Practicing Trauma Stewardship

Trauma Stewardship, written by Lipsky with Connie Burke, is a great resource for those working directly with others in trauma or those supporting, leading, or supervising those supporting others in their trauma. Author Laura van Dernoot Lipsky specializes in helping individuals and organizations who support others in their trauma. She works with emergency room doctors, child protective services social workers, social and environmental justice activists, and more trauma stewards. Her approach is grounded in psychology, a substantive oppression analysis, and wisdom and practices bridging many different spiritual traditions traditions. I turn to this often in my work with leaders and organizations looking to improve their workplace culture.

You can only go halfway into the darkest forest; then you are coming out the other side.
-Chinese proverb.

Defining Trauma Stewardship

The authors define trauma stewardship as “how we come to do this work, how we are affected by it, and how we make sense of and learn from our experiences.” It is how we manage and navigate what they call trauma exposure response, which others name as compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress disorder, vicarious traumatization, empathic strain, or secondary trauma. Trauma stewardship is work that can be done at the individual, organizational, and societal level.

Trauma stewardship is being fully present with others their pain, trauma, and suffering without taking it on as our own. It is a long-term approach to tending to our own wholeness so we can be helpful to others in our full integrity.

Practicing Trauma Stewardship

Trauma research has shown that people are capable of experiencing, managing, and enduring very hard realities when they believe in and act on their own agency to take steps to tend to themselves.

The authors recommend deep inner work for each of us to identify what it is we need and to be diligent in practicing not just for ourselves but also for those who seek to support in their trauma. This means exploring our own values and purpose, feelings and emotions, and past experiences and the meaning we continue to make of them. Critical to this is being able to be present. As they note, Pema Chodron describes this kind of mindfulness as “wholehearted, open-minded interaction with our world.”

Ancient traditions and contemporary teachers consistently valued being awake, present, and aware in this moment. Mindfulness. Wisdom of present awareness. Live your life from the here and now not in an anticipated future or ruminated past.

-Trauma Stewardship

The authors recommend a compass with five directions, which is tied to several indigenous spiritual traditions.

The Five Directions of  Trauma Stewardship practice.

Daily Practice of Centering Myself

This includes daily practices such as journaling, meditation, prayer, yoga, exercise, and many other rituals.

Integrating these practices into daily rituals and routines means that we don’t engage in these practices when they occur to us or when we feel we need them – which is often when we are already overwhelmed. Instead, as daily practices they become integrated into how we live our lives. These practices are the container within which we can develop each of the following four directions.

North – Creating space for inquiry.

We can create space for inquiry by building in silence, meditation, time away, moments, breathing, therapy, coaching, spiritual practice, and reflection. Many of the daily practices are opportunities to create this space and inner inquiry.

East – Choosing our focus.

Moving from reaction to response – choosing agency in our focus and attention. This doesn’t mean avoiding the tough stuff or pretending everything is good, but it means radically accepting reality and choosing our agency in our response.

Sacred pause and widest perspective helps us solve problems with creativity and compassion rather than rigidity and reactivity.
-Book of Joy, Dalai Lama & Desmond Tutu

South – Building compassion and community.

As I learned from Shawn Achor, social connections make the good days better and the bad days less bad. Cultivate relationships with friends and family. Connect with your communities from the micro (household) to the macro (global). Engage in action to make someone’s life a little better or to make the world better and everything in between.

West – Finding balance.

Our work, our support of others in trauma, our commitments and responsibilities to justice and activism are all important. AND if we don’t create space to figure our what we need and take time to replenish ourselves we undermine our effectiveness in that work and in the rest of our lives. You are not an infinite commodity. You are a renewable resource who must be renewed.

Student Affairs Work and Equity Work as Trauma Stewardship.

As I work with student affairs educators, leaders, and organizations across the US and Canada, they all identify an increase in mental health crises, bias incidents, and Title IX response that is near unimagineable and not sustainable to manage under the old model. We need new models for our work and how we do it, individually and collectively.

It may be tempting to ignore our individual role and focus only on the institutional and societal issues, especially when the systems we work with in are flawed and inequitable. However, those systems and structures will not change immediately AND as we work to change them we should not undermine our own agency in navigating the world as it is to help us be more effective in working toward the world as it should be.

Navigating anger, humor, and cynicism.

It can be so tempting when dealing with the trauma of others (and our own) to ground ourselves and our engagement with others in anger and cynicism.

Anger is a natural feeling. Responsible humor is one thing. Cynical humor is a sophisticated coping mechanism that is often used to avoid feelings of anger. It can be alluring and performative.

-Trauma Stewardship

Trauma stewardship calls on us to tend to ourselves, and give others permission, direction, and space to tend to themselves – not as an escape from our work but as a critical component of doing our work well.

To allow ourselves to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

-Trauma Stewardship

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