Episode 144

As trauma therapists, we understand the immense weight of our work. It’s not easy to hear the stories of pain and suffering day in and day out. We chose this path because we have a passion for helping others, but that doesn’t mean it’s always smooth sailing. In fact, the longer we do this work, the harder it can become. Burnout and secondary traumatic stress are very real risks. That’s why we’re here to talk about how we can avoid burnout, find joy in our work, and build resilience as trauma therapists.


 You’re listening to the All Things Substance podcast, the place for therapists to hear about substance use from a mental health perspective.  I’m your host, Betsy Byler and I’m a licensed therapist, clinical supervisor, and a substance abuse counselor.  It is my mission to help my fellow therapists gain the skills and competence needed to add substance use to their scope of practice.   So join me each week as we talk about All Things Substance.

Welcome back to the All Things Substance Podcast. This is episode 144. This is number four out of four of the episodes that Dr. Jenny Hughes and I are doing in preparation for the event Braving the Course. We did this event last year and had a great time and we’re excited to run it again this year. We wanted to present some episodes coming up to the event to help explain where we’re going and what the point of doing this event is.

Last week we talked about assessing for substance use, and I talked about how the goal isn’t to do a full, very lengthy assessment. It’s brief. It’s finding the parameters of somebody’s substance use. If you haven’t had a chance to listen, head over to betsy byler.com/podcast and listen to episode 143.

You can also find it on any podcast platform under the All Things Substance Podcast. And again, episode 143. 

This week what we wanna talk about is how therapists like us who work with trauma can avoid burnout, can find joy in the work that we do, even though what we do is heavy and not everybody in the world wants to hear the kinds of things that we hear on a daily basis.

I know we signed up for this, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always easy. And the longer we do it, sometimes it can get even harder. And so I wanna introduce you in case you haven’t met either of us. I’m Betsy Byler. I am a trauma therapist and a substance use counselor. I am a person in long-term recovery. I am a mom of two grown daughters and I live in the northwest Wisconsin woods. Think Little House on the Prairie type, Big Woods with my two cats and my husband. And my passion is helping therapists feel more comfortable to work with substance use. So I’m gonna have Jenny introduce herself and we’ll go from there.

Thanks, Betsy. I am Jenny Hughes. I’m a psychologist and trauma therapist. And I too am a mom of two kiddos. For people who are watching this on the video, you can see my son’s head right here because we’re just doing real life. And I currently live in Houston, but I’m from the mountains of Colorado, which is where we are recording. Just like last one ’cause we’re batching these last two episodes to make sure that we’re able to get this out to you guys. 

In addition to doing trauma work, which I absolutely love, a big passion of mine is cultivating community for other trauma therapists. And I do that through my work with the Brave Trauma Therapist Collective. Because it’s just so crucial to our ability to really thrive when doing this work. I know how much trauma therapists and people who work with substance use. Love the work that they do, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. And when you have other folks to be able to share that weight in a lot of different ways, it can make a huge difference.

So one of the things that Jenny has created is the Brave Trauma Therapist Collective, and she and I met in this side space where therapists who are doing work outside of therapy kind of met.  When we first started talking this was when she was founding this collective, and what I wanna have her do is tell us a little bit about what the collective does, and then I wanna ask the questions that came to mind when I first heard what she was up to.

Yeah. So why did I start the Brave Trauma Therapist collective? So there’s a number of reasons, but one of the primary ones is because I know what it feels like to be supported, to be surrounded by other therapists that are supportive and in spaces like that. And they also know what it feels like to be in the total opposite.

And shortly before covid, I was in one of those opposite spaces and I was not feeling supported in the work that I was doing. I was really living in fight or flight mode because of the environment in which I was working . I think that my career is unique in that way because that was really the first time I had experienced a work environment like that in an agency setting.

I know that lots of people experienced that over and over again, very sadly. But having such a stark contrast was a huge eye-opener for me. And then when Covid hit, one of my areas of specialty has always been working with vicarious trauma, but prior to Covid and some of this other stuff, I was really teaching other medical professionals about it and helping them to understand what it’s like.

And then when Covid hit I was asked to help with a lot of the wellness and response programs for first responders and for our medical professionals. And that was awesome and I love doing that work, but I was like, who the hell is taking care of all of us therapists that are stepping in and stepping up?

Because of course we’re doing that. Like it’s not that we need, like a pat on the back, but it, there was just this missing piece. And I was driven to be able to create a space for that. Specifically focusing on trauma therapists. Anyone that’s working with trauma because they deserve to be cared for too.

