Tag Archives: personality

Institutional betrayal: Secret ingredient to PTSD

We live in the world where human frailty and pathology is viewed in individual terms. When we see sickness we imagine that the person must have some weakness in biology, faith, or behavior. Rarely do we think about the role the system or community has played in the development of that person’s pathology. This is true when we think about a person diagnosed with PTSD. We therapists hypothesize about individual factors (personality factors, early childhood experiences (a slight nod to external causes) and neurobiological risk factors) and situation factors (the frequency, duration, and intensity of overwhelming trauma events) when we try to answer the “why” of the development of PTSD in a person.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it fails to take into consideration of known research that suggests that environmental response to an individual’s trauma experiences may be a determining factor in whether PTSD or chronic traumatic reactions form.

In the most recent American Psychologist (2014, 69:6, 575-587), Carly Parnitzke Smith and Jennifer Freyd write about the concept of institutional betrayal. Traumatologists recognize Freyd’s name as the researcher who developed “betrayal trauma theory”, pointing to the especially toxic form of PTSD caused by those who were supposed to be safe and protective. These begin to examine “institutional action and inaction that exacerbate the impact of traumatic experiences…”

How can an institution betray a victim?

When a person trusts that a system designed to defend, respond, protect, or seek justice will do its job after an interpersonal trauma, and when that system either chooses not to respond (omission) or worse, chooses to lay blame at the feet of the victim (commission), institutional betrayal occurs. Examples include law enforcement accusing rape victims of “asking for it” with their clothing, church leaders allowing offender clergy to “leave with their reputations” or refusal to investigate a case of date rape when the reported offender is an important leader in the community.

In summarizing a couple of studies, Smith and Freyd point out that institutional betrayal after a trauma experience leads to higher rates of dissociation, sexual problems, and health difficulties. This is even more likely when the trauma takes place in an environment where protection of the members is trumpeted (i.e., church or military).

What are the common characteristics of betraying institutions?

Smith and Freyd note several characteristics found in institutions at greater risk for betraying members.

  • membership requirements to define in group identity. This produces a need for members to act in ways to maintain such an identity
  • Prestige (both leaders and institutions). Prestige produces both trust and fear, dependency and power
  • Priorities. “Institutional betrayal may remain unchecked when performance or reputation is valued over, or divorced from the well-being of members.” As the authors note, maintaining reputation as a priority will lead to neglect or attack of those who challenge reputation
  • Institutional denial. Blame a few bad apples, avoid institutional blame or responsibility

Those institutions that do make efforts to prevent abuse within its community may still yet fail to respond well. They may fail to use adequate screening procedures, normalize abuse, fail to utilize or follow appropriate response procedures, punish whistleblowers, and aid cover-ups.

What to do?

Smith and Freyd argue that transparency (about past actions/failures to act as well as power structures) and priority to protect the well-being of all members will move institutions away from the risk of betraying individual members. I would argue that the shift to protect moves from the institution as a whole to protection of the most vulnerable.

Let me recommend a few resources that have appeared here in the past:

  1. Diane Langberg’s 5 part video about narcissistic leaders and the institutions they lead. She too describes systemic narcissism.
  2. Why some spiritual leaders abuse (and systems allow it)
  3. Narcissistic systems
  4. Resources to combat narcissism one person at a time


Filed under Abuse, personality, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Psychology

AACC 2013: Narcissistic Leaders and Systems

Today, AACC’s World Conference begins at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville. This morning, Dr. Diane Langberg and myself will be running a pre-conference workshop entitled: Narcissistic Leaders and Organizations: Assessment and Intervention. I will start us off with a meditation from 1 Kings 1 (ideas I first heard from a sermon by Phil Ryken last year). We will review current explanations of narcissism as well as an emerging model that may be helpful for those who are trying to move beyond seeing narcissists as only arrogant and exploitive.

Can a system be narcissistic?

Yes. Here are some of the features.

