Featured Issue: Refugee Mental Health
Interview with Dr. LaShawn Williams
During a series of interviews with forcibly displaced people, and in discussions with other like-minded NGOs, Their Story is Out Story (TSOS) recognized significant gaps in designing and providing trauma-informed therapy for individuals who have experienced displacement. These gaps were further reinforced by legislation and policies that did not appropriately address the mental health needs of resettled populations. To address these gaps, in 2021 and 2022 TSOS interviewed four mental healthcare professionals who each work in a different field of mental healthcare, and as such provided a broad picture of the challenges, opportunities, and lessons learned.
The following interview with Dr. LaShawn Williams discusses challenges and concerns specific to her therapy work with displaced individuals who have been resettled in the United States.
Dr. LaShawn Williams
Dr. LaShawn C. Williams is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Relational Change Strategist focusing on the interactions between people and across differences where connection matters most. Her anti-oppression work centers on the effects of marginalization, isolation, and disconnection in personal and professional spaces. She specializes in interpersonal and organizational change from the margins to the center. Grounded in Relational Cultural Theory, Dr. Williams works with leaders at every organizational level to help them engage the taboo concepts of interpersonal shame and humiliation then commuting to create pathways toward mutual empathy and empowerment. She is an accessible consultant to local, regional, and national organizations. She is passionate about Relational Transformation and eagerly supports individuals, couples, families and groups through her practice, Relational Spaces at The Utah Center for Connection in Orem.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Who are you, what do you do? How did you come to do what you're doing right now?
My name is Dr LaShawn Williams. I'm a licensed clinical social worker, and Assistant Professor of Social Work at a local university here in Utah. I came into higher education almost 16 years ago.
I've been a social worker for about 20 years. It’s the work of being with people and creating relationships and helping connect people to resources that are going to allow them to see and to thrive. The mission statement of social workers is to alleviate oppression for all living beings which means we really are never going to be out of a job, although we work to work ourselves out of a job.
I've been living here in Utah for about 15 years and I've worked mostly in higher education. Since then, I became licensed to practice in 2012. So I have been a licensed social worker offering mental health therapy for almost 10 years.
How did I get here? So, I'm a military kid. And I think being part of this conversation for refugee travels and experiences, the closest that I can get to it is thinking about my experiences as an Army brat and moving every single year. The thing that stayed the same was my family, and you know in that, in that sense my story likely diverges. There are so many refugee and immigrant populations whose families did not stay together while they continue to move from place to place.
You are trying to always connect yourself and ground yourself and reinvent yourself for whatever time period you were going to have in your new location. Change was the thing that was constant for me. And so, as I kept moving, I kept changing. That was my normal. People will ask, well how did you do it? I didn't have a choice. We had to move. It was part of my parents’ jobs and so the thing that we worked on the most was what will stay the same and try to hold on to that.
That gave me some really deep empathy for working with refugee students or having refugee clients with the refugee history that are in my therapy practice, understanding how they've learned to anchor themselves to something, and then to reimagine what reality of what normal can look like for them and then helping them to create that, so that no matter where they go, they can carry that piece of them with them. What we're doing in our therapeutic process is naming it and allowing them to more quickly access it and recognize it as a grounding beneficial part of themselves and their experience.
You work with people who have refugee backgrounds, but then you also work with people who don't. What are some of the differences and what are some of the similarities that you see in how the refugees process through this, how they learn to name it, and then also how they respond to the therapy?
There are so many. I mean there's so many similarities and differences. A lot of what you're seeing is people simply addressing or trying to overcome the stigma of asking for help. And I say, you’re not asking for help, you’re asking for a second opinion.
Because whenever you find yourself in the therapy room, you've thought through things, you've come up with answers, you've asked people, or you haven't asked people, but you've gotten to a point where you're like, I need another opinion, somewhere I can go that is not connected to anything else that I'm connected to where I can ask this question and it just stays in that room with that person.
