Jessica Gibson, Psy.D., is a 2019 graduate of the Psy.D. Program in Clinical Psychology at Antioch University, New England

Dissertation Committee:

  • Martha Straus, PhD, Committee Chair
  • Barbara Belcher-Timme, PsyD, Committee Member
  • Meg Pilling, PsyD, Committee Member


altruism born of suffering, empathy, trauma, meaning making

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Childhood exposure to early adverse experiences is prevalent—affecting almost one-half of children from birth to 17 years old—and brings with it the potential for the long-lasting detrimental effects of traumatization. At the same time, a growing body of compelling evidence also suggests that many survivors of trauma exhibit more resilience and prosocial behaviors than individuals who have never experienced a traumatic event. This phenomenon has been coined altruism born of suffering (ABS); it is a relatively new concept in trauma research that seeks to better understand the possible positive outcomes of trauma. Building further beyond the concepts of resilience and post-traumatic growth, ABS showcases the potential for an individual to not only resist the risk of psychopathology or experience a constructive intrapersonal transformation after a trauma, but also to become more altruistic and prosocial than one who has never experienced a traumatic event. Research has illuminated several factors that can promote ABS, such as victim affinity, adaptive meaning making, and a supportive social sphere. Nevertheless, little qualitative research has examined the specific nature of how one’s definition of their self and their trauma experience can foster altruism. In this dissertation, I examined the specific meaning making processes of ABS using a mixed methods study. I assessed quantitative correlation data between trauma and altruism in an adult volunteer population, then conducted qualitative interviews with four volunteers who had high levels of both trauma and altruism. I utilized Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) to explore common themes that arose across the interviews. Six thematic clusters emerged: Insight and Inspiration, Accountability for Others’ Suffering, Personal Growth, Trait Enhancement, Interpersonal Relationships, and Negative Effects of Trauma. Notable themes within these clusters included Filling in Gaps, Preventing Pain, Self-Efficacy and Control, and Helping Me by Helping You. The findings were highly congruent with prior research on ABS, and provided further evidence that there is a noteworthy connection between trauma and altruism. The data showed that experiencing trauma led to greater levels of empathy, awareness, victim affinity, self-efficacy, and motivation to help, influencing the survivors to heal themselves and others through altruistic acts. I discussed the clinical treatment implications of such data, highlighted limitations of the study, and noted areas for future research


Jessica Gibson

ORCID Scholar ID# 0000-0002-1884-4717