Your past lived experience alone, wont make you a better support worker


I classify myself as being very lucky. I have the best job in the world, but the most important job is taking care of myself first. I learned the hard way, so I have written this blog in the hope that you can avoid some of the pitfalls and remind you that if you want to pursue a career in the recovery world, then YOUR recovery and well-being should always come before anyone else’s.

As chair of the Sheffield Recovery Forum, I encounter people starting out, just like I was years ago. While I admire their enthusiasm and passion, I do get concerned that some people might not be emotionally ready or prepared for the challenges that they may come up against, especially when they are supporting people who have experienced trauma that mirrors their own.

Whilst there is considerable support and training available to support people with lived experience, the reality is that there are some things organisations can’t teach, and that’s something called  Emotional Resilience. I say this because Emotional Resilience means different things to different people. The key is for YOU to figure out what it means for you. Because let’s face it!

No one knows you better than yourself.

My career in the substance misuse field hasn’t been an easy one. I left school without any formal qualifications. My employment history was non-existent; my life revolved around topping up my giro from fencing stolen goods or working in jobs that paid ‘cash in hand’. I have written about my second chance previously.

In hindsight, it was probably too soon for me to start contemplating helping others. It had only been a year since being released from a mental institution and nine months after leaving a seven-year coercive relationship when I’d been offered a volunteering role in a day rehabilitation centre in the centre of Sheffield. I couldn’t believe that I was being offered a volunteering opportunity based on my past experience of addiction alone.

At the time, I wasn’t interested in getting paid because my rewards came from finally feeling like I had a purpose. After years of feeling rejected, I was being accepted with open arms, which gave me hope that my life could be different.

At the start, I was like a sponge and absorbed everything around me and, at times, would have to pinch myself to make sure it wasn’t a dream. I approached my volunteering role like an audition, hoping that one day, I might have gained enough experience to become employed as a drug worker eventually. Volunteering became my new obsession; I’d been placed in a position of trust and took my role seriously. I worked all the hours asked of me, even if it meant volunteering five days a week. I felt like a proper staff member; I had the lanyard, I had even been given a couple of clients to support, I was facilitating workshops, and I was essentially a staff member; the only difference was I wasn’t getting paid.

I soon discovered that I was a good listener and had a natural knack for connecting with people and making them feel comfortable. I would get a natural high and a warm feeling, knowing that something I might have said or done could have helped someone else.

I was on a mission, a personal quest to help others. I felt like a knight in shining armour. I didn’t know it back then, but my armour couldn’t protect me from the emotional impact supporting people would have on me.

I had a misplaced belief that I could rescue everyone, but if they had a blip, I found it hard not to take it personally. I would spend hours having self-interrogating conversations, wondering what I might have said or could have said or done differently. This hit home after a young lad aged just twenty-one, who I had been supporting, had been found dead after what appeared to be an accidental overdose. His death hit me hard and still haunts me to this day.

Back at home, with my family after a day’s work, I knew I wasn’t being 100% present because my thoughts were consumed by the people I supported. I would even feel guilty for having a day off. I cannot count the sleepless nights worrying about if someone might lapse or, worse, overdose.

There were times when I found it hard to distinguish my own emotional support needs from the people I was supporting. Loved ones even voiced their concerns and would say things like ‘You care too much’ or ‘This isn’t healthy,’ but I ignored their concerns.

I now realise that my compulsion for helping others had become as addictive as the substances I used to abuse. My new highs came from reflective approval from my peers and my employers. I felt a massive unspoken obligation towards the charity; if they had said ‘jump’, my response would have been ‘how high’, but even that got tiresome. And whilst I was grateful for the opportunities I’d been gifted, there were times that I would feel resentful or like I was being taken advantage of. But instead of addressing my concerns, I brushed them under the carpet, fearful of rejection.

I was constantly praised for my work ethic and dedication but would secretly suffer from pangs of Imposter Syndrome because, at that time, I felt like I was winging it. And forever anxious that someone might catch me out for being a fraud. I now realise that much of the imposter syndrome had much more to do with my lack of personal insight and emotional intelligence. You see, back in the eighties, people talked about the importance of being empathic but didn’t talk much about what it was like to be an empath.

Things finally came to a head at the service I was volunteering at (I won’t bore you with the details), but I can tell you that it wasn’t pretty. I took the rejection hard, but it wasn’t until I left that I realised how co-dependent I had become on helping. The void felt as hard as it did when I walked away from my previous life. And on top of all that, I genuinely thought that I’d fucked up my chances of ever being employed in the addiction field. That was until a friend reached out and suggested I apply for a vacancy supporting families affected by drugs.