If I'm asking friends or family, I’ve got to see them over and over again and then they're going to ask, “why'd you ask that question?” In the therapy setting, the work that I'm trying to do is to give permission and freedom to ask a question that you can ask over and over and over again or you can ask once and never have to touch it again.
A lot of times what we end up connecting with is experiences of trauma, and I tell my clients, we only will work with trauma in service of your healing. I'm not going to ask you to bring something up over and over and over again. I'm going to ask you to bring something up in service of your healing and understanding that you are a fabric or a tapestry.
You are a fabric or a tapestry that is working to incorporate all these different strands into your story. Every strand may not have a happy or positive experience associated with it but it's one of your strands and if we learn to help you tell your story, including these different fabrics and strands, then it's your tapestry. The thing that I love about therapy is it gives you the chance to tell your story so that no one tells your story for you.
When you own your story, it's one of the most powerful things and it becomes a tool instead of a weapon.
That's a similarity across a lot of my clients’ experiences when they're in the room with me. But for my clients with any refugee, migration, immigration history or past, they are a bit of a longer story because they weave in and connect with other people's stories that we're all trying to make sense of.
We figure out, well what's the story I'm in today? What's the story that I want to create, where do I have the control of the narrator, and where do I have the experience of the on looker? And so the narrative therapy process that I will engage a couple of my clients with is telling me the story you have. Tell me the story you want and let's find a way to connect those two stories together so that this is the story you own and that you share.
What does this look like when you say, we work through trauma only in the service of your healing in conjunction with the story that you have, and the story that you want when you're asking questions? What does that look like?
In social work, we have a statement or a saying, a professional adage that we go by, which is you meet the client where they are. Not every client is ready to talk directly or explicitly about what happened. This is the beauty of storytelling. The practice is called externalization and narrative therapy. What you do is you ask them to create a character or to create an entity that represents this thing that they do want to talk about and then whatever they give you, you have to work with it. I've had clients tell me about this metaphor. Just recently a client created a metaphor about a trauma, and they made the metaphor: I agreed to rob a bank. And in robbing the bank, I received a gift, but I couldn't keep the gift. And now every time I think about robbing a bank, it takes me back to that place.
The metaphor was about sexual trauma and abortion. I knew that I could not bring those words up but I knew what we were talking about. I knew that it wasn't the right time to use the words. I knew that it was a time to talk about the bank, and specifically, robbing a bank. I said you know what would you think if we could change our relationship with the bank? Let's talk about the gift that you could keep and that you had to give the gift back.
The client that I'm working with has an immigration history. They have a migration history and they have family back home and they have family here and they're working to build family and so what we are consistently working with is surviving ongoing change. We talk about change trauma as a change that we weren't ready for. We weren't equipped for this change when it showed up and that is what makes it traumatic. We did not have the skills or the ability or the mind for this change that has happened too soon, too fast, and too much. That's what it is and that's what it became.
You know, I hear what we're talking about, which is assault and trauma and abortion, and so, my mind immediately can go to fix it, right? That is not what trauma is looking for. Trauma is asking for repair. Trauma is asking for rewiring trauma, it’s asking for reconnecting. Trauma is about relationships. What's our relationship with the bank? Can we go from robbing the bank to making a deposit or an investment or getting a loan? Can we change our relationship with the bank? Can we talk about the gift? And can we talk about what are some of the logical consequences? But then what are some of the emotional consequences? What would feel better about this thing that has happened, that cannot be changed but you can be changed?
You can be different. Your relationship with this experience can be different. What would you like for it to look like and how do we change what we can change and then heal what we can't change?
And this process of trauma healing is slow, because it happens so fast. You're trying to get the body to slow down so that you can repair, so that you can heal, so that you can reconnect with it, and resume.
Trauma happens fast but it heals slowly. It's uncomfortable to heal trauma. But choosing not to heal is the most uncomfortable.
