Saturday, April 26, 2014

Vicarious Resiliency

I recently wrote how the word “Vicarious” provides insight into our roles as clinicians.  I was rooting around into the word’s origins because I was reading about “vicarious resiliency.”  Pilar Hernandez, David Engstrom, and David Gangsei have conducted qualitative research with therapists who have worked extensively with survivors of intense trauma.  They found vicarious resiliency as the flipside of secondary trauma and its close companions, burnout and compassion fatigue: 

The concept of vicarious resilience describes and explains how trauma therapists may strengthen their own well-being by appreciating and incorporating what they learn from their clients’ healing processes. [Hernandez, et. al, 2010, 68].

The therapists they interviewed identified three common reactions or observations: first, that human beings have “an immense capacity to heal;” second, that the therapists reassessed their own problems in the light of the suffering of others; and third, the powerful role of spirituality and religion as a source of rejuvenation and healing. [Hernandez, et. al, 2007, 234]. 

In addition to strength based resiliency, the researchers identified two related phenomena amongst some clients: Posttraumatic Growth (“positive changes that go beyond adjustment in spite of adversity” concurrent with distress and struggle) and Altruism Born of Suffering (“processes by which individuals move from survivorship to an activist quest to help others.”)[Hernandez, et. al, 2010, 70-71].   

After over 25 years of working with refugees and asylees as an attorney, reading this research clicked for me.  While certainly not true for every client, there are individuals who grow and give while nevertheless suffering the effects of trauma.  In a recent article in our law school magazine, we featured Harriet Oyera.  Among a range of tribulations, Harriet survived torture at the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, a group that also killed her husband.  After she fled Uganda and was granted asylum, she shared with me she wanted to tell her story more broadly, but not until she had gotten her children to the US. 

A woman of deep faith, she has encouraged many people, not the least those professionals working to assist her – law students, lawyers, social workers, psychologists, physical therapists.  , she exemplified Altruism Born of Suffering:

It’s a part of life to suffer, but it’s also a part of life to give.  We need to support one another in times of pain. Every human being counts and matters and contributes to building community and building the development of a space.

Since arriving in the US, Harriet has started a community garden in a troubled neighborhood, become involved in the community supported agriculture movement, and led a quilting circle for other survivors of torture.  She raised her children while living thousands of miles away from them.  While her biological children have arrived in the US, she continues to support adoptive children still living in Uganda.  And she often just calls the office to give us an encouraging word.

In a subsequent blog, I hope to share how I’m trying to translate the concept of vicarious resiliency into clinical supervision. Stay tuned.


Pilar Hernandez, David Gangsei, & David Engstrom, Vicarious Resilience: A New Concept in Work with Those Who Survive Trauma, 46 Family Process 229-241 (2007).

Pilar Hernandez, David Engstrom, & David Gangsei, Exploring the Impact of Trauma on Therapists: Vicarious Resiliency and Related Concepts in Training, 29 J. Systemic Therapies 67-83 (2010).

David Gangsei, Vicarious Trauma, Vicarious Resilience and Self-Care, undated.

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