And oftentimes we can really only care for each other because of the type of work that we do. Hipaa, of course. But just like you said earlier, Betsy, we choose to sign up for this work. And so even other therapists who don’t specialize in trauma and substance use, like they’re not gonna be the best.

Support for us, and they may not feel equipped to support us. And so I wanted to carve out a space that was unique and where people could show up and not worry about if they were too much or if this, if they would be understood. I recall a time when I was talking to my mother-in-law just randomly and I said something about sexual abuse or something like that, and I was just talking.

And then I looked at her face. And her face was like, just sheet white and sort of wide-eyed. And I’m like, what? And what I had said was like the most minor thing compared to all of the fucked up things that I’ve heard in my life. And it was the reminder of, oh shit, other people don’t, like people don’t spend their day immersed in ugly shit like we do. And I think that’s why some of us have dark humor, why we joke around about things because the work we do is hard. Yeah. So in the collective,  what do you think needs to be part of a supportive environment?

So in the collective we have a framework of how we talk about vicarious trauma, and so we’re always cycling through the process of naming vicarious trauma, like identifying how it’s showing up, being able to pick up on like its sneaky chameleon sides, taming vicarious trauma. So what are we doing to be able to take care of ourselves and to make sure that our needs are getting met?

And then reframing vicarious trauma. I, it’s so interesting now running the collective for about a year and seeing how reframing vicarious trauma is really tapping into this concept of vicarious resilience and I think oftentimes when we are steeped in our specialties, we forget that other people don’t know the stuff that we know.

And so it’s been pleasantly surprising for me to get this feedback from people are like what is vicarious resilience? And then they learn about it and they’re like, this is amazing. And so it’s been really cool to be able to grow and really focus a lot of our efforts in the collective on vicarious resilience and helping each other pick up on the small moments of vicarious resilience.

Acknowledging that it’s typically gonna be little things and not big. Things and even in connecting it with different elements. So like our episode on soft front, strong back, that is a huge part of being able to access my curious resilience. ’cause if we’re armored up, if we have a hard front, we are not gonna be able to receive the little moments of joy or progress or the big ones either that we experience with our clients.

So in the collective content wise and kind of conversation wise, we’re always moving through these things monthly. But. It’s not really about the content, it is about the connections that we have and the way that we show up for each other when we come on calls, whether it’s a content call, a consultation call, a guest expert training, whatever it is.

Even just yesterday on our guest expert training, we were talking about addressing vicarious trauma when working with kids. And we just showed up and in all of our courageous vulnerability and shared so much together even during training. And so that. The vicarious resilience and the community and knowing that these are, this is a space and these are spaces where we can show up and be vulnerable and not be judged or set aside is really the most powerful thing.

And that I think is really important when it comes to. Maybe taking a leap and starting to do some of the substance use work that you and I are talking about and maybe feeling nervous about it. It’s a newer skill, feeling ineffective. You wanna be able to do it right. Being able to talk about what it’s like to be bringing these topics up in session, especially if they.

Hit home. We’ve shared in some of my story of the reasons why I don’t like hardcore do substance use work. And so knowing that there’s a space where people are gonna be able to hold that for you is so healing and it just, it gives you energy and it lifts this weight in so many ways.

So when we first, when you first were talking with me about this concept I am in a space where I am the happiest in my career I’ve ever been. So I’m not in a place where I’m approaching burnout. I have been a supervisor for 12 or so years and worked really hard to have a team to support my team and field them from the agency bullshit.

Because there, there were expectations and things, and my job, I felt, was to be an umbrella. But not everybody’s supervisor is an umbrella. To shield them. And so I thought about, what about people who are like, you want me to do another thing? I don’t have time or energy for that.

And I’ve seen from you how that’s worth it. And I’ve seen it in, even in my connection to this therapist space that you and I are in,  I wasn’t even burned out. But it has created this space for me. But I’m thinking about the folks listening who are , feeling like they’re either all the way on the spectrum to the end of where they’re feeling really lost and drained, and people who are starting to feel that way and feel like they’re balancing, plates on top of a pen, like so I wonder if you can talk about. What do you say about when people are asking about the time and if it’s gonna work or worth it?I just wanted to check in and speak for those folks. 

The time commitment is something that comes up, but even more so what I hear and it, this doesn’t surprise me at all, is that people are worried that they’re going to have to give more energy into the collective that they’re gonna have to take care of the other therapists. Does that make sense? And so my response to that is not your job. That is my job. And that is something that I take very seriously. And that this space is here to show up when you need it and don’t when you don’t.

