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Counting the Failures

This is my fourteenth year as a trauma therapist. Over a decade of hearing some of the saddest, most complex, upsetting stories that detail the terrible things that can happen to people. I’ve been asked since I started this career how I’m able to do it and I still don’t know that I have an answer. I don’t know why I’m built to sit in the dark with people. But I am. It has been and always will be a privilege to be the person that someone is willing to share their worst moments of life with, if only because they trust that I might be able to make it better with them. There are many careers like mine, and countless people who work in fields where they are consistently exposed to human suffering. Social workers, nurses, doctors, teachers, first responders, attorneys, judges, and many more. At some point I transitioned to working with others in these fields as well, listening to their experiences of trying to help and the pain of being unsuccessful in many cases. I will use the word I often hear because I want to talk about it more: failure. Many people working in human services fields feel like when they try to help in a situation, and it doesn’t go the way they hoped, it means they have failed.

Failure is an interesting concept when you look at it closely. You can fail a class, or have a failed marriage, or fail at getting a job you applied for, and so many other things. But what if (stay with me, here) the things that you “failed” at were actually just a part of the process and maybe even directed you toward the place that allows you to be that much more you. What if class you failed or the job you didn’t get was not the best career path for you. Or the marriage that ended allowed you to be a better fuller version of yourself. If we transpose this concept onto impacting others it gets even more tricky. When challenging or traumatic events occur, people often search for ways they can take responsibility despite the inherent complexity of the situation. If you tried to save someone’s life (either by talking them through a crisis or literally doing CPR) and they died anyway, does this mean the failure is yours to carry based solely on your presence during a tragedy? Soldiers return home knowing the death count, but never the life count. How many people were saved by their actions? Would it make a difference in the level of impact they experience if they knew many of the things they did changed people’s lives for the better? If there was not enough evidence to file on a case and someone who shouldn’t be was set free, are you the one who deserves to carry the weight of that decision? Did you, in fact, fail? Potentially we are all up against the complexity of humans and systems that do not allow us to exercise the full capacity of our ability to help others.

Over the course of this work, there are many things we are never going to know for sure. That child I helped remove from their home – would they have died otherwise? The times I took a late phone call and sat with someone in the midst of their pain – did that help? The person who was suicidal that I got in right away – would they have stayed alive regardless? We are often left to hold the sadness, but rarely the joy, because people don’t call when they are happy; they call when they need our help. The understanding that we’ve made a difference is largely based on theory, because the road that would have been taken without your help and care and focus is unknown. In most cases, we will never know with certainty that our impact was a significant part of the outcome.

Throughout my career I have met people who changed not only the way I do therapy, but also who I am as a person. By choosing to share who they are, the wonderful and the very painful pieces, they shaped the way I see myself and those around me. I would tell anyone considering a career in a helping profession that the best part about it is the opportunity to see how truly complex people are. We all have a story that, when understood, shows how we became exactly who we are today. They taught me to take a breath when I hug my children, to look people directly in the eye, to ask questions more than once if you really want to know the answer, and to put aside any judgement that prevents me from seeing them fully.

To the folks who, like me, have chosen a profession that involves witnessing human suffering, I say this: we do our best and at the end of the day there is still going to be suffering, so we get up and do it all over again. Because for better or worse we’ve chosen a career that is going to break our hearts repeatedly. The question is how you put your heart back together every time so you can feel joy in your own life, show up for your colleagues and family, and help the next person. My answer to this is to let my heart break and feel the sadness associated with each situation that hurts until it doesn’t hurt quite so much. That is how grief works; we feel it until it retracts its claws.

We easily admire the impact of others’ efforts, but we are not as good at doing the same for ourselves. I’ve watched therapists do amazing things to help their clients, only to say at the end that it was really the client who did all the work. Which is TRUE. But not. Without. You. I can’t promise anything about who you have saved or whether your presence changed someone’s life, but I can say that when we sit in the things we know went wrong and forget that we will never know the full scope of things that went right we don’t do very well. Maybe it’s time to start recognizing not only the inevitable sadness that life brings, but also what we’ve likely contributed that made it better. What you are doing matters and your role in the lives of others does not go unnoticed by the people who needed you in those moments.

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