The Dangers of Empathy

The Dangers of Empathy

Understanding the Keys to Vicarious Traumatization

By Babette Rothschild

July/August 2002

Ruth, 42, had recently begun a new job as a social worker, specializing in emergency relief with a family-services agency. An experienced professional, she loved the challenges of this work. She enjoyed helping desperate people, and got a sense of victory from making hard-to-get resources--aid, housing, money--materialize, as if from thin air. But after a few months at the agency, she was dreading her work. Almost as soon as she began her day, she felt exhausted and depressed. She felt so depleted, she was afraid she'd have to quit and go on disability. She despaired at the thought that she might have to give up work that meant so much to her, and she had no idea what to do next.

Ruth's agency engaged me as a consultant-supervisor. In a group meeting that I conducted with Ruth and her coworkers, Ruth bravely revealed her predicament. "How long had she been feeling this way?" I wanted to know. To the best of her recollection, she said, it had started in the last few weeks. "Were there any unusually difficult new cases during that time?" "Yes, there were," she said, and proceeded to tell the group about a case she found particularly troubling--a woman who'd fled from her violent and abusive husband to a woman's shelter, which had referred her to Ruth's agency for additional assistance.

As soon as Ruth started speaking, she showed signs of traumatic stress arousal: her skin became pale and clammy; her hands shook. I asked her to pause and focus on her body.…

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