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The role of developmental/relational trauma in therapists' motivation to pursue a psychotherapeutic career: A grounded theory exploration

Davies, Joanna M M


Joanna M M Davies


Psychotherapy research has consistently established a link between developmental/relational trauma and the motivation to pursue a psychotherapeutic career. Understanding why this relationship exists is important given the recognised adverse impact of developmental/relational trauma on sense of self, interpersonal relating, emotional regulation and reflective function, which could have significant clinical implications. Psychodynamic theorising and research exploring this link further suggests that therapists often suffered object-loss, and/or parentification as children, leading to narcissistic injury and a tendency towards compulsive caregiving, which is proposed to motivate towards the therapist role that satisfies a variety of unmet dependency, intimacy and narcissistic needs. However, it has been observed that therapists often deny, or lack conscious awareness of, their relational wounding and how this may incite career motivation, which is clinically problematic. Psychodynamic theorists caution that a lack of insight can increase the risk of burnout and defensive, unethical practice. Conversely, post-traumatic growth (PTG) literature proposes that individuals with trauma histories are motivated towards therapeutic careers to reconstruct meaning, which promotes self-growth. The reflective contexts of psychotherapeutic training and the career may facilitate this process, though these assertions have not been empirically explored. Most research in this field has been quantitative to date, leaving the developmental/relational processes involved in career motivation unexamined and in need of qualitative enquiry to deepen understanding. The aims of the study were twofold: to explore the role of developmental/relational trauma in therapists’ motivation to pursue a psychotherapeutic career and to formulate a grounded theory of this process.

Method: This was a qualitative study which adopted a constructionist grounded theory methodology (Charmaz, 2006). A purposive, snowball and theoretical sampling strategy was adopted to recruit 15 therapists and 1 social worker.

Findings: The Grounded Theory constructed from the data indicates 6 categories: Sustaining a Wound to the Sense of Self; Defending the Fragile Self; Gratifying Unmet Needs; Moving from Other-ish to Self-ish; Finding Me – Integrating the Self; and Liberating the Self. The first three categories represent a vicious circle formed by the unconscious compulsion to repeat relational wounds, thereby increasing the risk of defensive, unethical practice and burnout. A critical juncture, ‘Confronting the Self’, encouraged via self-reflection in training appears to represent a nexus through which it is essential that therapists must pass to enhance self-awareness. This pivotal process facilitates breaking the vicious circle, thus allowing progression to the later three categories of this process that comprise a pathway towards psychological integration and growth, and may over time, paradoxically, heal the neurosis underlying the motivation to pursue the career.

Conclusion: This Grounded Theory describes the developmental/relational processes involved in the pursuit of a psychotherapeutic career. In addition, it identifies a critical juncture involving a confrontation with the disowned self; emphasising the importance of self-reflection to enhance self-awareness in the developmental journey from wounded healer to ‘Healing Healer’. This appears to reduce the risk of defensive, unethical practice and becoming a ‘Wounded Wounder’. As such the findings have significant implications for clinical practice and training.


Davies, J. M. M. (2018). The role of developmental/relational trauma in therapists' motivation to pursue a psychotherapeutic career: A grounded theory exploration. (Thesis). University of the West of England

Thesis Type Thesis
Publication Date Apr 5, 2018


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