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What does it mean to be a witness?

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I’ve been thinking about secondary trauma (sometimes called vicarious trauma or indirect trauma) and the nonprofit sector lately. Those of us enmeshed in the work of healing a wounded world are constantly exposed to images, stories, and descriptions of violence. Whether it’s against an individual or an entire people, we know the depth and degree of evils in the world many people actively avoid confronting. Our jobs require that we engage with violence against others and the Earth.

The ah-ha moment I had while reading Judith Herman’s classic book Trauma and Recovery is a moment I’ll never forget. There is a part where she asserts there are three parties involved in an act of violence: the perpetrator, the victim, and the witness. Most of us are familiar with the roles of the perpetrator and the victim, but few have heard of the witness. The witness does not have to be present at the time of the violent act, and they don’t have to know the victim personally. They can hear an account of violence, see a video documenting it, read a story or report, or see photographs. There are many ways to be a witness. 

And there’s a lot of responsibility in this role. If the witness refuses to act, they side with the perpetrator. And it’s easy to do that. All the perpetrator asks is that we look the other way, that we don’t get involved. But the victim demands action. They require us to take risks and be vulnerable. That’s not as easy.

Our entire sector is made up of witnesses. There probably isn’t a way to do this work without exposing ourselves to the risk of secondary trauma, and the expression of that trauma can show up in a number of ways:

  • The feeling of being unable to control thoughts associated with the violence
  • Nightmares
  • Being triggered by things that others don’t recognize as being connected to the issues you’re working on
  • Avoidance of or anxiety about situations that may lead to triggers
  • Decrease in positive feelings toward others
  • Irritability
  • Suspicion or unwillingness to trust others
  • Exhaustion, difficulty sleeping, or inability to concentrate
  • Limited ability to consider other perspectives
  • Self-destructive behavior that could include abuse of drugs or alcohol, disordered eating, promiscuity, and/or self-harm

If you’re struggling, it’s not because there’s something wrong with you. It may be because you're experiencing some of the effects of being exposed to violent content over a long period of time.

Acknowledging that vicarious trauma is a phenomenon may help us find ways to mitigate the damage. There’s plenty of talk about self-care, and that’s not what this post is about. I encourage everyone to go check out this blog post calling out self-care as a middle-class luxury, one that ignores the realities faced by the working poor. (Instead, we need a shift to a community-care model, but that’s not what this post is about either.)

My aim is simply to encourage conversation and introspection that questions the root of our stress response. If people in our sector are suffering from a serious and legitimate form of trauma, it’s time we acknowledge that the old prescriptions for self-care may not be helpful. We need to look deeper at the nature of our work and the toll it’s taking on the people whose shoulders justice and equity rest. I invite you to be more mindful of your role as a witness. It deserves your consideration.


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