Shanna Dawn Jackson, Alumna, Fielding's School of Psychology (2013)
Therapists providing psychotherapy to adult survivors of childhood abuse may be at risk for vicarious traumatization (VT) because of the empathic attunement needed to support therapeutic effectiveness. Therapists with a personal trauma history must be able to make use of their experience to facilitate positive empathic attunement in service of helping their clients. If they are mired in negative countertransference and/or VT, their therapeutic effectiveness may decrease. This study investigated the relationships among reference points, empathic attunement, and VT with psychotherapists who have a history of trauma and work with adult abuse survivors. Seventy therapists with a personal trauma history completed a vignette questionnaire assessing empathic attunement and reference points, the Trauma and Attachment Belief Scale (Pearlman, 2003), and a combined demographic, professional, and personal history questionnaire. Results indicated no statistically significant relationships among the variables (reference points, empathic attunement, and VT) and no mediating effect of empathic attunement on the relationship between reference points and VT. Thus, hypotheses were not supported. However, post-hoc analyses found a statistically significant relationship between the use of reference points and empathic attunement for therapists without a trauma history and for the total sample. Further, it was shown that as reference points increased, VT increased in the total sample. Results are discussed in terms of the implications for therapeutic practice as well as future research investigating the relationships among these variables. Further, it appears there might be a difference in usefulness of reference points as connected with empathy between the sample of therapists not reporting a trauma history versus those reporting a trauma history. The conscious utilization of reference points in a sample of therapists with a trauma history could be potentially re-traumatizing. Therefore, examining therapists who experience adequate resolution, or a lack thereof, of their personal trauma histories and the potential influence of this on their use of reference points and re-traumatization is important information in better knowing how to encourage protection of therapists of this sample.