Why Meaning Matters: Transforming How We Experience the Difficult Aspects of Our Work

by Jean G. McAllister, MSW

Resilience is the ability to bounce back, or successfully deal with stressful or traumatic experience, without experiencing lasting harm. It is the quality that protects us from being seriously harmed by the work we do with child sexual exploitation and abuse, and the people who harm children. One of the most important aspects of resilience is the ability to observe our own reactions and responses to the horrible things we see in our work and to notice how those responses change us. This skill is often called mindfulness or having awareness of what we are experiencing in the moment, and without judgement.

When we are aware of our reactions and responses, we can make conscious choices about whether the changes they cause are healthy and productive for us in our work, our relationships and our lives outside work. If they are healthy, we can feel good about accepting the changes. If, however, they are things that bring more negativity into our lives, that cause trauma responses, that impact our ability to feel good about the work we do, or that harm our relationships with our families or friends or our physical well-being, then we can decide to address those impacts, to ensure they are not permanently harming us. I think of those decisions to take care of ourselves and address the negative impacts that sometimes come from our work, as decisions to not allow any of the people who hurt children to harm anyone else, not even us.

Understanding that there are dangers for children, especially on the internet, can help us get better at protecting our own children and rescue children who have been harmed by others. It can also make us so afraid for our children that we begin to believe we have to completely limit their ability to utilize the internet in ways that can be helpful or useful: to complete schoolwork; to learn new information; to interact or communicate with friends or family. Noticing the difference between being careful and protective about how our children use the internet and being unable or unwilling to allow them access can allow us to stop our responses from going too far into the cynical, fear-based responses we can have when we are most traumatized. It can allow us to address the thoughts and fears we have in reasonable ways, rather than letting those responses completely drive our thoughts and behavior with healthy and good people in our lives.

Transformative meaning describes our ability to find meaning about our experience of trauma in ways that do not deny the negative things we have seen or experienced, and that do not allow those negative experiences to define us or the world in which we live. I have heard many of you who work with ICAC Commands throughout the county use transformational meaning to describe your work. You don’t view child sexual abuse images every day, you search child sex abuse images so you can identify the children who have been harmed and rescue them, or stop the people who harm children from harming any other children, usually shortened to, ‘I rescue kids’ or ‘I put away bad guys.’ These attributions of the ability to help others or stop people who are doing harm that you see every day are real. You actually do those things and they exemplify the skill and power you have to change the horrible things you see and hear for the better. This also helps you remember you have a sense of agency and that you are not powerless in the face of what you experience. Not for every child, not every time, but often enough to matter to so many children.

That ability to transform the meaning of our experience is incredibly protective against trauma. It is a skill we all need to practice to continue doing the important work we do, fighting child sexual exploitation and abuse. Pay attention how often you use this skill. And give yourselves credit for developing that skill. If you bump up against a traumatic experience you can’t seem to transform, think about asking a colleague how they think about that kind of experience. Allow yourself to utilize the support of colleagues and friends to help you build your transformational meaning skills.

I will end with what Carl Jung said about meaning: Meaningfulness makes a great many things endurable, perhaps everything.

And thank you for all you do to protect children.

Jean G. McAllister, MSW
Jean is an independent consultant and trainer with her own business, JGM Consulting LLC, and has more than 30 years of experience working to address trauma and interpersonal violence. Her work has focused on sexual assault, child abuse and sexual abuse, domestic violence, trauma and victimization, offender dynamics, secondary trauma intervention, stress management,  organizational development and policy development.

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