It can be really difficult to start to take up space as a therapist. And so that’s another thing. And I think some of the, these are underneath some of the time commitment questions that are on the surface is am I allowed to take up space? Space. Am I allowed to ask for my needs to be met?

Even in this place where Jenny, you’re telling me that’s the purpose of it, right? I’m a therapist. I don’t ask for help. I help others. All of these messages that I am totally guilty of too, that we internalize really deeply a lot as therapists and helpers and healers. And so in a lot of ways it’s just me asking for people to take a leap of faith and trust that I will, that I am able to hold that community and hold that space and knowing that.

One, I gained so much out of just being able to be part of and run the collective. And that, just like we tell our clients, like all of clients ask me like, oh, how do you do this work every day? Because I have, I am making sure that I am taking care of myself and doing the best that I can on any given day.

So I think that oftentimes those time commitment questions,  while totally legit, because our calls are at certain times and people wanna be able to show up live and things like that, often there are some of these more unconscious concerns underneath that come from so many years of being a helper healer.And just all the messages that we internalize. 

What is it about connecting with other trauma therapists that helps us? It’s just the unspoken understandings that we share with each other. We don’t, it’s So for any of the listeners who have like really old friends from like childhood, so part of, so I’m in Colorado right now. Part of this trip was going to my 20th high school reunion and that was amazing.

I’m from a super tiny town, like I’ve still been in touch with a lot of these people on and off, but. I know these people like so deeply from childhood that we just kicked up right where we left off. Even people that I had not seen in 20 years, and it’s because of just this shared understanding of the weird shit that we did when we were growing up and the place that we grew up and all those things.

Like you don’t have to. Explain things, explain to these people. And that’s how brave it is in BRAVE. Like we don’t have to explain what it’s like to do trauma work and or feel like we have to protect other people from the things that we are needing to share at that moment. And that’s really powerful.

We don’t have to second guess. We don’t have to censor. Of course there is respect that is going on in everything that is shared, but it just is this. Place where you don’t have to have all these million things going on in your head as you’re deciding what and how to share things. , and I’ve noticed that in the groups that I’m in of how we all speak to each other and the things that are common, just how we phrase things or.

That everybody knows what it’s like to make a CPS report. Or, having, there’s just things that we do. Yeah. Being worried about having to testify or, having to talk to a lawyer or deal with, irate clients or all sorts of things. It’s something that we all understand. That is just a part of the natural stress of the job. Yep. And I don’t have to explain to anybody if I say I had to make a report today. If you haven’t made a report yet, you will. And, And we understand exactly.  None of us love it. Even if we feel like this is the  right call and somebody needs to, there’s the fear of the fallout and the backlash.

There’s just stuff that I think average folks don’t understand about what we do  and acknowledging substance use is part of that too, like that is something that comes up in the work that we do in the Brave Collective together. It’s interesting because all of the therapists in Brave totally get and understand the connection between trauma and substance use.

And we don’t all necessarily know what to do or feel like we are equipped to, to really deal with it in a way that makes us feel confident. And I think when people are willing to say that, I think it’s a big deal because we have part of my story was coming outta grad school thinking that I knew what I was doing about substance use and especially being a person in recovery, and then that dawn and realization of, holy shit, I don’t have any idea what I’m doing.

And wanting to get all the information so no one found out. That I didn’t know what I was doing. When I then later realized that no one knew about substance use and I was not the only one. But that sort of, that dawning realization, but having other therapists, I’m running my main program right now, charting the course and the therapists are sharing things about they’re weak and how substance use has come up in ways they didn’t expect. And they’re asking questions and doing it around other therapists, which takes vulnerability. Yep. For them to be willing to say, I don’t know what to do about this, or I have opinions about this, and what do I do about that? And for me to be able to talk with them about yep, that’s super normal.

Here’s what I would suggest. Here’s the thing I would look for. And then they’re like, oh, I know how to do that. And I’m like, yeah, you do. And then they’re feeling better. And I think that’s the connection and the healing nature of that connection. I think, for us, it makes it so we’re not walking into a session feeling lost and feeling I don’t know how to help this person, which we all have been there, and we’ll be there again.

I’ve been doing this 20 years and that still doesn’t stop me from getting clients where I’m like, shit. Okay. I’m not easily surprised anymore, but that’s a new one.  And having to self-talk myself  about, you know, how to be with people  and go with that. But I think having other therapists that aren’t your boss that don’t have the same productivity concerns you do, aren’t involved in the same kind of agency bullshit. 

