A few years ago while working as an undertrained, underpaid, undersupported case manager, I found myself struggling with a nasty case of secondary trauma. It is difficult for me to even talk about it without going down the rabbit hole of psychobabble and self-doubt. The best way to describe it is to describe one of the most startling symptoms: every time I saw a mother and child, a couple, or really any kind of family unit, without being fully conscious of it, I would try to move out of earshot. I was working in domestic violence, and eventually I realized that I wanted to avoid seeing the display of verbal or physical abuse that I had begun to assume must be occurring in every family. In other words, when I saw a hetero couple strolling together down the street, I assumed that the man would begin calling the woman names or hitting her at any moment. Fucked up, right?
Anyway, one of the major problems I’ve had with acknowledging and dealing with secondary trauma is that it occurs because of intense empathy for others’ pain (which is not to say it is inevitable). Because of this empathy, it is really hard for me to acknowledge my own pain—the secondary trauma—as legitimate. I mean, what could be more whiny-first-worlder than to complain that other peoples’ problematic lived experiences are so bad that they are traumatizing me? Those people had to actually live it, not just hear about it!
It seems to me that there is something in there that has a lot to do with broader struggles for social justice and wanting to recognize one’s own privilege. My understanding of the world suggests that while I am oppressed by certain systems (capitalism and gender, for example), I also benefit from others (race, class, sexuality, and nationality are all systems that privilege me and my experiences). What gets tricky for me is balancing being a good ally and trying to notice when my experiences are being validated a little too easily, but also feeling ok acknowledging my own pain and–dare I say–oppression.
Maybe this is part of what generates so much defensiveness around intersectionality on the left (I’m thinking especially of feminism here–just check out the comments on this post to see what I’m talking about). I suspect that sometimes I get defensive because acknowledging my privilege can feel like it requires downplaying my own pain. But (and here’s where the rabbit hole starts) then I worry: how can I tell the difference between the need to validate my own feelings and simply feeling threatened by the loss of privilege? Is there one?