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Trauma Stewardship Review, Books For Good Book Club

“To be an effective trauma steward, it is important to know where our own self ends and another’s self begins.  This can be a hard distinction to maintain even when we are working with other adults, who, whatever their difficulties, are clearly separate people with agency in their own lives.  Ironically, it may be even more challenging when we are working with populations that seem particularly defenseless- young children, for example, or abused animals or endangered species.  When we speak up for people or creatures or environments that are unable to speak for themselves, we may gradually lose the ability to distinguish their voices from our own. If we don’t pay careful attention, our feelings of identification and responsibility may increase to the point that we experience their anguish in a debilitating way.  In the long run, this can diminish our ability to be effective advocates” -Laura van Dernoot Lipsky

And there’s the rub, the problem, in a beautifully phrased paragraph: to be the most effective advocate we have to strike a balance between compassion and caring for self.  The alternative is to be swallowed up into another person’s trauma and potentially experience it as our own. In Trauma Stewardship, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky remarkably outlines this tension between compassion and self care, providing important and detailed solutions that are widely applicable, particularly for the helping professional.        

There are several themes and definitions that I think are important to address to ensure that we have a common language and framework for discussion when it comes to Trauma Stewardship. 

Trauma Stewardship: a daily practice through which individuals, organizations, and societies tend to the hardship, pain, or trauma experienced by humans, other living beings, or our planet itself.  Those who support trauma stewardship believe that both joy and pain are realities of life, and that suffering can be transformed into meaningful growth and healing when a quality of presence is cultivated and maintained even in the face of great suffering.  It applies equally whether the trauma we encounter is glaring or subtle, sudden or prolonged, isolated or recurring, widely recognized or barely perceived.  

Systematic Oppression: “if we lived in a society where equity, respect, access, and justice were realized, and unearned privilege and inequality and oppression were transformed, the impact of trauma exposure in our lives would look dramatically different.”  We would not have to wonder if disparities between rich/poor, white people and people of color, heterosexual/LGBTQ, and so on contributed.  We would not have to wonder if we personally benefit from, are vulnerable to, have to act to change, should blame the person suffering for, or ignore disparity altogether.  Caregiver stress is directly related to the way society views the work. For example, hearing at the dinner table after you tell someone what you do: “Oh I could never do that; the work is so hard; you are an angel for doing that work!”  This judgment may lead to an increased sense of isolation.  


Embodiment: as we work to uproot suffering, we should work towards doing so by incorporating the healing of both individual and collective traumas.  While there are many themes throughout the book, I thought this one was important to remember because it is not uncommon in the helping profession to get so caught up in the day to day tasks and challenges that we forget how much our actions, behaviors, and policies also have an impact on the individuals and causes we seek to support.  For instance, I managed a domestic violence shelter, which was a stressful, 24/7 job. When I took over the role, there were many rules that, while meant for safety and efficiency, were making it harder to empower the individuals we served. The whole point of encouraging healthy relationships was undermined by the shelter system itself, which sometimes discouraged trust and autonomy of our clients. After some self and organizational reflection, our team managed to lift some of the rules, and incorporate therapeutic elements, but it took hard work and time to get there. 

16 Trauma Exposure flags: with the above definitions in mind, I want to discuss the author’s helpful lens on the trauma exposure responses.  Her visual tool is called the “Trauma Exposure Response Wheel”, which outlines the 16 warning signs of trauma on our lives:

Personally, I was surprised that guilt resonated the most with me.  As she lays out, guilt as a trauma exposure response is one of the strongest warning signs.  It may manifest as difficulty enjoying vacations because of the guilt of leaving work and clients behind or not fully sharing joyful moments with clients because they may not have the fortune and privilege that you do.  Whatever it is, it keeps us from being fully authentic and connect with those we help. For me the question that arises is: “how do we live in a world where there is such a disparity of resources and participate in our own privileges in a responsible manner? Another theme that resonated strongly was hypervigilance (being wholly focused on our job, to the extent that being present for anything else can seem impossible). 

The Five Directions: so how do we build our capacity for trauma stewardship in the face of trauma exposure?  The author is particularly inspired by early cultures in Asia, the Americas, and even Europe, and their reference to earth elements, which inspired the below visual, “The Five Directions.” 

“By moving among the directions and their elements, we are able to create, and most important, maintain, a daily practice through which we become centered… the five directions can guide us to remain calm, to once again remember who we are, where we’re headed, and what we need.” - van Dernoot Lipsky

North - Water - Creating Space for Inquiry - Why am I Doing What I’m Doing?How to incorporate into your life: before starting your work day, and even throughout, ask yourself the “why” behind what you are doing.  Give yourself honest answers, and remind yourself it is your choice to do this work. Give yourself a pat on the back for acknowledging your truth!


East - Fire - Choosing Our Focus - Where am I Putting My Focus? What is My Plan B? 

Pay attention and note what you inner commentary or “mind chatter” throughout the day is focused on.  Are you thinking glass half empty/half full? Can you reframe positively? Research shows consciously directing your thoughts positively can rewire your brain so that it becomes easier to think in a more positive default mode.  

South - Earth - Creating a Community and Practicing Compassion for Self and Others 

Take time to observe how your surroundings connect with your internal state. How is your home taken care of? What food do you eat? Who are you inviting into your life? Does any of this need to shift? 

West - Air - Finding Balance

Find what a sustainable work schedule looks like for you. Stick with it. Everyday take time to write down and think on something specific you are grateful for. It can be big or small.  

Centering - a Daily Practice

Take a moment each day to reflect. You may do this through meditation, exercise, deep breaths.  Anything where you intentionally “be” with yourself. 

This was my “yes!” book.  When I read through it I kept saying “yes!” to certain paragraphs or stories. It made me feel less alone in how challenging this work for others can be. Aside from its relatability, I think it also gives some much needed humor throughout (it’s littered with comics that made me chuckle) and approaches a heavy topic with a light heart, perfectly embodying trauma stewardship. I’m sure that was exactly the point. What key insights did you get from Laura van Dernoot Lipsky’s book: Trauma Stewardship? I’d love your feedback! Add your text here. Edit to add dynamic values like name, email and more.


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