Trauma Stewardship: Don’t Take Home Their Crap

by Joseph at

I could have titled this, "Don't take home their treasure." It is a precious thing when someone trusts us with their pain. But realize "treasure" can start feeling like "crap" if we don't steward it properly.

What is Trauma Stewardship?

The term "trauma stewardship" originated in a book (published in 2009) of the same name by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky. The overarching idea of trauma stewardship has long been present with other names. In the book, Dernoot Lipsky mentions "provider fatigue" and "caregiver stress" among others. Trauma stewardship is a fitting and memorable phrase. It is more precise and clear than other words for the same phenomenon.

Dernoot Lipsky's definition of trauma stewardship clarifies the connection to traditional stewardship. "We know that as stewards, we create a space for and honor others’ hardship and suffering, and yet we do not assume their pain as our own." Just as a steward cares for but does not own the master's possessions, the trauma steward cares for the traumatized person while being careful not to become overburdened with their trauma.

After so many years of...bearing witness to others' suffering, I finally came to understand that my exposure to other people's trauma had changed me...I had absorbed and accumulated trauma to the point that it had become part of me.

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky
trauma stewardship: an everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others

We instinctively identify with other people. Human beings are social creatures. The mere observation of something happening to another person causes us to involuntarily react as if we ourselves were experiencing the same thing.

The intensity of our vicarious pain or pleasure depends on a number of factors. Observing the pain of a loved one causes us far more pain than observing the pain of a stranger. Imagine a parent who says "This hurts me as much as it does you," when disciplining their child. As bizarre and unhelpful as that sounds to the child, it may well be true. This intense identification with our closest family members leads to a counter-intuitive insight. Appropriate trauma stewardship is most difficult and most important when applied to our closest relationships.

This will be further clarified in the last section when we discuss the work of Edwin Friedman. 

Why do we identify with other human beings?

The biological basis for this identification is currently attributed to mirror neurons. A more robust explanation for it goes all the way back to day 6 of creation:

The LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep. As the man slept, he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. 22 The LORD God made a woman from the rib which he had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. 23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. She will be called ‘woman,’ because she was taken out of Man.” 24 Therefore a man will leave his father and his mother, and will join with his wife, and they will be one flesh. 25 The man and his wife were both naked, and they were not ashamed. (Genesis 2:21-25)

We often consider the "one flesh" joining of husband and wife to be a sexual event. That's part of it, but the concept goes deeper. If it was merely a sexual connection, why does God intrinsically tie it to "leaving his father and mother"? Each person can only sustain deep emotional connection with a small number of people. To the extent that the husband overidentifies with his family of origin, he is unable to fully identify and connect with his wife or children.

Advantages of identifying with others

This God-given ability to identify with others is essential to building social connections. We already considered the purpose of connections between parents and children, and between spouses. Now let's widen the circle outside the nuclear family.

1. Churches and other social groups

Unity among people, including within a church, requires some degree of identification. It means their pain becomes my pain. And their happiness becomes my happiness. Paul expresses this idea when he exhorts us to mirror the pleasure or sorrow of others. Paul implies this capacity helps us break down artificial social barriers based on class or other factors:

Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind one toward another. Don’t set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Don’t be wise in your own conceits. (Romans 12:15-16)

2. The tools we use

In the book 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Jordan Peterson mentions this general phenomenon quite a few times. Most surprising to me was his point that it can even extend to inanimate objects.

Peterson writes that part of our basic ability to use tools is due to this capacity to extend our "self" beyond the boundaries of our physical bodies. Imagine you pick up a tool, say a screwdriver, with the intent to use it. You are instantly aware of how it extends and otherwise modifies the reach of your hand and arm. The intuition that helps you avoid bumping into things now naturally takes into account the screwdriver, so that it doesn't bump into obstacles either.

This also happens with complex "tools" such as cars. Peterson writes, "The cars we pilot instantaneously and automatically become ourselves. Because of this, when someone bangs his fist on our car's hood after we have irritated him at a crosswalk, we take it personally. This is not always reasonable. Nonetheless, without the extension of self into machine, it would be impossible to drive."

3. Characters in books or movies

While many consider such identification frivolous, there is a useful purpose for identifying even with fictional characters. If the stories are realistic and deep enough, the vicarious tragedy and loss (as well as victory and elation) helps us to practice for future "real-life" situations.

