By Mark Baumann, Copyright 2023
Wellness and secondary trauma are two related and challenging issues for legal professionals. The practice of law almost always exposes practitioners to other people’s traumas. Lawyers (and judges) doing interpersonal law, such as family, domestic violence, probate and criminal law are especially exposed to client’s traumas. Frameworks for thinking about wellness and trauma can help us think deeper and survive better. The eight dimension wellness framework and trauma informed care are two useful frameworks. Adding the developmental science component of adaptation to relational danger helps these frameworks become highly effective because it helps us more discretely define safety, trauma and danger, concepts which are surprisingly difficult to define.
Wellness is generally described as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of illness. It generally includes taking steps to address physical health, sleep, diet and environmental conditions, and to reduce unhealthy activities, situations and stress. A combination of techniques can improve wellness.
The US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides a framework identifying eight dimensions of wellness.`
For lawyers, the last four offer unique opportunities and challenges to wellness and trauma exposure. For example, where the intellectual and occupational domains meet, law practice offers stimulating mental challenges together with sometimes frustrating restrictions from laws, clients, opposing lawyers, and judges untrained in the nature of interpersonal conflict.
The social-occupational domains are often challenging for lawyers where daily interactions are typically centered around aggressive advocacy often in relative isolation. Lawyering can offer financial reward and some measure of freedom, but sometimes at the cost of overworking. Money managed well can reduce financial stress and provide the opportunity for comfortable rest, but can it buy wellness? Money can provide some protection from financial danger, but can it provide protection from the danger of a failed personal relationship? At what cost cash?
Trauma is best defined broadly, to include anything which causes harm. It could be from physical harm such as a car accident, social harm such as racism and microaggressions, and pharmacological harm such as drug addiction. It can also be from relational harm, such as a dramatic reduction in social status or the loss of a relationship.
Trauma-Informed Care (TIC), or more specifically, Trauma- and violence-Informed Care (TVIC), provide frameworks to guide helping professionals to help clients overcome, reduce and manage past and current trauma, and potentially to avoid future trauma. TVIC principles offer the hope of helping clients turn their current situation into a healing experience. These principles are not only helpful guidance for professionals, they are also relevant for self-care. Common elements in TVIC frameworks include understanding the problem, providing safety, and utilizing a client-centered approach.
Harm from microaggressions offers one broad example for applying these elements. It’s necessary for the professional to understand what microaggressions are for a particular client, and provide safety by not unintentionally repeating the microaggression or dismissing the client’s feelings.
Client-centered approaches involve, among several skills, enhanced listening and empathy. Research shows that application of these types of professional skills can provide a client a feeling of safety. Neurobiological research also shows that when people gain a sense of safety, their mind and body relax and move into a state where they can begin to consider and process new information, and in more optimal ways. This can be achieved when the professional engages with a paced, nonjudgmental and reciprocal conversation, where a person’s deep needs are discovered and validated before decision making is attempted.
These counseling skills work well to help clients, and they can work well for self-care. It might help to assess the people in your life. Are they judgmental? Do they truly listen to you? Do they engage in a reciprocal conversation where they sensitively respond to what you say, or do they listen just enough to know which of their own feelings and experiences they can add next to the conversation (thereby leaving your feelings and experiences behind)? Finding friends, colleagues, mentors, coaches, and therapists with good quality communication skills is a dynamic way to manage the trauma of participating in other people’s traumas.
Developmental science: patterns of subjective relational danger
Developmental science, advanced models of attachment science and theory in particular, add a rich layer to biopsychosocial models such as those described above. This is because this field is uniquely focused on safety. But much more specifically, it looks at safety as a function of adapting to and surviving danger and obtaining comfort, particularly in the context of relational danger.
Attachment science finely parses relational danger unlike any other model of human functioning. It identifies three detailed patterns of how humans respond to danger. The patterns are often described with the simple letters A, B and C . (Avoidant/dismissing are a common words for the A pattern and Anxious/resistant/ambivalent are common for the C pattern.) The A and C patterns are highly prevalent in legal cases.
Relational dangers for people who function in with A-pattern survival strategies include acknowledging feelings, vulnerability, danger and harm. Hence the term avoidant. Issues like those are minimized, avoided, or sometimes replaced with an over-focus on positive things and feelings. (This might be expressed as false positive affect, something that led to disastrous consequences in the tragic life of Victoria Climbié.) However, dangers in this pattern also include criticism, doing the wrong thing, being seen, meeting your own-needs, and not compromising.
Oppositely, relational dangers for people who utilize C-pattern survival strategies include not acknowledging feelings, vulnerability and/or invulnerability, and not fully meeting your own needs. Danger, harm, criticism, and aggression, are often comfortable and preferred states of being. Compromise is a danger, often felt as a deadly danger.
I’ll say it again because this is a truly astonishing finding from attachment science. For one large group of people, compromise is a danger, and it can be frightening or even terrifying. Asking such a person “Can’t you just compromise” might trigger the use of defensive self-protective strategies more than engaging in microaggressions.
Developmental science: Trauma
Trauma can also be defined more finely by advanced attachment science. Trauma is not just a harm, it is the experience of negative consequences after exposure to danger.
For people who survive life with A-patterned self-protective strategies, being asked about their feelings or having them publicly displayed can lead to a negative experience as a result of being exposed to the danger of acknowledging feelings.
For people who survive life with C-patterned self-protective strategies, not being allowed to display their feelings, especially feelings of anger or desire for comfort, can lead to a negative experience as a result of being exposed to the danger of being denied their feelings. Or more specifically, the danger is from being denied access to the information provided by their feelings.
So yes, wellness, safety, trauma and danger are all much more complicated than what meets the eye. These are complex topics. This is one reason why it has taken society a long time to understand them and begin to put research and thought to addressing them. And it is why having some frameworks and good definitions are helpful to begin to examine our own exposure to other’s trauma.
In client counseling, one technique to help people address the dangers they probably don’t even know are affecting them, is to ask compassionate Socratic questions.
“I understand that you don’t want to fight in court and that it is much easier to just give in, and you can do that. Perhaps the question is: Is it more important to avoid the fight, or to protect your children and your financial situation?”
“I understand, the principal of the thing is important. Your feelings are intense, and they are real. Perhaps the question is: is it more important that they validate your feelings, or that you protect your children and your financial situation?”
For your own wellness, it might be possible to go beyond the basics in the eight dimensions of wellness. It might be possible to identify what is uniquely dangerous to you, and have an honest conversation with yourself, or with a mentor or therapist. If you can realize you are prioritizing other people’s needs over your own, or that you are indulging your feelings over the needs of others, that can be the start of addressing dangers that might be causing you harm which you are not aware of.
This article is based primarily on the tenets of the Dynamic-Maturational Model of Attachment and Adaptation (DMM).
It is also based on elements of other biopsychosocial models such as Interpersonal Neurobiology and the work of Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, particularly his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
Stoewen DL. Dimensions of wellness: Change your habits, change your life. Can Vet J. 2017 Aug;58(8):861-862. PMID: 28761196; PMCID: PMC5508938. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5508938/.