When you're sitting in this place with clients, I'm saying okay, we are choosing to heal. And we're choosing to bring this up in service of your healing and we will go as slow as needed, and we will go as far as is healthy or as far as is necessary because this is the thing that's with you for your whole life. We don't have to get through all of it in this one session, but we can start like you think about when you put together a puzzle, you try and find the corners first. To give you your bearings in trauma you're trying to find the corners first and then you start looking for the pieces of the puzzle that are in groups, so that you then work to put the whole story together, if that makes sense.
How do we educate anyone who is going to have a neighbor who was a refugee? How can you give them that space and that time? Also, how can we advocate on a higher level for changes to be able to make this discussion more at the forefront for policies and ways of how we approach our refugee politics in general?
I think what we’re asking people to do is a different kind of survival. And I really think we need to wrestle with that requirement that we placed on each other, because we do have, we have this well-intentioned expectation that folks and families will arrive here and hit the ground running because they've already been working so hard to get here.
They'll just continue working hard and here we are and welcome! And we think they will just hit the ground running and we're gonna cheer them on. And the cheering that we want to do comes from a wonderful place, but there's rest when you've had to survive so much. And I don't know that this society here in the US is very well versed in rest, as it is. I don't know if we give ourselves that kind of opportunity.
I still think about the clients or the colleagues that I have who are reeling from what's happening in their home countries, still. They're still deeply connected to it, whether it's a COVID-19 crisis, whether it is an intra country conflict with Israel and Palestine, all these things they spill out. And we have this well intentioned but misinformed idea well you're here now, so don't worry about that back there. Look at how much better it is here, but we negate the emotional connections that people have to their home countries. Because whenever I listened to my immigrants, my refugee students or clients, there was always talk about my country and in my home, and how foolish it is of me to expect that because you're here that here is now home.
I think for so many of our friends and families who are immigrating here, or who are coming here from refugee camps, or just simply have a refugee experience anywhere in their family, we need to be able to honor what home looks like.
And we need to be welcoming and create a home experience. For so many of our friends and families who are coming from other countries, the easiest thing is food and gathering and sharing, because food is an emotional experience and it's a connection to home. Being able to share that initial connection can be something, you know if you can consume and you can eat and benefit from my food, then maybe you are safe here.
And I feel like that's the work for so many of us on the non-policy side, although I think family connection is an informal community policy that we should be working to create. We can then extend that into our schools, which then extends into our understanding of school policy, which then extends into our understanding of our PTA and our school community council and the things that we can do as parents and as friends in the community to make spaces safe for our refugee families and children.
It's always easy for us to start with kids because we easily grant the honor and the necessity of safety to children and then it becomes how do we extend that to our friends, our parents or the other adults. Because we're asking people to survive one structure that might be rickety to come and survive another structure, and we have this wonderful intention to just say you are so strong and you are here and you're ready to work.
Sometimes there’s a disillusionment that happens which is, “I thought America would be like this.” And then America is not completely the ‘this’ that I thought it would be. And where is the place to talk about that? Where is the place to get validated about that? What does it look like if we could change our structure from the inside out, where it's ready to say, “you’re going to need this level of support and we’re definitely going to cheerlead you, but you need a break.”
And to refugees, I want to say, I don't need to see you suffer to know that you need help.
And so I'm going to go now and work over here so that this welcoming structure is ready for you, and you don't have to say a word.
We've listened to so many stories, we see that there's a pattern of experiences. And we are working to address this pattern now so that when the next group of families comes, they see that we've listened. They see that we've learned, because we've built something that is ready for them in ways that it wasn't ready for some of our friends and family before.
What does the welcome look like when we're talking about a policy change that we could go forward? We can either give everybody trauma therapy, when they first arrive. Or, does everyone get assessments when they first arrive? Do we extend mental health care and an assessment for a period of time? If you could snap your fingers and have one wish from Congress for a welcome for new people that would give them a walk to the story they want, what would that look like?