We identifying with the fictional characters of books and movies. Their tragedies and triumphs rapidly and convincingly become ours. Sitting still in our seats, we nonetheless act out a multitude of alternate realities, extending ourselves experimentally, testing multiple potential paths, before specifying the one we will actually take.

Jordan peterson
12 rules for life: an antidote to chaos

Why is Trauma Stewardship So Important?

During my childhood I did not permanently lose any person I was close to: no deaths, no debilitating life-changing injuries, and no divorce. I lived in books because I enjoyed them, but deep books turned out to be the best preparation I had for losing loved ones as an adult. I can remember one example in particular. It was a Star Wars book: one of the good ones back before Disney ruined the franchise.

Many people would have ignorantly labeled this book "unrealistic" due to travel to other planets and the seemingly supernatural powers possessed by some of the characters. However, death or permanent disability of the main heroes in this series was extremely rare. Minor characters died often enough, but the major ones did not. (You could argue that's why they are major characters.)

I remember exactly where I was when it happened. At school, sitting at a desk in an open-concept a study hall in the top floor of the building. I was happily reading a battle scene where the odds were against the heroes. Then one of my favorite characters appeared to sacrifice himself so the rest of the team could escape. I started to get a little worried, but figured he would somehow make it out and reunite with the others. One page, two pages, three pages later and I start feeling a little sick. By the end of that study hall I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach. I still held on a tiny shred of hope he would return. But he never did.

So at 15 or 16 years old I went through an abbreviated version of the stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, and so on. No, it wasn't as extreme as if I had lost someone in "real life"...but that's the point! The right kind of practice prepares us for the real thing without being overwhelming.

4. Sports teams

I'm writing this article in March 2023, during the annual NCAA men's basketball tournament. This year "my" team, Purdue, was ranked number 1 much of the year. They were the best and most consistent of the 14 teams in the Big Ten conference, winning the conference regular season by a wide margin. They then went on to win the Big Ten tournament. I enjoyed watching most of their games and rejoiced in these victories.

While there was much to celebrate, there were also two major events to mourn and learn from. First, Purdue lost twice this season to their main rival, Indiana University (IU). In both games IU played near their peak, but Purdue did not respond with the same level of intensity. Second, Purdue ended the season on the wrong side of history, becoming just the 2nd top seed in NCAA tournament history to lose in the first round.

Both of these events caused me pain...but both of them caused me to think deeper about the meaning of winning and losing. Both of them helped me build resilience in defeat. And while I, Joseph Clampitt, played no role in Purdue's wins or losses this season, my identification with them was not fruitless. It provided opportunities to practice my response to future competitions over which I have more direct influence.

That connection also helped me to absorb wisdom such as this from John Wooden, arguably the greatest team coach in any sport ever: "Long before any championships were ever won at UCLA, I came to understand that losing is only temporary and not all-encompassing. You must simply study it, learn from it, and try hard not to lose in the same way again. Then you must have the self-control to forget about it. I've also learned that winning games, titles, and championships isn't all it's cracked up to be, and that getting there, the journey, is a lot more than it's cracked up to be."

As this quote shows, Wooden was a master at transmuting the "simulated" victories and defeats of sports into wisdom for life.

When identifying with others goes wrong

The previous section was a long but necessary excursion into the benefits of and reasons why we identify with other human beings. We must understand the benefits of that capacity in order to clarify what happens when it goes wrong. This in turn will clarify the need for trauma stewardship.

What is the difference between identifying and over-identifying with others? When does forging strong social connections for mutual benefit devolve into inappropriate enabling or preventable burnout?

The first thing to realize is that certain personality types and certain professions are most vulnerable to secondary trauma absorbed from others. If you have a naturally empathic and compliant personality, or if you spend a lot of time counseling people who have experienced trauma you are the most at risk.

However, it can happen to anyone. I'm not naturally empathic or compliant, and I don't often work with traumatized people. But I can think of numerous times when I have inappropriately absorbed pain from family members, friends, or churches. To catch this early on, you can watch for a number of emotional red flags.

