Vicarious trauma is often confused with controlled empathy, so it might be useful if we explore it here to notice the difference.
There are three types of empathy:
1. Emotional empathy – our ability to feel with the other person, to experience emotionally how the world might feel to them right now (not to be confused with sympathy when we feel sorry FOR others but don’t feel WITH them)
2. Cognitive empathy – our cognitive ability to imagine how others might be feeling, without the emotional connection (oftentimes this is a skill exhibited by psychopaths and narcissistic abusers to trap their victims in emotional abuse)
3. Compassionate empathy – our response to feel with the other person to the point where we might also feel inclined to act to support them (not to be confused with compassion – therapists use this empathy a lot, but unlike in compassion, we do need to keep one foot in our boat)
Controlled empathy is a healthy and skilful combination of the above three forms of empathy. If you work in a supportive role, especially as a counsellor, you might find that you do need to switch between those empathies to keep yourself and your client safe, but also to support them effectively.
Vicarious trauma is not the same: it’s a process we cannot control, so it’s important to listen actively and empathically, but also accept that we are impacted by the story too.