Positive Adaptation in Women Following Sexual Assault: A Grounded Theory Study
Olson, Nichole Sue
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Historically, the trauma literature has been grounded within the illness ideology and medical model, which focus on psychopathology and disease to the exclusion of health, well-being, and resilience. Thus, the vast majority of research on sexual assault has viewed its impact through a negative lens, focusing exclusively on the consequences of the experienced trauma in terms of distress and symptomatology. Although there is a plethora of research on the detrimental impact of sexual assault, relatively few studies have investigated the wide range of adaptive capabilities that survivors demonstrate. The current study employed a qualitative approach in order to provide a more holistic and integrated understanding of survivors' experiences following sexual assault. Using grounded theory methodology, 12 women survivors of adult sexual assault were interviewed to determine how women understand the impact of sexual assault on their lives and the process of positive adaptation, as well as to identify various sociocultural influences that impact survivors' experiences following sexual assault. The results of this study highlight the primary role of maladaptive shame throughout an individual's process of healing from sexual assault. Various sociocultural, interpersonal, and intrapersonal experiences are identified that impact the experience of maladaptive shame in response to sexual assault. This theory conceptualizes sexual assault as contributing to a shattering of the self, resulting in profound changes across four domains: (a) self-concept, (b) interpersonal relationships, (c) perceptions of safety, power, and control, and (d) meaning and spirituality. Although this shattering of the self can be experienced as highly distressing, it often promotes a process of rebuilding the self through four primary processes (e.g., accepting, connecting, reclaiming power, and creating meaning and purpose), which have the potential to promote personal growth and transformation across the same four domains that were experienced as shattered. Because maladaptive shame promotes an individual to engage in hiding, avoiding, and withdrawing behaviors, it can serve as a major barrier in the process of rebuilding the self. Directions for further research and clinical implications are discussed.