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Our wiring for connection, attachment and love can contribute to a feeling of great shame when we suffer from betrayal and trauma.
This wiring also creates a phenomenon known as betrayal blindness.
The following is an interview with Dr. Jennifer J. Freyd is the Founder and President of the Center for Institutional Courage.
She is also a keynote speaker, author and professor emerit of psychology.
With over 30 years of experience researching people and their relationships with institutions, Dr. Freyd introduced the concepts of betrayal trauma, DARVO, institutional betrayal and institutional courage.
Dr. Freyd emphasizes how and why it’s in our human nature to be sensitive to betrayal.
You’ve had an incredible career, and you’ve spoken in your research, trainings and speaking engagements about the effects of betrayal on personal, interpersonal and institutional levels.
The short answer to that is that I was myself betrayed. And I didn’t understand the impact. I didn’t even have that label.
The longer answer is that in the year 1990, I was a tenured but fairly young professor of psychology. I had studied memory and perception for about 10 years. In those 10 years, I had never learned about — or particularly even questioned — how memory applies in strong emotional situations and, particularly, in traumatic situations.
Around the year 1990, there was a lot of media attention about people coming forward and saying they had recently remembered events of past abuse, which they had forgotten for some period of time.
This phenomenon impacted me personally. It was also intellectually incredibly fascinating.
In addition to having all this personal significance, it was like the personal and the intellectual came together.
I was motivated to understand how and why people could experience something so horrible as to be abused — and then forget it.
It’s important to disseminate this research as there’s so much questioning of people who have been traumatized.
This is often used as a way to discredit people; to say how could you have had this period of time that you didn’t remember.
There’s plenty of evidence that some people experience traumas and forget them – and some of those people that forget them later remember them.
Even if we don’t understand why, there’s plenty of evidence that it does occur.
It’s really problematic, as a rule, to not believe people when they tell you that they’ve had such an experience.
Another level of harm is that self-doubt can be internalized. When we don’t understand our own experience or we can’t articulate what we’ve been through — we doubt our experience. We question it.
It’s not just the reactions of other people that are damaging; it’s the way in which we can internalize, unintentionally, some of those messages as well.
I know that you’ve done a significant amount of research on betrayal blindness as well as having an inconsistent memory of abuse.
Are there some highlights you could share?
Let me begin with a short explanation of what I call betrayal blindness, and this comes from betrayal trauma theory.
There are two things that are true about human beings, which sometimes come into conflict with each other.
We are a very social species, and constantly making deals with other people.
They’re often implicit in the nature of the relationship, such as with a best friend: I will keep your secrets, and you keep my secrets.
Whenever we have deals, and they happen all the time because we’re very social, we can be betrayed.
We’ve made a sort of agreement: I’ll give you this, and you give me that, however, if this just goes in one direction, it can be experienced as a betrayal.
Betrayals are very costly to us.
We can lose our resources or our lives if we get betrayed.
So it makes sense that we’re going to be sensitive to it. We’re going to take protective action.
There are two kinds of protective actions we can take:
Depending on the circumstance, we’ll do either one of those things.
The nature of dependency is a kind of asymmetry of resources.
A child is dependent on their caregivers.
The nature of dependency for humans is so profound that we have a very well-developed attachment system.
This is given to us through evolution; it’s hardwired into us.
An attachment system makes sure that both the receiver of the caregiving and the caregiver are motivated to keep that relationship going.
If you think about a caregiver and a baby, for instance, there’s a reciprocal relationship.
We experience all of this is through the emotion of love.
The reciprocity really helps that relationship and ensures that it functions well.
However, what happens when the caregiver is also an abuser?
This creates an impossible bind for a child or dependent adult because, if they respond to that betrayal with either confrontation or withdrawal, they risk further mistreatment.
They need to stay engaged in that relationship., and the best way to stay engaged in the relationship is to be lovable, to connect.
It’s in that situation, I hypothesized, there would be an advantage to actually being unaware of the betrayal.
It can be right in front of your eyes and you cannot see it.
With this theory in mind, we went on to do some research. Sure enough, we found that if you compare cases of child abuse when the abuser was a parent or caregiver versus child abuse by somebody the child wasn’t so dependent on, you see much more forgetting when it’s a parent or caregiver.
In other words, the nature of the relationship really impacts that memory awareness over time.
Forgetting exists to preserve our necessary relationships.
Even in attachment relationships in adulthood when we may potentially have more reciprocity, there’s still this human wiring for connection and to maintain relationships.
So it’s a non-pathologizing way to think about betrayal and the effects it can have when it comes to awareness and memory — because it’s about being human.
One of the ways we’re wired is towards protection: doing what we need to do in order to be loved.
