“The ugliness of it seeps into me”: Experiences of vicarious trauma among female psychologists treating survivors of sexual assault
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The current study explores the lived experiences of female psychologists who provide psychological treatment to women survivors of sexual assault. These practitioners are a population of special interest due to the frequency of their exposure to narratives and graphic images of sexual trauma. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 15 female South African psychologists. The data, which were analyzed using an interpretative phenomenological approach, revealed experiences characteristic of vicarious traumatization. Participants reported having an enhanced sense of personal vulnerability to sexual assault and heightened awareness of the betrayals of trust that women experience from male figures, which has led to increased mistrust of men and hypervigilance regarding the safety of their daughters. Internalization of feelings of helplessness experienced by the victim evoked self-blame for practitioners and appraisals of being complicit in abuse. Practitioners also experienced survivor guilt about being spared from harm. Symptoms of intrusive re-experiencing of client trauma and cognitive and behavioral disengagement were evident. These findings have important implications for clinical practice and underscore the necessity for clinicians to cultivate an awareness of the impact of treating sexual trauma and working in ways that are self-protective.