The diagram of the symptoms of excessive trauma exposure on Dernoon Lipsky's website lists the following symptoms:

  • Feeling helpless and hopeless
  • A sense that one can never do enough
  • Hypervigilance
  • Diminished creativity
  • Inability to embrace complexity
  • Minimizing
  • Chronic exhaustion / Physical ailments
  • Inability to listen / Deliberate avoidance
  • Dissociative moments
  • Sense of persecution
  • Guilt
  • Fear
  • Anger and cynicism
  • Inability to empathize / Numbing
  • Addictions
  • Grandiosity, an inflated sense of importance

Trauma Stewardship in Christian Ministry

Dernoon Lipsky writes that "There is historically a widely held belief that if you're tough enough and cool enough and committed to your cause enough, you'll keep on keeping on, you'll suck it up: Self-care is for the weaker set." She was not talking about churches or pastoral care, but it sure sounds like it! How many full-time Christian workers or committed volunteers don't know how to stop and rest? How many don't know how to disengage from the crowds like Jesus did when he "rose early and went off by himself"?

In the endorsements to the Trauma Stewardship book, Brian Palmer wrote, "Trauma Stewardship helped me acknowledge that my pain was not weakness to be suppressed or anesthetized but secondary trauma." Thinking about it in terms of second-hand trauma (like second-hand smoke) makes it easier to accept as a real danger rather than a sign of weakness.

I want to highlight a blog post by a mentor and friend, Nick Mullis, who has over 20 years of experience in Christian ministry with young people. This post was the result of a conversation in which my wife, who works with psychiatric patients, asked him how he was able to let his work and the burdens of the students go at the end of each day.

His response is another great definition of trauma stewardship, but one that comes from an explicitly Christian perspective:

"I’m not sure that grappling with someone else’s struggle is the problem—after all, prayer is interceding for another person. The problem arises when we internalize another’s brokenness, and then it becomes our own...when you onboard someone else's baggage, here are some things that are worth recognizing and practicing.

  1. Admit, "I am not God nor should I try pretending to be."
  2. Journal
  3. Realize some don't want to be fixed they want to be heard.
  4. Recognize, "I can't carry a burden that isn't my own."
  5. Pain and difficulty are not always bad things, it is good to struggle.
  6. I train people not to lean only on me from the beginning.
  7. Make the decision that their problems can't become yours."

It's worth reading the full post, Freedom From Their Emotional Baggage!, for an explanation of each of these practices.

Biblical Trauma Stewardship

Nick's blog post implies some Biblical principles that we can make more explicit:

1. It is good to support others in their struggles

Helping others involves risks, including the risk of helping too much to the point we hinder our growth and theirs. But these risks should not stop us from supporting others. The Bible exhorts us in numerous places to take care of one another.

  • Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)
  • ...each of you not just looking to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others. 5 Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, yes, the death of the cross. (Philippians 2:4-8)

The second passage above reminds us that when we take care of others, we resemble Jesus. However, we must remember...

2. We are not God: he alone can fully bear others' trauma

This prophecy from Isaiah is one of the most memorable descriptions of the Messiah. The number and intensity of others' trauma and suffering which Jesus carried should not be something we aspire to. Jesus is "the firstborn of all creation" and in him dwelt the fullness of God. We don't have the knowledge, power, or calling to fully carry others' suffering as if it were our own.

3 He was despised
    and rejected by men,
a man of suffering
    and acquainted with disease.
He was despised as one from whom men hide their face;
    and we didn’t respect him.

4 Surely he has borne our sickness
    and carried our suffering;
yet we considered him plagued,
    struck by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions.
    He was crushed for our iniquities.
The punishment that brought our peace was on him;
    and by his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray.
    Everyone has turned to his own way;
    and Yahweh has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed,
    yet when he was afflicted he didn’t open his mouth.
As a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and as a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he didn’t open his mouth.
8 He was taken away by oppression and judgment.
   As for his generation,
   who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living
    and stricken for the disobedience of my people?
9 They made his grave with the wicked,
    and with a rich man in his death,
    although he had done no violence,
    nor was any deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it pleased The LORD to bruise him.
    He has caused him to suffer.
When you make his sould an offering for sin,
    he will see his offspring.
He will prolong his days
    and The LORD's pleasure will prosper in his hand.

11 After the suffering of his soul,
    he will see the light and be satisfied.
My righteous servant will justify many by the
    knowledge of himself;
    And he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion with the great.
    He will divide the plunder with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
    and was counted with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sins of many
    and made intercession for the transgressors.
(Isaiah 53:3-12)

3. Don't let others' trauma contaminate us

I use the word "contaminate" for a reason.