It would be an immediate assessment because what we're talking about is extended fight or flight response. And when that cortisol level, that stress hormone, is so high in the body, there needs to be an immediate baseline assessment of, how's your heart, how's your liver, how's your brain because if someone is in an elevated state when we get them and we expect them to keep going, oh my goodness the harm that we're unfortunately perpetuating because the body can't sustain that and consider itself healthy. So immediately, assessments. I would assume there's some fight or flight and I feel like the body needs a chance to come down from that, and literally I would say don't worry about this for the first eight weeks. Let's just get your body back down to a baseline that is healthy for you. I know you have learned to function. On a scale from 1 to 10 you function at a 15. I would love to get you down to an 8 because your 8 is going to be amazing. Two would be wonderful, but I feel like that physiological assessment to see how the body is doing, what have the levels been that have been sustained. Are they healthy? Is it something that's manageable? Can you really maintain it? And if we could literally take the time...a year to 18 months.
Can we let the body recover, in the same way that we do the work to help people who are struggling through coming down from addictions, a year and a half to two years to give the brain a chance to calm down? lt's a similar kind of traumatic experience to the body to have lived like this and it's not like the refugee camp is a stop and stay for a week or two. This is months and years at the camp and then all the things that happen. If we really understood the impact of being displaced, I think our work would be so much more long term. But we have an awful time discussing a healthy grieving process and recognizing that that's what we're walking into when we're welcoming people. We want to welcome them and keep them moving forward but we reduce and remove the necessity of a grieving process and there could be functional grief. You can be functional and grieving and functional and depressed and functional and anxious, but if we're only looking at the functional part and not the other pieces, we’re kicking the can down the road.
One of the housing options that we know of is a small community housing in New Jersey and in Austin, Texas. We're working with people that have gotten a church donated to them, and they've turned it into communal housing for eight families and the families don't immediately have to go out into the community. Their English classes come to them. Financial literacy comes to them over a period of 90 days and that gives them a chance to catch their breath. Tell me what else you would put in that resort.
So social work started with what was called the Hull house in Chicago. Jane Addams and Mary Richmond, they created these communities for the ethnic European immigrants who were coming in. Let's get everybody together and let's get kindergarten classes, daycare classes, sewing classes because the women were going out to work, the men were going out to work and the social workers were there educating the kids. This is how social work started, in responding and reacting and connecting to immigrant experiences in our large metropolitan areas.
Because this is where we started, we recognize that you can't bring people or invite people to the country and then say good luck. If you're trying to look at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, those first two levels, safety, physiological safety and our physiological needs, safety needs food, housing, and like you know your bodily functions. Those are the bottom two levels. Once those are secure, you don't have to worry about it. You can work on love and belonging. You can work on self esteem. You can work on self actualization because they're all compromised by those bottom two levels. So if we work to establish those two things first, six to eight weeks or 90 days. Excellent. One less thing for you to worry about is where you're going to eat. Where are you going to sleep and are you going to be safe here? Are you going to have to move? We'll be ready in the middle of the night to go. Fantastic. So, education and health care, medical care and mental health. Those would be at the resort. Plus, I love bodies of water so spas and hot tubs. And then bringing people together to say okay this is my story, this is what my home was like. This is what I'm going to miss the most. This is what I love to recreate here if I could. Even if it's just my little corner of the world and really being able to create that cosmopolitan sense of community, I would love that.
There needs to be medical care, and then just that structural piece that exists for 90 days. I absolutely love that . I'm so glad someone else thought of it and is doing it because it's absolutely what we need. We've got to get the bottom levels of the hierarchy of needs settled first and then the rest of our community needs to be working to make the smooth transition happen because it can't be 90 days then okay, good luck, we have created a system that is anticipating you, and that is ready to support you and to build upon what we had ready for the first 90 days. So, yes mental health care groups. Some of the really good trauma therapies like EMDR or internal family systems, to be able to have those. What is the word I'm looking for...like those static trauma experiences, worked on and worked through, because when that is addressed, that trauma is over and I'm out of it. To start working on that immediately is fantastic, because then it gives you more bandwidth and more availability. So work with the ongoing structural adjustment traumas that you have in being in another country.
