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Cultivating Institutional Courage

June 14, 2023

By Brylie Turk
3 min read

 Institutional courage is a concept developed by Jennifer Freyd describing how individuals, organizations, and institutions should respond to survivors of trauma. Freyd’s challenges the notion that trauma victims must speak out to be heard. Instead, she argues that institutional courage is required to create safe and supportive environments for trauma victims.

Freyd describes institutional courage as a counter to institutional betrayal, which causes betrayal trauma, occurring when a victim is “mistreated by a more powerful, close, and trusted other” (Gomez et al. 2023). To prevent this damage, institutions should show institutional courage by creating policies and procedures, providing survivors with resources, and ensuring survivors have access to appropriate resources and support. Additionally, individuals, organizations, and institutions must be willing to accept responsibility for their role in traumatic situations to create a sense of accountability and rebuild trust with survivors.

Individuals heavily depend on institutions, as they are the building blocks of civil society and crucial to our well-being. However, all too often, institutions betray the people who rely on them, failing to protect them and showing indifference toward their suffering as institutions focus on profit and self-protection, “institutional betrayal occurs when institutions intentionally or negligently harm their members, breaching this relationship of trust and dependence” (Smidt et al 2023). In one study, Smith and Freyd found that approximately 45% of women who experienced sexual assault also experienced institutional betrayal (2013). Institutional betrayal appears both overtly and covertly as “deliberate harmful inactions by institutional actors” (Gomez et al. 2023) and is associated with significant psychological and physical harm for its victims.

Trauma perpetrated by someone close to a victim yields greater negative outcomes compared to trauma perpetrated by someone unknown to a victim (Smidt et al. 2023); thus, betrayal by an institution that an individual trusts and depends on for resources, support, and protection, such as their school, church, workplace, or government, can be detrimental for survivors. Because institutions are so valuable to individuals, betrayal blindness may occur. Being blind to betrayal describes “the state of being consciously unaware of interpersonal abuse committed by a trusted or depended upon other” (Smith & Freyd 2023). This blindness may occur in victims, witnesses, and perpetrators to preserve important relationships and maintain faith in institutions.

Institutions commonly respond poorly to accusations of harm and misconduct, which negatively impacts members of the institution. Therefore, it is important to seek solutions to institutional betrayal and betrayal trauma. This is where institutional courage becomes vital to replace the behaviors associated with institutional betrayal. Freyd describes institutional courage as “an institution’s commitment to seek the truth and engage in moral action, despite unpleasantness, risk, and short-term cost. It is a pledge to protect and care for those who depend on the institution” (Center for Institutional Courage 2023). Institutional courage is the antidote to institutional betrayal, where institutions show “accountability, transparency, actively seeking justice, and making reparations where needed” (Smidt et al. 2023). Institutional courage can help buffer against the harm of sexual trauma and also may prevent sexual violence through positive policies and procedures.

While an institution’s involvement in sexual trauma tends to be indirect, their responses significantly impact survivors and their mental and physical outcomes. Smidt et al. find high levels of correlation between both institutional betrayal and negative outcomes and institutional courage and positive outcomes for members of the institutions, specifically in a study regarding workplace sexual harassment (2023). In this study, researchers found high correlations between institutional betrayal and poor mental health outcomes, as well as somatic symptoms. They also found that institutional courage in the workplace is associated with lower intentions to leave, higher organizational commitment, higher job satisfaction, and greater trust in management (Smidt et al. 2023).

When institutions betray survivors, they face secondary trauma and feel re-victimized by a trusted source, causing them further pain. However, when institutions show courage, survivors are provided with services and resources to ensure their needs are met, leading to healing and validation. Institutional courage can also bring survivors a greater sense of comfort and security, which is crucial for their physical and mental well-being. Providing survivors with an environment free of stigma and judgment, institutions can help foster a culture of support and understanding. Ultimately, Jennifer Freyd’s theory of institutional courage has provided an important framework for understanding and responding to trauma. By recognizing the importance of creating a safe and supportive environment for victims of trauma, individuals, organizations, and institutions can take steps towards creating a more compassionate and understanding society.

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