In addition to the ongoing vicarious trauma interpreters are exposed to through our work in healthcare and court, we also come upon vicarious healing, advice, and ideas that can guide us forward. We learn so much both from caregivers and patients, crime victims and the accused. I have been interpreting for many trauma therapy patients lately, and find the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy approach quite enlightening. It seems a way to move from talking about something to taking steps toward integrating the new thoughts and feelings into actions that create a positive feedback loop and lead to healthier thoughts, feelings and actions.
“You learn something every day” is a true motto for the interpreter’s life. In discussing with a patient various aspects of self-care, I was surprised to hear the therapist add in something about defining one’s values. I had expected the more typical suggestions for self-care, like take a bubble bath or listen to music, along with other ways to self-soothe besides the obvious harmful ones. But I had not considered defining one’s moral values, and investigating the degree to which one is aligned with those values, as a form of self-care. It is an interesting way to take stock of one’s life.
The approach in looking at value congruence that I have seen in therapy is to start by thinking of someone whom you admire. Several severely traumatized people have answered there is no one. Even when they are told dead or alive, real of fictional. They have not had the luxury of looking up to someone. Admiring someone. Seeing characteristics they wish to emulate. Identifying with someone. Trusting someone. With one therapy client, she was finally asked to find anyone she had ever admired even for a moment, even if they later let her down, and she was then able to mention her brother.
What about her brother had she admired? He had been protective. He had been strong. He had been tough and handled physical suffering like starving and being cold. And being beaten. Through all of that, he had been encouraging to his young sister. He took initiative and tried a lot of ways to make their lives better. He was trustworthy and reliable. Until he left. But while he was there, she had admired him.
Then she was invited to bring the focus back to herself and consider whether these admirable traits might represent some of her most dearly held values. Indeed, they all were very core and central to her sense of right and wrong, her moral code of conduct – the way in which she wanted to live. She was then invited to notice that most if not all of them were well-developed in herself, especially her resilience, her ability to be safe and strong with her children, her “toughing things out” and continuing to try. Her face lit up when she was able to see that she was indeed “being a good person” and living up to her own value system on the whole. It helped her to see that she was so much more than the sum of her mistakes.
Finding qualities that we have externalized and considered out of our reach, and then locating them within ourselves, is a rich discovery. Especially if we have been in a process of “beating ourselves up” for not being better, not being stronger, not being kinder, not “figuring things out by now” in that invisible and false race we sometimes convince ourselves we are participating in. To find that like other humans, we are still struggling along and just as frail as the next person, while humbling, is something we each need to accept. And yet on the whole, to discover that we are living a life that is mostly congruent with our core values, hey. That’s not such a bad place to find ourselves. And it makes it easier to then accept and forgive our humanity in our areas of frailty.
If we keep looking for our inner treasures, and keep finding the areas in which we can respect ourselves, where our actions line up on the whole with our core values, we gain in strength and we learn that we can trust ourselves. Then it can be easier to make those adjustments where our values are either not well-clarified, or are in actual conflict with our actions. These gaps, or conflicts, cause quite a bit of our stress, anxiety, and feelings of helplessness. Forgiving ourselves and building on our strengths is the first step toward integrating our thoughts, feelings and actions into further alignment. Or so I have learned in my vicarious therapy sessions.
Getting into alignment with ourselves is an adjustment well worth the effort. Getting to know ourselves, as Oscar Wilde famously stated, “is the beginning of a lifelong love affair”. Pinpointing those few areas where we are out of balance and misaligned, and gaining the strength and courage to face our inner turmoil, is not as overwhelming then. When we can start by really noticing the many areas where our values are already congruent with our actions, we have a framework and a platform. From there, we can launch into aligning any outlying thoughts, feelings and behaviors to match our core values. It is pretty wonderful to have the honor of watching other brave souls going through this process, and see their transformation over time. And it encourages me to continue my efforts toward reaching my own atonement and inner harmony.