When you were talking about the stories that they could tell when you say, what was my home like what I want to replicate here, can you just expand a little bit like what would those questions look like and what would the good or the benefit be coming from that? Does that bring their cortisol down? Does that help them look forward? Does that help them recognize their value?
I think everyone appreciates being told, “You're so strong. You're so amazing. You're so this, that, and the other” because we're trying to encourage and to support. And again just opening that space to say it's okay to miss home. It's okay and that this is the part that sucks and I don't know that there's anything I can really do about it except just be here with you while it sucks. And so a lot of these experiential activities that we do are a part of that. I'm a big fan of drawing, even though I can't draw. I can tell you that there's a story in saying, “If you had to pick a weather scene that you think tells the story, what would the weather scene be? What would it look like if you had to draw a cityscape? What would buildings in a town be if they could tell your story? What would it look like?”
I think about it because of the way that I learned some of the play therapy that you now call expressive arts therapy. With that, I learned about doing what was called a themed family portrait. And it sounds very simple and it sounds pretty easy and that it shouldn't be bringing up a ton of emotions, but it does.
If you were to describe your family using any of these elements, books on a shelf, buildings in a town, a box of crayons, plants, candy, food, clothing, a weather scene, tarot cards, superheroes and villains, or mythical creatures, what would you use?
How would you tell your story? It gives you something where you may not have the language, otherwise, whether it's telling the story of the hard things, the trauma things, or if it's telling the wish.
If I can tell you what home looks like, it was a warm, sunny day, or my community felt like this, or my school or my friend group felt like this, I can tell you the story of that experience in other words or objects because the language isn't with me right now.
You're trying to welcome in as much of a shared language process as possible, because we all can think about what books on a shelf might look like. We can all think about a weather scene. We can all think about plants and animals. We can think about those things and we can see them in a way that's much more universal than trying to say, I feel like you know I've had heart palpitations or I'm experiencing an anxiety attack or a panic attack. What is the language that we share so that we can get into the experiences that I may not have any idea of what you've gone through?
My cultural competence may be so low. But I can connect to the feeling of a sunset, and I can be in that feeling of being able to smell the food or the meals that meant celebration or that meant welcome home from school or that meant happy birthday. Whatever it is, those things are our shared universal experiences until we can create the language around them.
I think we tell people that they have to abandon pieces and parts of themselves in order to be here in the US. That doesn't have to be the only way. And we need to adjust so that a refugee’s story, all parts of the story, might require something of me, instead of me expecting so much from a refugee.
That's the right answer for the refugee. “I don't want to be rude or seem ungrateful, but actually, you're very lucky that I chose to come here. Yes, because I am bringing so much more that you would not have if I was not here, and I'm doing this because I'm expected to do it, but also because I want to do it, because I am trying to get to this place where folks who come after me don't have to do this.”
That's literally the conversation that we're not really having as often as I think that we could. And we should because there's so much we can create together. When we say,”Hey, this is the welcome space. Come bring everything and tell me what can I do to help make this easier for you so that you can make it easier for the folks who are going to come after you because that's going to happen.”
How do we create that cultural competency, that emotional competency, by sharing these stories and telling these stories? Obviously we know people are not going to be perfect and they're going to say silly things out of the goodness of their heart. How do we approach that? How do we help professionals understand what they need to do to get themselves at a level where they can respond actively while in the service of healing? What would you suggest would be some things they can work on?
