In 1990 psychologists McCann and Pearlman coined the term vicarious trauma to refer to the wide range of harmful and cumulative effects that a person who is excessively emotionally involved with the problems of another can suffer. They were referring to an indirect trauma, which can become so intense from a psychological point of view, that it alters our perception of ourselves, the others and the world, generating deep discomfort.
These people experience a kind of hyper-empathy syndrome. Emotional damage is the result of knowing the traumatizing event that the significant person has experienced and the effort to help them and try to alleviate their suffering by carrying it on our own shoulders. However, just as the adversity of others can affect us emotionally, its transformative impact is not only negative. There is also vicarious resilience.
The origin of vicarious resilience
The concept of vicarious resilience has its roots in a study conducted by a group of San Diego psychologists, led by psychologist Pilar Hernández-Wolfe, who worked for the organization “Survivors of Torture International.”
Their respective therapeutic experiences and those of other professionals with survivors of torture and political violence and their families in Colombia and other parts of the world, showed them that some found inspiration and strength in these people, whom they considered as everyday “heroes”.
They soon wondered if working with trauma survivors had the potential to transform therapists in unique and positive ways. In their research, they found that stories of adaptation and survival, as well as reciprocity in the face of adversity, become a powerful source of inspiration. These experiences tie into the concept of post-traumatic growth, through which meaning and purpose are enhanced by exposure to trauma.
And everything seems to indicate that this growth is not limited only to the affected person but can also extend to those around them. In other words: resilience is contagious.
What is vicarious resilience?
Vicarious resilience is a phenomenon characterized by the positive effect that transforms those who help and accompany people who have suffered trauma, as a response to their resilience. This phenomenon is evident mainly in psychotherapeutic, educational and community contexts, as well as in the rehabilitation of animals.
However, it can occur in any setting as long as there is a bond with the resilient person. The truth is that the stories of resilience and positive growth that emanate from traumatic episodes, have the potential to positively transform the life narratives of those who know them. And they can inspire not only those close to them but even entire communities.
The 5 great changes that the resilience of others generates in our life and way of being
In 2017, a study was carried out in which they identified the different benefits of vicarious resilience and, although it was limited to therapists who help people who had suffered trauma, these changes can be extended to all people who have felt inspired for the self-improvement stories of others.
1. Changes in life goals and outlook
Post-traumatic growth implies a positive transformation of the “self”. A traumatic event can alter a person’s narrative of their life and profoundly change their perception of it. In fact, trauma survivors often report positive changes in their philosophy of life and reassess what really matters to them. Everything seems to indicate that vicarious resilience produces similar changes.
Noticing the big problems that other people have had to face usually gives us a more balanced perspective of life, encouraging us to appreciate it much more and can even push us to change our life goals for others with which we feel more identified and report us more satisfaction. This can produce a true tsunami in our self-concept and sense of life, leading to major life changes.
2. Rising hope inspired by overcoming story
Facing psychological trauma is hard, but coming out stronger from that experience is a deeply motivating example that teaches us that there is hope beyond the dark and threatening clouds that can fall on us. Therefore, vicarious resilience is a hopeful pillar and a source of strength. But for this, it is first necessary to open up and be willing to let ourselves be influenced by the hope of others.
3. Increased self-awareness and self-care practices
Interestingly, one of the effects of vicarious resilience is that it encourages us to be more introspective, pay more attention and take care of ourselves more. It is likely that the adversity of others and their path to healing make us more aware of the importance of taking care of ourselves and looking for the necessary resources within ourselves, balancing emotions to try to face adversity in the best possible way.
It has also been appreciated that vicarious resilience generates a more spiritual outlook on life. Undoubtedly, when people suffer a trauma they need to find meaning in that suffering, which is why they often look for it in spirituality. Apparently, vicarious resilience triggers a similar answer-seeking process that can lead to a more spiritual outlook on life.
4. Broader understanding of the power of relationships
Being “touched” by another person’s resilience teaches us the incredible power relationships have over each of us. In fact, people who have experienced vicarious resilience, report paying more attention to the narratives of others and their life stories, because they are more aware of their transformative action.
These people tend to live more in the “here and now”, so they are more open to the experiences of others and can better connect with their emotions, which increases their empathy and compassion but, at the same time, enhances the beneficial effect of resilience. It is as if we were able to tune in better with the others to take advantage of their life experiences.
5. Sharpest wit
Perhaps one of the more curious “side effects” that studies of vicarious resilience have found in therapists is that it sharpens their wits. Other people’s stories of survival and strength are likely to demonstrate the importance of seeking unconventional solutions to unusual problems, so we fully understand the relevance of abilities like fluid intelligence and creativity.
These people also reported a greater sense of personal self-efficacy, which likely stems from greater confidence in their own abilities to cope with adversity. I mean, we start to convince ourselves that whatever happens, we can deal with it.
In short, we not only learn from our falls, we can also learn from life’s blows that other people take. This shows us that resilience has the power to expand, as long as we live with our eyes and hearts wide open to notice those unsung “heroes” who are with us and take the time to learn about their life stories. Stories that can be as heartbreaking as they are inspiring, because it is precisely this apparent dichotomy that has the greatest impact on our lives.
Hernández-Wolfe, P. (2018) Resiliencia vicaria: una revisión comprensiva. Rev. Estud. Soc.; 66: 9-17.
Killian, K., Hernandez-Wolfe, P., Engstrom, D. & Gangsei, D. (2017) Development of the vicarious resilience scale (VRS): A measure of positive effects of working with trauma survivors. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy; 9(1): 23- 31.
Edelkott, N., Engstrom, D. W., Hernandez-Wolfe, P., & Gangsei, D. (2016) Vicarious resilience: Complexities and variations. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry;86(6): 713–724.