Okay. There’s probably some good agencies. And I think I ran a good one, but lots of us are drowning under Yeah. That. And so we wanna acknowledge Jenny and I, have had good and bad experiences in agency work and for a lot of folks I see that on Facebook all the time in our therapist groups, that they’re just drowning in these, they’re supposed to bill 40 hours a week or some bunch of shit that you can’t do.  I have seen and heard from Jenny and witnessed myself that the connection with each other forms a bond and gives us a common language that even if you are feeling like you can’t possibly do another thing, we’re not suggesting that you carve out all these hours every week to do this thing. 

We’re saying to have a connection that you can go in and out as needed and see what that does for yourself, your internal reserves, and that having the support that you need will give you the energy to move forward and keep going. And so when I tell you that I feel like it’s super important that we look at substance use and you’re like, do you know how much shit I do? Do you know what you’re asking me? All of us have had to figure out how to do an assessment in an hour. And I can do it now, but sweet Jesus at the beginning, that was a whole, that’s one of the reasons Jenny and I kind of love how our work overlaps is because I think most people are like, yeah, I can acknowledge it’s an important thing.

And I don’t know that I had the energy to go there. And Jenny’s I bet you don’t. I didn’t either. Here’s a way that we can help that, whether it’s about addressing substance use or not. We all are susceptible to burnout and. Secondary traumatic stress and a bunch of things that end up affecting us at home. And so we wanna present to you a different model, a different way of doing it, which is why in braving the course that Jenny’s gonna be talking with us about the concept of vicarious resilience and the key that is to helping us find joy and be able to continue with the work that we love. Exactly and not feel like, oh my God, do I need to change careers? Should I become a real estate agent? No, don’t do that. 

Yeah, exactly. And with the vicarious resilience, being able to, like I said earlier, share that with other therapists who get it and who are celebrating you and the work that you’re doing with your clients.

There’s. Other than the warm fuzzies that you feel in those moments with your clients, there’s nothing else like it when it comes to, for me anyway, my professional work of being able to share that with other therapists and just like to revel in that amazingness. And when we’re adding, substance use stuff to our work Yep.

Like we’ve been saying, it’s another thing. It can feel scary, it can feel all the things. Even when, thinking back to like our first, I think it was our first episode, Betsy, when you were like, why don’t you just, maybe cut back 10% and start to explore that with a client. If they’re in the place where they’re wanting to change some things, right?

And say what about 10% and then seeing what a 10% change makes for a percent. Just the tiny little changes that, that, and shifts that, that makes in their life. That is really cool as a therapist When we don’t have spaces to share that and to enhance that, like we use, like that term in EMDR it can just kinda get swept under the bridge and we just leave our office and we don’t remember those things in the same way that either we remember it. The big things which are great, like the big graduations or progress that our clients make, but especially all of the other stuff that we hear, it’s so much easier to remember those things because it puts our brain into survival mode. Our brain is oh shit, I need to focus on this because I’m in danger.

And Through braving the course. That’s why this year I wanna focus on vicarious resilience because we can incorporate strategies into our daily life and we can connect with people who get it and who are going to celebrate with us so that our brain is able to turn on our parasympathetic, be able to sit in those moments of joy and we can continue to do the work that we love with maybe even more energy, more oomph.

I have loved experiencing that and seeing that for myself. We are very excited to bring you Braving of Course next week. It is next Monday night. Monday the 28th of August, you can register and if you can’t show up, that’s perfectly fine. You can watch the replay for those who can on a Monday evening. It’s 6:00 PM Central time for our friends who are in other parts of the world. I know Australia would probably be able to work with us, New Zealand and some of our friends in Asia. But I also know that our friends in the UK and Europe are gonna be sleeping. We want you to sleep.Please do that. Sign up for the replay. 

You can register@ betsybyler.com/braving-the-course and feel free to use the contact form there. If you wanna reach out, you can find Jenny over@braveproviders.com. You can message her there. You can find us on Facebook and Instagram, and we would be happy to connect in any way about any of the stuff that we’re talking about.

Jenny and I both are passionate about supporting therapists so that they feel better, can be more confident and. Continue doing this work because we know that people need it and there’s not enough of us running around. So we wanna support all of you as you do the work that you do. Thanks so much for listening and being with us.

We’re looking forward to Monday nights and we’ll see you then. Bye . 

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Helpful Links

Braving the Course Registration betsybyler.com/braving-the-course

Home of the Brave Trauma Therapist Collective braveproviders.com

Charting the Course betsybyler.com/course