It may sound harsh, especially if the person we are helping is an innocent victim. But even if they had zero responsibility for their trauma, I still think words like "contagious" or "contaminate" are appropriate. These are other ways to describe Dernoot Lipsky's idea of "secondhand" trauma: words that are more alarming and therefore helps us be more aware of the dangers of exposure.

Consider this analogy with the woman who had a bleeding problem in Luke 8. It wasn't her fault. Nonetheless, according to the Mosaic Law she was ritually unclean:

If a woman has a discharge of her blood many days not in the time of her period, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her period, all the days of the discharge of her uncleanness shall be as in the days of her period. She is unclean. 26 Every bed she lies on all the days of her discharge shall be to her as the bed of her period. Everything she sits on shall be unclean, as the uncleanness of her period. 27 Whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. (Leviticus 15:25-27)

Even touching something she sat on would make another person unclean!

How much worse it would be to touch her directly? And yet this is exactly what Jesus did. (Well, she touched him.)

A woman who had a flow of blood for twelve years, who had spent all her living on physicians and could not be healed by any, 44 came behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak. Immediately the flow of her blood stopped. 45 Jesus said, “Who touched me?” When all denied it, Peter and those with him said, “Master, the multitudes press and jostle you, and you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 46 But Jesus said, “Someone did touch me, for I perceived that power has gone out of me.” 47 When the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him declared to him in the presence of all the people the reason why she had touched him, and how she was healed immediately. 48 He said to her, “Daughter, cheer up. Your faith has made you well. Go in peace." (Luke 8:43-48)

So did Jesus become unclean by touching her?
Of course not! His cleanness, his shalom, spread to her, rather than the other way around. This is how we should be when we support another person in their suffering or trauma. We need to hold our foundation of peace and joy even while touching momentarily the suffering of another.

Does this mean we won't feel any pain or suffering?
No, we will definitely feel it. But it shouldn't last. It shouldn't remain with us permanently.

Another analogy: what does the phrase "in the world, but not of it" mean?
We don't live in the desert or on a permanent spiritual retreat. We are still in touch with "the world," meaning the world outside of a comfy Christian bubble. But we don't absorb the attitudes or mindset of that world. We remain grounded (abiding) in Jesus, so that his healing can flow from us to the world, rather than its sickness contaminating us.

  • I have given them your word. The world hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 15 I pray not that you would take them from the world, but that you would keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them in your truth. Your word is truth.  18 As you sent me into the world, even so I have sent them into the world. 19 For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth. (John 17:14-19)
  • But you, beloved, keep building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit. 21 Keep yourselves in God’s love, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life. 22 On some have compassion, making a distinction, 23 and some save, snatching them out of the fire with fear, hating even the clothing stained by the flesh. (Jude 20-23)

Rabbi Friedman On Trauma Stewardship

My way of looking at this issue was greatly influenced by Edwin H. Friedman in his book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. The perspective he describes is the one that resonates most with me. This mindset has made it much easier to avoid absorbing pain or dysfunction from family, friends, church, or other organizations.

"The universal problem...was preserving self in a close relationship"

The universal problem for all partnerships, marital or otherwise, was not getting closer; it was preserving self in a close relationship, something that no one made of flesh and blood seems to do well. I eventually came to define my marriage counseling, no matter what the cultural mix, as trying to help people "separate" so that they would not have to separate.

Edwin H. Friedman

A Failure of Nerve

friedman trauma stewardship

How do we "separate" in a positive way?

Friedman argues that we have to fight back against a number of cultural assumptions. Western culture emphasizes sensitivity and empathy for others. That was true in the 1990s when Friedman wrote the book, and it is even more true in 2023 as I write this post.

You can see this in cultures as seemingly different as the LGBTQ+ movement and evangelical churches. Although these groups often position themselves as enemies of each other, both share a tendency to

  1. Emphasize unity and avoid conflict within the group,
  2. At the cost of never entertaining truly diverse ideas and perspectives,
  3. While uncritically accepting anyone who uses the group's preferred language.

You might argue that these are not modern cultural assumptions, they are just natural pitfalls of group identity. Fair enough. That is possible. But it doesn't change the core problem of lack of separation which is a struggle wherever humans gather in groups.

Friedman questions those basic cultural assumptions of sensitivity and empathy:

The kind of "sensitivity" that leaders most require is a sensitivity to the degree of chronic anxiety and the lack of self-differentiation in the system that surrounds them. The development of that ability requires that they self-regulate their own reactive mechanisms and that they muster the stamina to define themselves continually to those who lack such self-regulation. This is not merely a matter of putting one's own oxygen mask on first. It has to do with leaders putting their primary emphasis on their own continual growth and maturity.

