Vicarious Trauma: Self Care or Self Indulgence?


When delivering training on Vicarious Trauma and Resilience there is usually a moment in the day where the conversation turns to chocolate, wine and box sets as key ‘self-care’ strategies and many in the group giggle with recognition. 

I am personally not willing to give up chocolate (or cake for that matter) as these treats can be accessible ways to relax, switch off and enjoy ourselves, but when do they turn into something else? When do they become indulgent and therefore less helpful, perhaps even becoming a form of self-harm?

So, what is self-care in this context? My definition is this: actions we take individually, internally or externally that support ourselves, physically, psychologically, socially and spiritually.  There is no self-care check list that applies to everyone. Solitude for one person at one time is valuable and necessary. For someone else or for the same person at another time, social connection might be what is helpful. Likewise, one glass of wine is too much for one person whereas for someone else a few glasses is fine.

How can we recognise self-indulgence? These are actions we take that give us momentary pleasure or relief, usually preceded by thoughts such as ‘I deserve this’, ‘I’ve earned this’ and so on…we justify it in some way, we actually know it is not great for us, which is why we find justifications. Things that can come under self-indulgence – spending money on unnecessary items, overeating high sugar or high fat foods, alcohol consumption, drug use, being in a grump with others, staying in bed too long or watching a lot of tv.  Usually after the initial pleasure passes, we are left feeling worse, as if there is a ‘hangover’ effect. We may be beset with regret, our mood might drop, our energy might be low, our self-esteem decreases. At the very least, we return to our base line mood – we have not benefitted from the action, and more likely we end up feeling worse than when we started. Is this familiar to you?

Why do we self-indulge? Here are five areas I have identified;

·       Over-compensation - Today has been rubbish, so I need to treat myself A LOT to cancel this out

·       Control – I felt helpless and here is something I can do, a way I can feel in touch with my own agency

·       Avoidance/ Distraction – I’m going to preoccupy myself with this food, tv, bad mood so I don’t think about that thing I don’t want to think about e.g. a traumatic story or a difficult situation

·       Numbing – If I get full up of other things, I won’t feel these uncomfortable feelings

·       Self-harm – I punish myself – perhaps for not ‘getting it right’ or solving a situation, or through guilt

And often, it can be a combination of more than one of the above.

We all need pleasure and enjoyment in our lives, especially when we are coming across a lot of pain and suffering in our work.  Getting to know what activates us towards self-indulgence can help us keep this area in balance and not exacerbate any Vicarious Traumatisation we are experiencing. It’s hard enough already.

Here are some questions you may wish to pose yourself to increase your self-awareness in this area and develop some alternative options for yourself.

Five self- reflections

·       What forms of self-indulgence do you turn to?

·       What mental states or situations do you need to watch out for that can bring on self-indulgence?

·       What are the consequences for you of over-indulgence?

·       Where is the tipping point for you where it falls into excess, resulting in a hangover whether literal or metaphorical? Can you be clear with yourself about this? E.g. three episodes in a row is the maximum, 4 episodes too much?

·       What need does your self indulgence highlight – what are your alternative options to meet this need?

Rather than beating ourselves up when we realise we have over-indulged we can use self indulgence as a clue – our usual ways of self support are not enough and something else is required.

Author: Elise Marshall