If you are in public safety or the military, as well as some other fields, you know that some people insist that there it is pointless to talk about work to any “outsider.” Often, big agencies have this attitude toward smaller, less busy, ones –  “We are the only REAL firefighters, police, medics, etc., around here.” So they close themselves off from  support by people who otherwise might be peers.

The walls even go up within agencies – specialized, elite teams form a “tribe” mentality that says if you haven’t been part of a similar unit, there’s no point in talking to you about stresses and challenges, even if do the same kind of job.

No doubt, there is some truth to this. Working at a big, busy, urban agency certainly is different from smaller ones. Combat experience absolutely has unique aspects. Being part of an elite or specialized team really is different. People who haven’t walked the walk truly cannot understand. Experience is the only instructor – words quickly fail if we were to try to fully communicate it, especially the emotions around high-stress events (which can directly impact the brain’s speech center).

For a number of years, I have suspected that organizational isolation – that’s this is about – could be as toxic as individual isolation. We know that social support is the most important factor in resilience under stress or recovery from trauma; isolation aggravates stress. In fact, almost any trauma expert will agree that people will continue to suffer as long as they remain isolated –  connections with others give us strength and healing.

I recently began reading Ellen Kirschman’s book, I Love a Fire Fighter: What the Family Needs to Know, which has been sitting on my nightstand for a while. Dr. Kirschman, a well-regarded therapist in public safety, is also regularly involved in the West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat, where I have volunteered and learned.

Here’s the light bulb that went off as I read Kirshman’s introduction – the “nobody else can understand” attitude cuts us off from our friends and family. If you are certain that even a co-worker who isn’t part of your elite unit can’t support you because “they don’t understand,” then how can your friends and family who are civilians, possibly support you?

Here’s one of Kirschman’s observations about going through a fire academy (emphasis mine).

No one acknowledged how the emotional courage fire fighter families need or the independence that is forced on them contributes to the fire service mission. This is extremely puzzling in light of the many studies that confirm how family and friends are the heart of a fire fighter’s emotional support system.

Her books (she wrote a similar one for law enforcement) are for families, but the message to public safety is just as important. Your social support outside of work is also critical to your strength and resilience in the face of occupational stresses, and recovery from critical incidents and other injuries that aren’t physical.

The following words are why it does not matter that outsiders can’t understand the job.

Empathy does not require understanding.

It’s true – if you are an outsider, you will not understand. If you’ve never been there, I can’t explain what it was like to talk to a patient one minute and then do CPR on him, unsuccessfully, the next. You won’t understand how difficult it was to walk past his wife in the ER waiting room, seeing her comforting another wife, not knowing her own husband was just pronounced dead. If you’ve never done anything like helping a family bury their dogs who couldn’t escape a wildfire, nothing I can say will make you understand. If you haven’t been part of a rescue that went all wrong and killed the victim, I don’t have words for the emotions. If you haven’t done shift work, you don’t know the toll it can take.

Even if you cannot understand, that doesn’t have to stop you from supporting a responder if you are a trusted friend – because empathy does not require understanding. They may spare you details. They probably won’t repeat the sick jokes that helps many get through the day. But if you are willing to simply walk beside them, your presence can be healing.

You don’t need to understand responder experiences to know that they are painful. You don’t have to work shifts to that it is hard to be exhausted and miss family events. Everyone has experienced pain and frustration, he stress of an event or life going out of control. Co-workers can appreciate it more than outsiders, so co-workers are an essential part of any responder’s network of social support. So are spouses, friends with completely different careers, pastors and may others.

Camaraderie is powerful. Every agency – and groups within them – benefits from friendships, mutual support and teamwork. However, the idea that only our co-workers or people like them can support us is a misguided obstacle to wellness. We should not want anyone, from new recruits to  seasoned veterans, to believe that their friends and family have little to contribute. As Ellen Kirschman says, that idea cuts t them off from the heart of their social support system.