I've taught students about what it means to meet your client where they are. The first thing is to resolve any crisis response. So that's if they're actively in fight or flight, your goal is to get them to some sort of baseline so that the body can calm down. Once the body calms down, it's really about establishing safety. And once safety, immediate safety, is established, we talk so much about breathing exercises because that's the first line of defense when the body is in fight or flight. I tell my students,”You need to think about it. When you're in fight or flight, how is your breathing? Because you're trying to run to get to safety and the minute you get to safety--think that you had to run out of a canyon in the middle of the night--the moment you get to a neighborhood and you sit down on the curb, what is the first thing you do?
And it's nothing but deep, deep cleansing breaths. Deep grounding breath. That is the immediate first thing that any of us as health professionals can do is to mind the breathing. Pay attention to how someone's breathing when they're speaking to you. Where are their eyes? Are their eyes darting around? Are they still scanning for safety?
How do you bring somebody into the present moment? You're safe. You're okay. You're here right now. I'm here with you, I'm not going to let anything happen. Do you feel comfortable in this area? Should we go sit somewhere else? And then you're thinking, when it comes to these trauma experiences, maybe they don't want to be in a room alone with you because that's going to bring up some stuff that happened before when they were in a room alone with someone else. What is going to create the safety that you can maintain in that moment by watching body language, watching breathing rates, watching eyes? Because if they're still scanning for safety, your only primary role is to establish safety, establish calm, and establish connection.
That's the most competent you need to be in the moment, to understand the body's experience, because so much of this is pre verbal or nonverbal and if all you can do is sit with someone and if they allow you any sort of bodily contact. It might be proximity. I'm sitting here next to you, not in front of you because that might feel intimidating, that might feel threatening. So let me sit next to you. And can you eat? Do you need something to drink? How do I just attend to the physiological safety in that moment?
When we're doing interviews for young kids who have experienced trauma, we have teddy bears, something soft, something that they can hold and connect to. The same kind of thing happens. Oftentimes, we think about cultural competence being what kind of food do you eat, what kind of clothes do you wear? What are all these really fun things? Food, fashion, and fun. We start thinking about those three things. I don't have those three things with me. If I'm in a crisis situation, I don't have your favorite food from home. I don't have that. What I have is this body that I'm in and this body that you're in and we're trying to get to a baseline level of safety. That's our first level of competence, the physiological response.
Every person can do that. Every person can pay attention to where the eyes are going. Are they scanning for safety? How are they breathing? What do I create around them that says you're safe here? And you're safe with me. That's something that I think all of us can do, a lay person and trained professional.
Would there be a message you would share with a refugee to make them more comfortable to come forward and speak about these things and ask for help? What would be the message that you would share with them?
I feel like it's one of the warmest messages but also sometimes one of the more difficult ones which is, you have a responsibility to your growth.
As soon as you're calm, as soon as you're settled, you've got a responsibility to dream. And we are here to help you name that and to get you the resources under your feet, so that you can take flight. And you can build those wings and you can just dump the rest of the stuff. I love my office and I tell my clients whenever you come in here, this is your dumping ground. And what you dump on this floor, you can dump everything and we will sort through it. We will put this on this shelf; we're going to throw this in the garbage. We're going to put this in our lap. We're going to talk through it and then you get to leave everything here on the floor. I will clean up.
You get to take with you what you want to take with you into the week until I see you again. Let me do the clean up. You just keep unloading until that bag is lighter on your back and you're carrying the things that continue to move you forward that serve the purpose of your healing. It's okay to have things that you have to heal from. We all have them at different levels and different feelings of severity. We all have them. And the therapy room is the place for you to come and dump.
A lot of my clients with immigrant or refugee experiences are holding these two parallel experiences. One is the things that they have to do to show that they are successful, that they are worth coming here because they’ve got family, they’ve got friends back home. They say, “I've got to prove that it was worth it, that I am worth it to be here. That's why I went immediately from high school to undergraduate to graduate school. That's why I pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed because I'm trying to make sure it was the right choice, that I was the right person, that I was worth this effort, that I was worth this risk and that I am living up to the expectations that are still on me.”