At first, I wasn’t sure; I’d never even applied for a job before, but with her help, I got an interview and amazingly got the job. And as they say, ‘The rest is history.’

I now see that I had also been suffering from Vicarious Trauma and Compassion Fatigue; the signs were all there.

But, I learned a harsh but valuable lesson; I realised that if I was ever going to succeed in life, I had to take more ownership and responsibility for myself. I needed to start thinking for myself, learn to trust myself and make time for myself.

I needed to break a vicious cycle of relying on others to make me feel whole; this is where I honestly believe that it was when my recovery journey truly began.

During the nineties, I started to learn more about a new concept called Emotional Intelligence, and I have been obsessed with it ever since. As a result, nowadays, I can better take full responsibility for my thoughts, feelings, actions and, more importantly – reactions.

There are a few things that I try to make a priority so that I don’t slip into unhealthy coping mechanisms, like

  • Managing my thoughts – Journaling helps with this, hence all the writing.
  • The other is making time for me (which is easier said than done)
  • I try to eat healthy and keep physically active
  • I try to sustain and nurture my relationships with the people I love and who are good for me.

Looking back, I can now see that I was so eager to please and prove my worth to others that I’d neglected my emotional support needs, which is a dangerous place to be in. It took me a long time to learn and realise that the only person that can help themselves is themselves.

If you are sick or reading all the links (lol) there is an excellent TEDx talk by Amy Cunningham: where she explains the difference between feeling burned out and compassion fatigue. She also discusses how compassion fatigue can be identified, arrested and treated. She also covers something that I have previously written about called post-traumatic growth.

At the start of this blog, I mentioned some things organisations can’t teach because no one knows you better than yourself.

Please do not lose sight of your needs; if you haven’t done so already, I urge you to learn more about Emotional Resilience. and Compassion Fatigue to learn how to prevent and manage it.

I have a saying that ‘In life, getting the balance right is a balancing act in itself’ and I am still learning; we all are….

Just be sure to look after YOU


Remember – I don’t write for financial reward or gain. I want to help share my lived experience with others, hoping it helps. And I love to write, so if ya fancy getting the occasional email (NO SPAM) with the most up-to-date blogs from yours truly, please feel free to subscribe at the bottom of the main page.

Love Fordy

AKA Unapologeticwriter

14 thoughts on “Your past lived experience alone, wont make you a better support worker

  1. This! Yes!! Nobody can fully teach emotional resilience- it will never happen. It happens across the social care sector as a whole. Children’s services see high level of “burnout”, and mental health services are swamped with high sickness levels. What’s this like for volunteers?

  2. Thank you Tracey, you could’ve been writing about my journey right at this very minute. I find myself not putting my needs first of late, supporting everyone else and not really giving myself the best love & support that I should.

    I do this because I also at times suffer from imposter syndrome and seek validation through reflective approval from peers and those whom I look up to working within Services in Sheffield, but also to fulfill some deeper routed need to be accepted, valued, including and respected.

    I appreciate you sharing your lived experiences Tracey so that those following and myself may not make the same mistakes.

    After reading this, I will continue to do the things that make me feel good and find new ways to love and support myself, taking a step back from engaging with everything that I do at a million miles an hour so that I can continue to be the best version of myself that I could ever hope to be.

  3. This and other anecdotes you talk about really resonate, I have to remind myself often, its a marathon and not sprint, I can’t thank you enough for the times I’ve talked to you, trying to .make sense of the stuckness i sometimes feel, great blogging and thankyou

  4. Love this!! I often use the phrase ‘ you can’t pour from an empty cup’
    I know my energy levels are not what they once where.
    I used to be a people pleaser, I had to change.
    Learning to say no, wasn’t easy. I felt guilty.
    It’s a tough learning curve & is constantly at the forefront for me.
    I’ve chosen 3 areas I’m passionate about, & do what I’m able to as a volunteer in those areas. I feel ok saying no, that’s not right for me. I have to try daily to keep balanced with giving & resting.
    I’m grateful for volunteering opportunities & equally grateful for my me time & self care.
    It’s only by looking after me first I have energy left to share 💐🌟

  5. This is exactly what I needed to hear today, thank you Tracy.
    After having a long break from work due to ill health, I am now back and can sense I am trying to be all things to everyone. Your blog has given me a moment to reflect.
    Marie x

  6. I relate to this so much, as an adult child with a compulsive need to rescue vulnerable women from difficult situations. My life regularly descended into chaos because I kept doing that. Focusing on my own recovery above everything else eventually created some space and clarity for me, so I can just be there alongside people, and be useful when I can be useful – not when I am trying to meet my own needs unconsciously. Thank you for the post!

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