Identifying Vicarious Traumatization


As noted in Concepts in Vicarious Traumatization, compassionate lawyering for social justice comes with great rewards—a sense of fulfillment, connection and gratitude—but it can also be accompanied by certain risks to the lawyer’s wellbeing. Indeed, lawyers who engage empathically and compassionately with people who have experienced trauma are at risk of a paler version of what their traumatized clients experience: the negative effects of trauma. Just as a great loss can shatter a survivor’s universe, exposure to the losses of many people, or a few people in an intense setting, can alter the universe of those who experience the victim’s loss with them. Understanding and identifying manifestations of this process or alteration, vicarious traumatization, is critical to excellent lawyering for survivors of trauma.

In this segment, teachers guide their clinical students through a practice of introspection, self-awareness and reflection to understand possible manifestations of vicarious traumatization in their lives. It is our ethical duty, as teachers and students practicing direct representation, to be on guard for the negative effects of the compassion and connection that we naturally experience while working with clients who have suffered from trauma. A separate page addresses the important followup question of how to manage Vicarious Traumatization.

Manifestations of Vicarious Traumatization

Vicarious traumatization attacks hope and our sense of safety in the world, paralleling the assault our clients feel on their own sense of life’s meaning. It operates to disrupt one’s sense of self, one’s connections to others, and one’s sense of life’s ultimate meaning. Professionals experiencing vicarious traumatization, like their clients who have experienced trauma, often perceive a profound sense of fragmentation, of “going to pieces,” or a deep disconnection among the different parts of their lives. For example, a practitioner with a happy home life might find it hard to connect and sometimes fully experience the cheerful world in which he or she and his or her children live with the difficult and painful experience of a client in foster care. Jean distinctly remembers several Halloweens where she watched her joyful children enjoy their costumes and the celebration, too numb from her half-semester of representing children and refugees to feel the joy herself.

Although the signs and symptoms of vicarious traumatization vary from person to person, Pearlman and Saakvitne note the following general changes that are often observed: no time or energy for one’s self, disconnection from loved ones, social withdrawal, increased sensitivity to violence, cynicism, generalized despair and hopelessness, and nightmares. 1 Pearlman and Saakvitne emphasize that “unaddressed vicarious traumatization, manifest in cynicism and despair, results in loss to society of hope and the positive action it fuels.” 2

It is important to note that, as with other kinds of traumatization, each person’s profile of vicarious traumatization is unique. The experience of empathy with the client interacts differently with each person’s unique resources, history, and context. Moreover, the effects of vicarious traumatization in a single person can oscillate between overwhelming symptoms, on the one hand, and numbness, on the other. An individual student or practitioner undergoing vicarious traumatization may experience intrusive thoughts, strong feelings and intense arousal symptoms at some times, and may respond by shutting down and feeling detached at other times. Therefore, while the literature offers useful general information and a specific repertoire of possible effects experienced by people who have been vicariously traumatized, each person’s vicarious traumatization profile must be developed specifically and with care for that person.

The signs of vicarious traumatization may be subtle and becoming aware of one’s experience of vicarious traumatization may therefore require intentional self-reflection about recent changes in one’s lifestyles, habits and routines. For the purposes of prompting other students and practitioners to engage in this process of introspection, Jean has compiled a database of examples of daily signs of potential vicarious traumatization. Over the course of our clinical teaching practice, law student interns and attorneys reported that they:

