When Our Leaders Fail Us

The dangerous consequences of witnessing betrayal and moral injury.

Posted Sep 27, 2018

Mary was 7 years old when she witnessed her father shake her mother by the shoulders and yell that he had enough and was leaving. It was the last time she saw him as her mother packed their belongings that night and moved across the country. Mary resolved that she would not be like her mother and would do everything perfectly so that a man would never shake her or leave her. Instead, Mary dated a series of men that were emotionally and/or physically abusive. To make matters worse, all of them left her just like her father did. Mary (not her real name) came into my office to work on abandonment issues—and a sexual assault by a former boss. She hadn’t reported the assault. Instead, much like her childhood solution with her mother, she moved across the country for a new job. She was told that reporting the assault would harm her record and potential for a positive reference. Now, the #metoo movement and continual news updates on the Kavanaugh allegations of sexual assault are triggering Mary’s anxiety and depression.

Mary is not the only one. I would suspect that every person is touched by current events, whether they realize it consciously or not. There’s even a phenomenon known as a Morally Injurious Experience (MIE) that comes from experiencing a traumatic event or situation that conflicts with one’s moral beliefs. In a military context, it has been defined as engaging in or observing betrayals like a leadership failure, or violence and sexual assault, along with situations where a person has been unable to prevent an injury, death or war-related destruction.

Witnessing betrayal can trigger trauma
Source: Geralt/Pixabay

 ​​​​​While military life is different, especially in war-zones and where one’s life depends on and is dictated by others, the similarity is that a few at the top (government and corporate leaders and famous opinion leaders) impact the greater majority that lives here. Leaders and heroes have power and influence which require a certain level of trust—especially in a democracy.

The greatest challenges come from broken trust.

Sexual assault breaks trust. Cover-ups break trust. Discrimination breaks trust. Moreover, leadership and hero betrayals (allegations in some cases) can have traumatic consequences for many. Examples include heightened despair, anxiety, guilt, shame, resentment, spiritual and existential angst (meaninglessness), PTSD, substance abuse, relationship distress, and exacerbated medical conditions.

I am saddened by the growing distrust, toxic communications, bullying behaviors, and violence in this country. It forms a dangerous feedback loop that feeds a vicious cycle of hatred and despair much like a growing hurricane over warming and turbulent waters.

What can you do if you are triggered?

  • As in a hurricane, check your doors and windows and stay inside. That means check the messages that are coming into your ears and out your mouth and make sure you are okay, safe and that you’re not doing something that inflames the current conditions.
  • Evacuate if you must and find shelter where it’s safe. Seek help with a professional, group, and surround yourself with trusted friends.
  • Beware of getting into unnecessary debates with foes and bullies, lest you get swept in their storm. Check-in and see if an internal negative tape is bullying you and shut off that voice.
  • Take care of your physical body and nourish it with healthy foods, water, and exercise. Get sleep.
  • Don’t be afraid to call 911 in an emergency.


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