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"Walking the Talk" with Parallel Process

How solutions to the crisis in the helping professions must come from within.

Key points

  • Parallel Process is our striving to practice our values at all levels of organizational operations. It is the work of “walking the talk.”
  • In a post-2020 context, the frameworks provided by traditional trauma-informed approaches feel increasingly incomplete.
  • Informed by more collective, asset-based, and systems-informed trauma research, Parallel Process can offer a template for workforce healing.
  • Like the very best human services interventions, Parallel Process draws answers from what is already having impact within client-facing work.

This post is part 2 of a series.

In the first part of this series: A familiar paradox has long existed in the helping professions—where we find ways to honor our cause in direct practice with clients and community members, but find it painfully challenging to live out these same values with one another as professionals in the systems that organize our work. In the face of the growing crisis our professions confront today, however, this paradox threatens to undo our work unless we embrace needed change.

Finding Answers Within

My mentor and friend, Dr. Linda Lausell Bryant, always pushes me to think beyond the invalidating aspects of any challenge and articulate the change I want to see. Our conversation on a cold January day in 2016 about the threat of the dangerous paradox in human services was no different and helped to plant an important seed. I remember asking Linda about the systemic conflict between our professional values and our behaviors: “If this is so widespread, how do we even begin to change that?”

That,” she said, “is the million dollar question: How do we change systems? For me, the answers are in the work—in the practices we use to support our clients to heal.”

Over the next year and half, we met weekly to explore the attributes of great programming in the helping professions, and most importantly, what it might look like to turn that work inward. We used our own painful experiences with dissonance in these systems as well as the answers we found in our work to begin to make sense of the dangerous paradox and chart a path forward.

To give a name to what we were articulating together, we upcycled a term from psychotherapy, “Parallel Process,” which traditionally has a negative connotation and describes the reenactment of client-therapist dynamics in the therapist-supervisor relationship. We used a more asset-based lens to repurpose Parallel Process, redefining it as our consistent striving to practice our values at all levels of our work—with clients, colleagues, and leaders and across work teams. In this new definition, Parallel Process is the work of “walking the talk.”

After yet another fundraising deficit in 2017, my work with Linda led to the creation of our nonprofit program, Play At The Core, the program pillars of which are: Relationships First, Lifelong Learning, Play as Change, Shift Power, and consequentially, Parallel Process.

From Trauma Science to Healing Paradigm

Linda and I were hoping that our work together could envision more healing-centered systems to buffer the pervasive levels of toxic stress experienced by the workforce in the helping professions. Psychiatrist Sandra Bloom’s work in developing trauma-informed systems draws direct connections between the impacts of trauma on individuals and organizational systems. In fact, Bloom and her colleagues advocate for parallel process work as a central component of their “Sanctuary Model” for creating or changing organizational culture.1

The body of trauma-informed systems work that already exists helped Linda and I begin to understand the potential of Parallel Process. In times of great turmoil and pain within our sector, these models have provided a framework for healing. In a post-2020 context, however, these approaches feel increasingly incomplete.

In his research, Shawn Ginwright is critical of the trauma-informed care paradigm for its focus on acute personal trauma rather than collective or shared trauma, its tendency to prioritize individual treatment interventions rather than engage root causes, and its inclination to prioritize “pathology (trauma) rather than foster possibility (well-being).”2 The shared challenges of the last two years, in particular, implore us to go beyond current systems and approaches, to consider how we can collectively heal and make meaningful change.

In late 2019, research by scientists from Johns Hopkins University, The Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, The Montana Institute, and Tufts Medical Center proposed a conceptual model that might help ameliorate aspects of the tensions highlighted by Ginwright. The study identifies a link between Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) and improved adult mental and relational health.3

The PCEs studied include: (1) talking to family members about feelings; (2) feeling their family stood by them during difficult times; (3) enjoying participation in community traditions; (4) feeling a sense of belonging in school; (5) feeling supported by friends; (6) having at least two non-parent adults who took a genuine interest in them; and (7) feeling safe and protected by an adult in their home.4

These findings have powerful implications for the helping professions as they illuminate the important role the workforce plays in promoting improved health and well-being for children and families. More importantly, however, through Parallel Process, this framework can offer a template for workforce healing, and illustrates an important paradigm shift described by Ginwright: “from ‘what happened to you’ to ‘what’s right with you’”—promoting agency rather than victimhood.5

Seizing this Moment for Systems Change

A more healing-centered paradigm is a challenge to the legacy of white saviorism and the ethos of martyrdom in the human services. These narratives frame white professionals, in particular, as the protagonists of change for the people we work with, while at the same time glorifying a culture of burnout that holds our efforts as worthy of self-sacrifice.6 These myths have been passed down through generations of our workforce, and serve a status quo of exploitation and continued suffering.

This is our moment to use Parallel Process to create a new paradigm of healing, to leave the dangerous paradox behind us, and to more fully realize the promise of the helping professions.

To this day, Linda’s final words to me in January 2016 inspire me to action:

“For a long time, we’ve told ourselves that the answers to these questions are beyond us—that someone needs to come in and fix what’s broken. The truth is, nobody is coming to save us and we need to stop waiting for them to. The answers have always been here for us. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

In the next part of this series: Using Parallel Process to build more resilient and healing-centered organizational systems will require fortitude, innovation, and community. By drawing on a practical example of how this work is being applied within a pediatric setting, we can better appreciate the effort needed to consciously break from the status quo using Parallel Process, and begin to envision ourselves as architects of a more healing-centered paradigm.


1 Esaki, N., Benamati, J., Yanosy, S., Middleton, J. S., Hopson, L. M., Hummer, V. L., & Bloom, S. L. (2013). The sanctuary model: Theoretical framework. Families in society, 94(2), 87-95.

2 Ginwright, S. (2018). The future of healing: Shifting from trauma informed care to healing centered engagement. Occasional Paper, 25, 25-32.

3 Bethell, C., Jones, J., Gombojav, N., Linkenbach, J., & Sege, R. (2019). Positive childhood experiences and adult mental and relational health in a statewide sample: Associations across adverse childhood experiences levels. JAMA pediatrics, 173(11), e193007-e193007.

4 Bethell, et al (2019).

5 Ginwright, S. (2018).

6 Sherman, W. R., & Wenocur, S. (1983). Empowering public welfare workers through mutual support. Social Work, 28(5), 375-379.

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