Edwin H. Friedman
A failure of nerve

Friedman's virus and immune system analogy

As when I used the word "contaminate" above, some of Friedman's language may seem harsh. But that's kind of the point. If we are wearing cultural glasses that overvalue of sensitivity and empathy, a truly balanced approach to life will feel harsh to us.

"Their children are viruses that are taking over their host."

Edwin H. Friedman
A failure of nerve

Over the years, I have been particularly struck by the inability of well-meaning parents to maintain consistent stands with their chronically troubling children...One can only be consistent when one is focused on oneself, not on the random perturbations of the un-self-regulating other. The former is what leadership is about; the latter allows followers to set the agendas...Instead of trying to mobilize their empathy by showing them what child-rearing techniques will 'benefit' their children, I have tried to challenge an immune (that is, self-defined) response in them by demonstrating how their children are viruses that are taking over their host, or even malignant cells that are destroying their 'colony.' In order to adopt this perspective, however, parents must be able to concentrate on the preservation of their own integrity (again, an immune phenomenon) rather than on the effort to 'mutate' their child.

Friedman is not just talking about parents and children. In this same section he says this approach "is no different with teachers, therapists, professional people, and CEOs." Friedman argues that the best way to help anyone else grow is to

  1. Stay out of their way (realizing we cannot force their growth)
  2. and don't let them overgrow us (maintain our own space),
  3. while still remaining in relationship.

Continuing with the parenting example, he says "I have continually found that when parents can make the transition in their orientation from focusing how to grow their children to how to prevent their children from overgrowing them, their children do begin to grow--that is, grow up--and so do the parents. In other words, there must be self-differentiation in the parent before there can be self-differentiation in the child."

What does healthy "differentiation" look like?

The entire book is worth reading, but Friedman gives a concise description of what he means by differentiation on page 195. Differentiation is

  • The capacity to take a stand in an intense emotional system.
  • Saying "I" when others are demanding "we."
  • Containing one's reactivity to the reactivity of others, which includes the ability to avoid being polarized.
  • Maintaining a non-anxious presence in the face of anxious others.
  • Knowing where one ends and another begins.
  • Being able to cease automatically being one of the system's emotional dominoes.
  • Being clear about one's own personal values and goals.
  • Taking maximum responsibility for one's own emotional being and destiny rather than blaming others or the context.

A Final Warning About Trauma Stewardship

Imagine you have been in an unhealthy situation, enabling and absorbing trauma and pain from others. Then, at some point, you begin to give up ownership of others' pain and choose the healthier approach of trauma stewardship. In Friedman's language, you begin to differentiate yourself from the people in your care.

How will others respond?
Prepare yourself, because they are unlikely to be happy about this new state of affairs. Anticipate resistance. Be prepared to maintain your decision even when no one else agrees with it. It is human nature, for both individuals and groups, to resist change.

Friedman explains that

"An enormous number of problems...are crises produced by their own differentiation"

Edwin H. Friedman
A failure of nerve

An enormous number of problems that parents, marriage partners, and other leaders have to deal with are crises produced by their own differentiation. To the extent one focuses solely on how painful a situation is, there is no way to judge whether things are getting worse or really improving, fundamentally. Despite the fact that things seem to be getting worse, that is, more toxic, the entire system also may be adapting for the better. To recognize that fact can help keep anxiety down. If a leader who has sought help can be taught how to stay in touch with the reactive group without taking their issues so seriously that he or she is thrown off course, increased differentiation can become a form of leadership that, if sustained, often will result in the rest getting over what ails them. This can turn the pattern of adaptation toward the one who is becoming better differentiated, thus affecting the evolution of the entire "colony."

If you've made changes to live a healthier life, stick with them for awhile. Oftentimes others' negative reactions to your positive changes are unintentional. Even sabotage (a term Friedman uses frequently) is often carried out unintentionally. It is just a reaction to change that will disappear after awhile. If your new way of life is truly healthier, it will eventually be transmitted to the people in your care. All you have to do is sustain it over the long term.

Bible version: the public domain World English Bible (WEB) has been used throughout this post. The WEB translation of "Yahweh" has been changed to "the LORD" which is more familiar to most readers.

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