Research Spotlight: Erbes’ Work on Trauma
I was drawn into clinical psychology by a fascination with the ways in which people can make meaning of traumatic events and the impact those events have on their more global constructed realities. This same fascination has drawn me into the area of research on the long-term correlates of childhood abuse and other types of trauma. When one attempts to relate to another, one is drawn to some degree into her or his constructed reality. Kelly reminds us that our ability to apprehend the constructions of others allows us to relate to them in a meaningful way. Thus, when we enter into a healing relationship with another, we are at our best when we are able to understand, to some degree, the world that they have constructed. This is the challenge that clinicians and researchers face with their clients and participants, and it is a challenge that is particularly salient with those who have survived traumatic events.
The idea that trauma can alter the ways in which we create our worlds is not a new one. It has been examined, for example, from both psychodynamic and cognitive perspectives. Constructivism, however, with its emphasis on ideographic meaning and co-created realities, is perhaps uniquely suited for exploring the complexities of the relationship between trauma and constructed worlds. The field has begun to realize that we cannot assume that all survivors will have the same struggles, trials, and outcomes and that there is infinitely more to a person than any single event or series of events, however traumatic they may be. My research thus far has attempted to build upon the efforts of Stephanie Harter, Robert Neimeyer, Rue Cromwell, Kenneth Sewell, and others in understanding the long-term consequences that trauma can have.
My work to this point, which has been conducted in collaboration with Stephanie Harter at Texas Tech University, has focused on understanding both the structure and content of constructive processes in survivors of childhood abuse. One early study, for example, found that college students who had reported a history of childhood sexual abuse showed corresponding increases in self-complexity. This finding, which seemed to imply that sexual abuse survivors have many diverse, but perhaps poorly integrated, ways to think of themselves, was further bolstered by a second study showing that survivors of more severe forms of sexual abuse (such as attempted or completed intercourse) had higher levels of self-complexity than survivors of less intrusive forms of abuse. It was interesting to find, however, that self complexity was not correlated with measures of self-esteem or commonly observed abuse-related symptomatology, rendering the clinical significance of these findings unclear.
A second set of findings has focused on studying the content of abuse survivors’ constructions of themselves and their worlds. In one study we content analyzed elicited constructs of college students who had or had not been abused using Landfield’s content analysis system. We found that abuse survivors used less constructs relating to emotional arousal and low forcefulness and more constructs related to factual descriptions. Further, lower levels of emotion in constructions were found to predict symptoms distress over and above the effect of sexual abuse itself. In another study (the second study that was discussed above), self-characterization sketches of abused and nonabused college students were analyzed using a word-counting program. More severely abused students, particularly those abused by family members, used more words related to anxiety or fear, sadness or depression, and optimism or energy.
Studies such as these have served as a foundation for exploring the ways in which some abuse survivors can construct themselves and their worlds as they deal and are faced with making meaning from traumatic events. They have helped to demonstrate the clinical and theoretical postulates that abuse survivors do indeed sometimes come to construe themselves and their worlds in ways that are colored by their abuse experiences. However, a great deal of work remains to be done in this area. Particularly, more sensitive and contextually meaningful methods can be used to examine the constructions of survivors. Thematic analysis of broader units of meaning, rather than simple word count procedures, may provide greater insight into self-characterization sketches, for example. Qualitative, narrative analyses, when combined with available quantitative data, may provide a particularly rich source of information about the ways in which trauma and abuse can color our created worlds.
As we strive to apprehend the range of possible effects of traumatic events we are confronted by a diversity of responses that reflects the unique ways in which humans create meaning from their pasts and their selves. It is my belief that constructivism allows a framework that is individualized enough, broad enough, flexible enough, and above all respectful enough to aid us in this understanding.
Chris Erbes is currently practicing in Minnesota.