Working models of self and other in adult attachment and vicarious traumatization

Jonathan Henry Brandon


In recent years, there has been a considerable increase in research on adult attachment and on the negative reactions of mental health professionals as a result of working with trauma survivors. These negative reactions are known as vicarious traumatization (Pearlman and Saakvitne, 1995). A four-category model of adult attachment proposed by Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) and vicarious traumatization theory share a common conceptual framework. Both sets of researchers assess their constructs based on the distinction between working models of self and other. However, no research to date has examined the relationship between these constructs. This study examined (a) the relationship between attachment style and vicarious traumatization on the dimensions of self and other, (b) the attachment styles of mental health professionals when compared to psychology graduate students to determine if professionals' attachment styles may be disrupted by their clients' traumatic material, and (c) the relationship between work experience, personal trauma history, and vicarious traumatization among mental health professionals. A group of 46 psychology graduate students filled out a measure of adult attachment and a demographics questionnaire to serve as a comparison group for mental health professionals. A group of 140 mental health professionals returned a demographics questionnaire, a modified measure of adult attachment style, and a measure of vicarious traumatization. Professionals who reported that greater than 50% of their clients were trauma survivors were classified as trauma workers ( n = 89), and the other professionals were classified as counselors (n = 51). Results indicated that a majority of the trauma workers were trauma survivors. There was not a significant relationship between overall level of vicarious traumatization and time spent as a trauma worker or history of personal trauma. Also, there was not a significant interaction between vicarious traumatization and attachment on the dimensions of self and other. There were significant differences in the overall level of vicarious traumatization for the adult attachment styles, with securely attached professionals indicating fewer disruptions than those in the other styles. Finally, when the attachment styles of the three groups were examined, results indicated that overall, these participants did not endorse a significantly different pattern of attachment styles. Limitations of the study and practical and research implications are discussed.