  • Stop watching or reading the news, or obsessively read the news;
  • Wonder how they can carry on with their daily lives when their clients’ lives have been completely disrupted by trauma;
  • Stop exercising (or over-exercise);
  • Stop going out with their friends or socializing as they used to;
  • Consider a different, “more detached” career path;
  • Worry (excessively and more than before) about low-likelihood events (such as plane crashes, violence, etc.);
  • Feel sad, depressed or otherwise out of sorts;
  • Are unable to feel anything, or feel like a robot;
  • Have trouble sleeping or staying asleep, or sleep more than they needed to before;
  • Watch much more television than before;
  • Feel numb and end up mindlessly playing video games for hours at a time;
  • Avoid television shows and movies that depict violence or feel increasingly stressed by displays of fictitious violence when they do see them;
  • Neglect other hobbies or things they do to care for themselves;
  • Drink alcohol when feeling overwhelmed;
  • Feel distant from or angry at their loved ones, especially feeling like they can’t understand what’s going on;
  • Have more dreams and/or nightmares, feel like they can’t ‘shut off’ their brain;
  • Are afraid of things happening to their loved ones;
  • Use drugs to escape, stay awake, or feel better;
  • Feel the temptation to self-harm;
  • Feel a low but constant state of anxiety;
  • Feel uncharacteristically impatient with their colleagues and friends.

Teaching a Class on Identifying Vicarious Traumatization

Teaching a class on identifying vicarious traumatization is most effective when students and practitioners have the opportunity to examine and reflect on their own experiences as legal representatives. However, teachers should think carefully about the timing of this class in the context of the academic semester or year, keeping in mind students’ comfort level with the teacher as well as with one another. Jean preferred the midpoint of the semester, just before any semester break—the students had started to experience the VT, they knew each other well enough to discuss it, and the break provided a unique opportunity to address VT through rest, travel and play. The activities suggested below should be adjusted to the maximum extent possible to enhance students’ comfort level, need for privacy and confidentiality.

Teachers can begin the class by summarizing the key takeaways from the previous segment on “Concepts related to vicarious traumatization.” In particular, they can refresh students’ understanding of the conceptual differences between stress, burnout, trauma, secondary trauma, and vicarious traumatization.

By way of introduction, teachers can also encourage students to welcome and nurture silence as part of the class, so that students feel permission to engage in a process of reflection without the need to fill in every moment with participation or chatter. In Jean’s seminar that prepared this website, the seminar student teaching this segment was a pianist and music teacher; she noted that silence was essential to music—the “rest” being a sound in itself, and often the purest and most meaningful of sounds. Likewise, in the context of deep introspection, silence creates the inner spaciousness that allows for deep introspection and reflection.

Part 1: Excerpts from Journal (recommended duration: 5-7 minutes)

  • Begin by handing out a copy of excerpts from someone’s journal. Jean has included vignettes from her journal here which you are welcome to use. Since students reported that it was compelling to hear of their teacher’s own struggles, teachers can consider substituting vignettes of your own here.
  • Next, ask students to read the excerpts, noting down any possible signs of vicarious traumatization.
  • After every student is finished reading and annotating, bring everyone back to a short debrief session, asking: what are some possible signs of vicarious traumatization in this person’s life?

Part 2: Self-examination and Silent Witness (recommended duration: 15 minutes)

Saakvitne and Pearlman have pioneered a way to teach groups of trauma workers about vicatious trauma that involves a personal assessment followed by what they call a “Silent Witness” exercise. Essentially, group members examine their own experience of vicarious traumatization before engaging in silent sharing and contemplation of those experiences. 3 The following is a suggested sequence for engaging in this exercise:

  • Distribute a handout containing a bulleted list or table of seven aspects of daily life and ask students to reflect on some ways in which they may have manifested vicarious traumatization in their lives by noting changes in their practices and routines since starting their clinical work.
    • Sleep
    • Eating
    • Moving/exercise
    • Mindfulness/ breathing
    • Family/friends
    • Spiritual time
    • Self-expression/ recreation
  • Allow students to refer to the database of experiences shared by other clinical students (see list above) to see if they recognize any of the same signs in their lives.
  • Distribute post-it notes to each student and ask them to share one or more items from their list. No one should be forced to share but teachers should reassure the students that the post-its will be collected in one container and shuffled to ensure anonymity.
  • Next, the students or teacher can post the post-its on a section of the room’s wall and ask students to take turns in examining the notes, silently.