It is the most tender thing to witness. Someone who is actively pushing, still feeling like, “am I worth this?” That is the most sacred experience that I get to see in my therapy setting.
Then there’s the part of being able to balance it all. “I know that I'm in therapy, but I would never do this if I was back home. How do I communicate and share the goodness that I'm getting in the therapy setting with my family who was not even anywhere near being able to see therapy as a valid real thing, let alone a helpful thing?”
And then part three of the story for them has become now what do I do with things I've never told anybody? Where do I put that? The therapy room is a beautiful boundless space for all of those things. And the therapist’s responsibility is to say welcome here. Dump it here, I will clean up, so that this is one less thing you carry into your week and then you call me if it comes back up. Come dump it in here again, just offering people a place to unload is the joy of the work that I get to do. Dump it. I promise you, I can hold it. Promise, because it doesn't land on me the same way it lands on you. I promise you, I've got space for it, not because you're dumping it on me, you're dumping it in front of me.
And we make these decisions together, and I promise you, because you trusted me enough to dump this here, I'll clean up. That's the thing. People want to be able to dump, but then so much of the experience is, “I'm so sorry. Let me pick it back up...You don't need to worry about this. I'm okay. I've been carrying this forever. I'll keep carrying it.”
I get to say, “It's okay you don't have to carry it anymore. You can just dump it in here and if you want me to hold on to this ugly part, fine, I'll put it right here in this box which is for all the ugly things and whenever you come here, we pull the box out if you want to and we talk about it.”
And we talked about it with tenderness and we care for it because in caring for this ugly, gross, heart awful, prickly thing, we are caring for you. We remove the pricklies and we look to see what's the tender vulnerable thing that's here in the center, that you just haven't had the space, the bandwidth to even give a name to it until you're here in this room with me.
That's the invitation in the therapy process. That's the invitation for your mental health, fear, for your spirit health you know like, not even in a religious sense, but the Spirit inside of every person that wants and deserves to soar.
And my clients say, “how do we use the therapy process to help me do all of these things that I value and all of these things that feel like magic but also feel like an impossible magic?”
Excellent, that's my job. That's my work.That’s where my skill set is.
Let's figure it out together, you've got time. You got here. Getting here was the hardest part.
Now that you're here, let's do this work together. And let's take the time, so that you can heal and there is a switch that flips. Sometimes that happens when people have the permission to do that. And then sometimes I've never even had to talk about it because all they needed was permission for it to even be real and that does something for them. If I could put it in a formula, and like just spray it on people I would, but I can't.
What would you tell our team who is interviewing refugees? Obviously, none of these interviewers is a trained clinician or social worker. They're just people with good hearts that want to share the stories. Is there anything you would say, how can they prepare themselves so that they create that sort of a space around them, where these stories affect them to want to change things without affecting them emotionally and creating that PTSD response within them. Are there any tips you can give us?
Yeah, you've got to respect your space. And it has to be a space between us. That's the thing. My clients, if they feel like they're dumping it on me, it makes them feel bad. Then they want to take care of me and that's not the goal or the role of our work together. We really do have to honor that this is a sharing space between us and that I create it and I allow it to be that space between us. Because it has to be. Because if it’s not, then it becomes a burden on both of us. And we're both trying to caretake each other because we haven't set the stage in the best way...so, like, when we are honoring and creating that space.
There is a theory by a woman named Susan Silk, I think, and it's called Ring Theory. With the rings, you think about concentric circles. There's a circle in the middle, a circle outside of it, a circle outside of it, and so on. Our clients that we're interviewing are at the center of the circle. And then you think about every single circle that's surrounding them. When you're working to the inside of the circle, the person who was the most impacted, you are only able to give comfort.