One of the saddest things about betrayal is that people often have a shame response to having been betrayed, and this shame response has a function.
Shame is a way to preserve a relationship because it’s taking the bad behavior of the perpetrator onto oneself.
This helps you keep engaged with the relationship., but it’s very costly to the person who feels shame. Shame is one of the most costly emotions we can have internally.
I often talk to people who express shame for having been betrayed as if they did something wrong to be betrayed.
What they did wrong was to feel love in the first place.
This is also true when we are betrayed by an organization. This can happen to people profoundly when they are a member of a religious organization, school or any kind of institution, and that institution betrays them.
Afterwards, they beat themselves up saying, “Why did I let myself get so attached that I could feel this bad?”
I wish I could protect people from feeling angry at themselves for their very, very human reactions.
I would argue it’s a good thing they can get so attached; it’s a very human thing. It means their attachment systems are working.
There’s nothing wrong with loving.
That’s not where the harm comes. The harm comes from the abuse and the mistreatment.
One of the things I hope to do for people is to help them be compassionate with themselves for having had a very human reaction.
I think that is one of the really powerful aspects of your work. It also intersects with the concept of DARVO and certain societal reactions, which can perpetuate the sense of shame and the message that we have done something wrong.
DARVO is an acronym I came up with quite a long time ago in the late ’90s, and it stands for:
You could think of it as a strategy that a perpetrator can use to deflect blame.
Our research has shown that DARVO is associated with victim self-blame; victims are more likely to blame themselves for the events. So it’s quite effective for the perpetrator.
It’s important to know that DARVO exists — knowing this is a harmful dynamic whether the harm is on the scale of sexual violence, racism and oppression, or even in day-to-day interactions.
I can see this playing out in day-to-day relationships when there are missteps that happen and a family member or friend confronts another about the harm that was caused.
We discovered is we could teach people to become better listeners… to teach people to not DARVO.
Some people are going to DARVO, no matter what we ask them because they find it an effective strategy.
But I think some people end up engaging in DARVO responses without necessarily realizing that’s what they’re doing or planning to do.
It’s a very convenient way to be defensive.
We can at least reduce how prevalent DARVO is by teaching people alternative ways to respond, sort of like the anti-DARVO response.
The ideal thing, if you’re accused of something you really did do, is to acknowledge it and apologize. So to say, “Oh my gosh, you’re right. I did this thing. I am so sorry.”
However, people have a hard time acknowledging and apologizing that they’ve caused harm, and sometimes they get accused of something they truly didn’t do.
Melissa: There’s so much richness in what you said about ways we can respond that don’t involve DARVO, regardless of whether or not we feel like we have caused harm.
One is a stance of curiosity. If we can approach each other with more curiosity, rather than a presumption of knowing, that can open up dialogue.
It can also lead us to have more compassion.
It also occurs to me that you acknowledge the willingness to be vulnerable and to sit with uncomfortable emotions that might arise in these conversations.
There’s accountability — of being willing to do what it takes to repair the relationship and that might involve a verbal apology.
But it may involve more, including a commitment to change our behavior in a certain way.
It might involve a systemic commitment or an institutional commitment, which links to your work regarding institutional betrayal and institutional courage.
There are a lot of different attitudes and stances that we can embody to counteract these conditioned tendencies toward DARVO in ourselves, and help us engage with each other in ways that promote connection and resolution rather than distancing.
I would love to end with the thought that often our personal betrayals occur in an institutional context because we’re so embedded in institutions, such as our schools, our government, our hospitals and our workplaces.
Those institutions can also create really powerful healing spaces for us.
It’s this realization that’s led me to focus in the last few years on institutional courage, which is kind of the antidote to institutional betrayal.
It’s not a simple opposite, but having a mindset and an approach that addresses institutional betrayal.
We ask institutions to prioritize the well-being of individuals who are dependent upon them — even when it requires the institution to take some short-term risks and face some unpleasantness.
This is not the way things are usually done, but there are cases when there’s been really powerful, wonderful institutional courage, and we’ve seen such good effects.
So, I think there’s hope for the future, and I think that courage is so much a part of what will bring that better future to us.
To hear more of our discussion about betrayal trauma and recovery including concrete actions we can engage in on individual, interpersonal and institutional levels to counteract the harm caused by DARVO, listen to the full podcast episode…
We explore ways to navigate difficult conversations with courage, curiosity, compassion, and a willingness to be vulnerable and believe things we may not understand.
Dr. Freyd is an incredible force in the world who has been my mentor, colleague and friend for many years. She continues to be a huge source of inspiration in my life both personally and professionally, teaching me so much about what it really means to be courageous. To connect with Dr. Freyd, visit her website: The Center for Institutional Courage.