Courage, Humility, and Institutional Trauma: Witnessing Marie Yovanovitch
On November 15, 2019, many of us watched Marie Yovanovitch as she provided testimony to the Intelligence Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. Her testimony was related to her role as the ambassador to Ukraine, and the humiliating and inelegant departure from her post, which was forced upon her. Ms. Yovanovitch spoke articulately, bravely, and outlined her long history of loyalty and hard work on behalf of the United States. She was so compelling; it was hard to pull away from the television. After the hearing, many rightly commented on her courage, professionalism, and intelligence.
I don’t know Ms. Yovanovitch, and don’t presume to know her experience beyond what she described to the nation. While watching the hearing and noting her courage and history, I was struck that I was also seeing something else. When she was articulating her experiences, I noticed the flashes of color to her face, so fast and quickly repressed in an effort to maintain her professionalism. I saw the emotion welling up in her, and her active management of it. I recognized all this, and I could immediately name what I was seeing, as I have experienced it and have been witness to it in others. What we were seeing was institutional betrayal trauma.
Jennifer Freyd, one of the leading researchers on trauma, defines betrayal trauma as occurring “when the people or institutions on which a person depends for survival significantly violate that person’ s trust or well-being” (Freyd 2008 as cited in Freyd 2019). Betrayal trauma is the type of trauma that we in the helping professions have come to understand as the most intimate of traumas. In clinical situations, betrayal trauma is the sexual abuse, the rape by someone we know, the impact of families not being able to meet the obligations and needs of its children, and other serious occurrences.
To be clear, it is understood that the most serious of traumas was not reported in the testimony by Ms. Yovanovitch, but the threats to her safety and well-being were certainly present. Further, we now understand that there are components of betrayal trauma in what has come to be known as institutional trauma. Freyd defines institutional betrayal as “wrongdoings perpetrated by an institution upon individuals dependent on that institution, including failure to prevent or respond supportively to wrongdoings by individuals committed within the context of the institution” (Freyd, 2019).
The public humiliation of Yovanovitch, the efforts to silence and manipulate, the lack of support from the government institutions for whom she has devoted her career, and the individual betrayals of leadership not being willing to speak the truth and allow her to be scape-goated – all of these are examples of institutional trauma.
With trauma comes shame, humiliation, confusion, disbelief and self-doubt. Despite one’s previous professional accomplishments, these emotions occur, and the damage to one’s psyche is complete. And if attempts to resolve the injustice of trauma are unsuccessful, the layers of trauma multiply.
It is understood that there is a difference between workplace humiliation and serious interpersonal trauma. But it is our learnings from having studied interpersonal betrayal that enable us to understand the complexities of institutional betrayal trauma. From understanding that humans can do the unthinkable, we have a context for understanding when the outrageous occurs, as in Yovonovich’s case.
There is a complexity to defining and discussing traumas which occurs in the workplace. We may be embarrassed by feeling that such events are superficial, particularly compared to other traumas. Often, we are dependent on our workplace for our livelihood and so we are silent about our experiences. The “power over” dynamic described by Walker (2008), is at play, where those who have power use it to further stratify and describe others as “less than”. Even if we are able to leave the workplace that has harmed us, we stay silent because we have a reputation to protect so that we do not harm future career or employment opportunities. We don’t want to be seen as a problem. And if we are female, we may avoid revealing the emotional pain we are experiencing in an effort to maintain a non-emotional stance, a message still supported in patriarchal culture.
Those who work in the world of trauma have identified a relatively new component to having survived a traumatic experience. Post trauma growth (PTG) is related to, but not quite the same as resiliency. PTG results in personal growth as a component of healing from the trauma (Collier, 2016). Finding ways through, finding support, and using one’s voice to name one’s experience can propel us forward to new and potentially exciting directions when healing occurs. The news reports that Marie Yovanovitch received a standing ovation while attending a jazz club the week (Cole, 2019) of the hearing may be a part of healing, the knowing that indeed she is not alone, that her humiliation was undeserved, and that others heard and believed her story, will all contribute to healing. Ms. Yovanovitch deserves our respect and admiration not only for her decades of work on our behalf, but also for her truth-telling courage. In this, she leads us all by her example and provides hope that even the most significant of workplace traumas can lead to healing and growth.
Cole, B. (2019) Marie Yovanovitch Gets Standing Ovation at Jazz Club After Trump Impeachment Testimony. Newsweek. November 18, 2019.
Collier, L. (2016). Growth after trauma: Why are some people more resilient than others—and can it be taught? American Psychological Association. November 2016, Vol 47, No. 10. Print version: p. 48
Freyd, J.J. (2019). What is a Betrayal Trauma? What is Betrayal Trauma Theory? Retrieved [today's date] from http://pages.uoregon.edu/dynamic/jjf/defineBT.html.
Walker, M. (2008) Power and Effectiveness: Envisioning an Alternate Paradigm, Women & Therapy, 31:2-4, 129-144, DOI: 10.1080/02703140802146266
Lisa Eible, DSW, MSW, LCSW is a consultant, writer and educator with over 28 years of social work experience. Lisa has advanced certificates in Cultural Competence and Trauma. Professional interests include social work in healthcare, administration, leadership, supervision, Relational-Cultural Theory, and diversity issues. Lisa serves as adjunct faculty at two universities.