Comfort and support go into the middle of the circle. From the middle to the outside is dumping and frustration and anger. What often happens is that circle in the middle is dumping out on to that outside circle which might be us as the interviewers and then because we're feeling it, we start dumping back into the middle of nowhere...
We start talking about how it affects us and we dig into the circle instead of comforting. What we need to recognize is that when we are on the receiving end, we then have to turn ourselves around and dump out that way, so that we are not putting it back on to the person we're interviewing because it does impact us. My students will say, “How do I do social work and not take on the feelings and I don't want to care too much.” And I'm like, “Oh, be careful, because you do.”
I don't think you can work with people and love people and not be affected by what they say. What you do have to do is...put on your strong face. You want to empathize and say thank you so much for sharing that with me and you want to be able to emote, where you get support and where you get the caring.
There's this scene in the movie Inside Out, which is all about emotions. One of the characters is beginning to fade and they realize that they're fading from the child's memory and their rocket ship goes careening off of a cliff and they're like,”No, no, I can't be faded, they can't be getting rid of me. And two of the characters, Joy and Sadness come over to this character. Joy says, “Yeah, it’s alright. It's gonna be fine. Put on a happy face. I'm going to tell you a joke, look at this funny face.” Joy tries to avoid the sadness that the character is feeling about recognizing that it's beginning to fade. Then Sadness, who is always sad because that is their emotional state, comes and sits next to the character and they say, “Oh man, this is really hard. I bet you guys had really good times together in the rocket ship.” [The character] was like, “Yeah, we had a great time in the rocket ship. It was so awesome. We would go here before breakfast, we'd go here for lunch…” Sadness says, “I bet “you’re” gonna always have good memories of that though. And I know that that person means a lot to you.” And then the character is crying and is sad and it hurts and Sadness just sits there with them while they're crying. Then they say, “Okay, I’m better now. Thank you.”
And then they can go and do what they need to do and that's it. When you’re working with clients, you need to have the space for the emotion and for the sadness and for the pain, as do I, as the listener. And then once we've had a chance to get that out, okay. Now I can get up and take that deep breath before I have to go and enter the battlefield again, or get into that place where my fight or flight is going to be ready. We have to give space for the reality of both experiences. When we are on the interviewing end and we start feeling ourselves being weighed down by it, we have to be responsible for our own mental and emotional health and we’ve got to hold what we can hold and be able to say this feels like this might be a good place to stop for today.
And then I need to go and dump in my support circles so that I can cry and can take care of myself. “It was just so hard. It’s so hard. And then, okay, it was hard.” I’m really committed. My resolve is that I can go back tomorrow and I can keep moving, but it's definitely a reciprocal process and we have got to create the space, not only for our interviewee, but for us as the interviewer. It's that space between us where we share and we let our interviewee listen,
I'm listening. I hear you and I'm here to just receive in this container. I am not the container. This is the container and then what I feel like I'm taking it home and this is sticking with me, we've got a moment of empathy.
What is it like for my clients to know I've been carrying that? And now they've shared it with me and my goodness, thank you for letting me carry a piece of that with you so that you're not the only one holding it. I still need to go over here and cry because someone needs to hear. Can you believe how long they've been holding this? Now they've let me hold it with them.Oh my gosh. And you just have to have your feelings and you'll know when you'll know that you're not overwhelmed and debilitated by it, because your resolve comes back even stronger.
Okay, I'm ready to go hold some more because if I can help them offload on to me, I know I can go offload because I could leave this work any time I want to. That's the thing. That's the privilege that we have and not having the experience is knowing that I can leave it at any point in time, but I won't. My integrity won't let me do that. My authenticity won't permit me to have one sleepless night. If I leave this work, let me cry. Let me hold this with them. Let me offload it with them and then let me get right back into it, so that they know they've got one place that they can come to once a week, once a month, where they just get to dump.
Thank you so much for spending time with us today, and for letting us benefit from your expertise.
Happy to be contributing to the conversation. It was definitely the chat that I needed today.