PTSD Prevention: Softening, Healing
Dear Leaders with PTSD,
I write with support, encouragement, and concern for you all. And there are, evidently, more of you than anyone is ready to count.
Earlier this week, a friend from college — Jeremy — sent me a link to an interview with the Rev. Dan White, conducted by the New York Times’ Lulu Garcia-Navarro in the series, “First Person.” I double- and triple-checked who sent me the podcast out of surprise and disbelief, for Jeremy is Secular with a capital S. That he of all people came across a podcast on the way the Great Resignation is affecting clergy is a sign that concerns about ministerial leaders’ well-being have gone mainstream.
Dan White left a church with what might be called an average level of toxicity amidst Covid-19, racial tensions, political divisions, and widespread behavioral reactivity. I don’t use the word “average” to minimize how traumatized he was; there’s no question he was in a bad situation and in a bad way. Thinking he might have Parkinson’s due to worrisome neurological symptoms, White was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Yet the kind of conflict and pressure he described in his ministry setting sounds fairly typical of what leaders in mission-oriented fields are reporting across the board.
Rev. White made a healthy choice, leaving a work situation that was making him sick, and beginning a center for treatment and healing for other ministers with PTSD. His story made me mindful of a widespread, possibly global need for more resources for leaders who are seeking recovery after month upon month of communal trauma that probably isn’t over yet.
Allow me to offer a working definition of PTSD for the purpose of this Leading-With-Love Letter. I’m not a clinician and have no right to the use of diagnostic language, yet I think it fair to say that a layperson’s variety of the term PTSD has entered the cultural vocabulary.
When a person experiences trauma, they must tend their wound in order to prevent infection. They must rest, recover, and then— we hope — they will heal. PTSD is different. Rather than recover from one or many injuries, the one with PTSD relives them. They find themselves in a re-injurious loop and need help to break free of it. The only halfway decent news about PTSD: it’s treatable. But it won’t just go away. PTSD results from failure or inability to tend wounds as they happen, recover, and heal.
When psychological injuries — like insults, accusations, and personalized hatred — come at us, one after the other, and we don’t have time to heal… well, ugh. I just described what it’s been like for all leaders, from parents to Presidents, for the past 2.5+ years in our nation.
When leaders experience a hurtful encounter that sets us back on our heels, we’re told, “Don’t be defensive.” Okay, that’s fair, but what should we be? Here is one answer, but over the next few months, I’ll be exploring many, many more: soften your heart before injury, and build in time for healing after.
When a human body is in a car that’s in an accident, it suffers less injury if its muscles were relaxed, rather than tense. Similarly, leaders need to enter stressful situations softer than ever. They need to plan ahead for the fact that somebody is surely mad at them, all the time; that’s the cost of doing business today. I commend to you this little mantra to say to yourself before working to bring people together around a mission and vision, while holding them accountable to values upon which they, at some point, agreed:
“It’s entirely possible that I’ll receive words today that will hurt me. When I do, I’ll learn what I can, let go of what I can, and accept that the pain is, at least at this moment in history, part of being in-charge.”
Then, I commend to you a practice I’ve been recommending to students I teach at Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School for many years: do three nice things for yourself. When I have a student come to me in pain over a failure or rejection, I don’t let them end the meeting until they’ve named three specific, kind things they will do for themselves within the next 24 hours. Take a walk? Call a friend? Eat something delicious? Doesn’t matter.
Without preventative measures before, and a healing buffer after, hurtful interactions — particularly with communities they love deeply — leaders are at-risk of illness. PTSD is no joke, whether it affects mind, body, or both. Given that leadership isn’t likely to get easier anytime soon, leaders need not waste energy bemoaning how hard people are on them. They’re better off refocusing on mission while simultaneously employing practices of softening and healing so as to come through storms in one piece.
Leaders, you are loved. — Sarah
*Graphic above by Christine Geeding, Yale Divinity School MDiv/Andover Newton Seminary Diploma, Class of 2023