or drugs as a form of self-medication.

Push Past Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a common trait among lawyers, as well as doctors and many other high-powered professions, but perfectionism won’t help you navigate your client’s trauma, or your own. If you’re going to thrive, you need to let go of your perfectionism. Focusing excessively on achieving the ideal outcome for every client, on protecting them from the consequences of their own trauma, can make the situation harder on both of you. At that point, you’re not only struggling with vicarious trauma, but with your own sense of failure. Perfectionism may be in your genes, but you need to get it out of your head.

It’s hard not to take your client’s trauma home with you – and in many ways, it’s your responsibility to bear that weight. That doesn’t mean you have to suffer under that strain forever. Let your clients in, but then breathe that stress out. You can only serve your clients well if you’re calm and focused, so take care of yourself.

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