Saakvitne and Pearlman note that this form of silent sharing “is very powerful. It frees people to observe and acknowledge without needing to respond. It also demonstrates the power of bearing witness, which is an essential part of trauma work.” 4

Laurie Pearlman once told Jean that no VT orientation was complete without the Silent Witness and the Future Self Visualization 5(See Vocation, Identifying Vicarious Traumatization, and Managing Vicarious Traumatization)

Part 3: Discussion and Takeaways (recommended duration: 15-20 minutes)

Teachers can then bring everyone together to discuss students’ impressions, uncertainties and realizations. Some suggested topics for discussion include:

  • What do you notice generally about signs of vicarious traumatization on the wall?

Students will often notice that some of the notes on the wall reflect their own experiences or, conversely, draw their attention to opposite experiences. For instance, while reading a note on the wall describing one student’s decrease in appetite since becoming involved in the clinic, another student may observe that he or she has been eating more frequently or in a less organized fashion. Cumulatively, the notes on the wall will depict the breadth and variety of experiences of vicarious traumatization, driving home the idea that there is no single profile of vicarious traumatization and highlighting the importance of developing heightened internal vigilence toward changes in one’s own daily practices and habits. Participants also report that the other post-its describe concerns that they share but had not yet identified in their life.

  • Do you feel confident that you can tell the difference between a sign of vicarious traumatization and burnout, secondary trauma, or even primary trauma in your life?

Students may express the view that they have difficulty telling apart signs of stress, burn-out, secondary trauma and vicarious traumatization. Some may point out that these signs and symptoms seem to be intertwined. One student in Jean’s class, for example, shared the observation that a willingness to compromise on prior commitments (such as spending time with family on a daily basis) could be the result of stress related to clinic pressures, but also reflect a general erosion in priorities connected with the tendency of vicarious traumatization to result in guilt.

As a follow-up question, a teacher may ask why it might be important to know which symptoms stem from which specific causes or processes. Students may point out that understanding the root of a symptom may help them find appropriate ways to address the situation. For instance, realizing that a particular change in one’s daily habits arose primarily from burnout as opposed to vicarious traumatization may mean that the student should strategize about her clinic involvement for a certain period. Alternatively, ascertaining that a change is due to vicarious traumatization might indicate that talking with a therapist might be helpful or even necessary. The class may also conclude that in many cases, once a significant daily life problem is identified, the root cause may be both impossible and unnecessary to understand fully as long as the lawyer works to resolve the problem effectively.

• How do we distinguish between manageable and unmanageable vicarious traumatization?

Distinguishing between manageable and unmanageable vicarious traumatization may have implications for a student’s vocation. For example, a student may find that they feel strong compassion for both immigrants in deportation proceedings and victims of sexual assault, but that representing the latter feels too overwhelming in its negative impact on the student’s wellbeing as well as on the quality of the representation. In that case, a student may decide that some manifestations of vicarious traumatization are manageable using certain techniques of self-care whereas others are not. Jean sometimes describes that her experiences representing incarcerated clients or parents tended always to verge on overwhelming, and that her very few experiences of representing incarcerated parents created unmanageable Vicarious Traumatization issues for her. These are important reflections for the students to engage in as they contemplate their future career choices.

• How do you feel about this time spent bringing your awareness to signs of vicarious traumatization?

As a final question, if time allows, teachers can ask students how they feel now that they have brought their awareness to possible signs of vicarious traumatization. Students may be experiencing feelings of affirmation, vulnerability, confusion, compassion, or a mix of the above. It is important for teachers to acknowledge all of these potential emotions and, most important, to channel non-judgment as students transition into the lesson on how to manage their symptoms of vicarious traumatization.


  2. Id. at 48.
  3. Id. at 67-68.
  4. Id. at 69.
  5. Id. at 124-126.