  1. Leader exudes god-like status and does not share power; surrounded by yea-sayers, unwilling to tolerate disagreement, accept mentoring and willing to scapegoat others when failures arise
  2. Constituents gain self-esteem/identity from the organization and love of the system is the highest priority; insider status provides immeasurable value
  3. There is an approved way of thinking, one must take sides for/against; constituents justify dictatorial behaviors of leaders
  4. No toleration for admiration of competitors
  5. Inability to assess own weaknesses

But, here is a most interesting fact: most collective narcissistic systems are NOT filled with individual narcissists! There is something  “in the water” that brings non-narcissists together to develop these 4 features (as written about by Golec de Zavala and colleagues in 104:6 of the the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology):

  1. Inflated belief and emotional investment in group superiority
  2. Required continuous external validation and vigilance against all threats of loss of status
  3. Perception that intergroup criticism is a threat and exaggerated sensitivity to any form of criticism
  4. Intergroup violence can restore positive group image (violence may be verbal as well as physical

Why teach counselors about narcissistic systems?

Counselors often interact with church and parachurch systems by consulting with the system, counseling leaders, or advocating for an individual client. It is good to be able to (a) recognize some of the unhealthy egocentric patterns (blind spots) leaders and systems develop, and (b) offer help to individuals and systems that do not get the counselor sucked into the system or unnecessarily alienate the system. I have had the opportunity to work with a significant number of churches and have learned that there are ways to help and ways that I can get in the way, especially if I begin to attack a long held belief system. For example, if parachurch organization A has had a string of CEO/Board conflicts, then I as a counselor may have to navigate some long cherished beliefs about the system when asked to consult on their next hire.

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Filed under "phil monroe", AACC, biblical counseling, christian psychology, counseling, counseling skills, personality

The last piece of candy?

In the back of our counseling office there is a kitchen. In the kitchen there are some little bins that sometimes have candy in them. I think there is a little candy elf that fills them from time to time. This week, there were little individually wrapped chocolates. During one day the number went down from several to one. I confess I had one of them.

But then the one remaining candy languished. Would no one choose to be the eater of the last candy? Apparently not. Maybe this has happened to you. There is one more cookie or candy left. Do you eat it? Or, do you leave it? What does it say about your personality if you want it but leave it? What does it say about you if you are the one who will eat the last piece?


Filed under personality

Strengths profile

I’m advising one of our DMin students on his dissertation. He is researching how the use of Gallup’s Strengthfinders assessments and some training materials from World Harvest Mission might help build better functioning ministry teams.

This is my first time getting to see how the Strengthfinders works. So, Drew, the student, gave me the assessment. This tool returns the top five strengths themes (out of 34) based on my answers to the questions on the test. Here is my Gallup profile (in order of strength) with a few descriptive sentences:


Relator describes your attitude toward your relationships. In simple terms, the Relator theme pulls you toward people you already know. You do not necessarily shy away from meeting new people—in fact, you may have other themes that cause you to enjoy the thrill of turning strangers into friends—but you do derive a great deal of pleasure and strength from being around your close friends. You are comfortable with intimacy. Once the initial connection has been made, you deliberately encourage a deepening of the relationship. You want to understand their feelings, their goals, their fears, and their dreams; and you want them to understand yours. For you a relationship has value only if it is genuine.


Your Individualization theme leads you to be intrigued by the unique qualities of each person. You are impatient with generalizations or “types” because you don’t want to obscure what is special and distinct about each person. Instead, you focus on the differences between individuals. You instinctively observe each person’s style, each person’s motivation, how each thinks, and how each builds relationships. You hear the one-of-a-kind stories in each person’s life. Because you are such a keen observer of other people’s strengths, you can draw out the best in each person. This Individualization theme also helps you build productive teams. While some search around for the perfect team “structure” or “process,” you know instinctively that the secret to great teams is casting by individual strengths so that everyone can do a lot of what they do well.


The Strategic theme enables you to sort through the clutter and find the best route. It is not a skill that can be taught. It is a distinct way of thinking, a special perspective on the world at large. This perspective allows you to see patterns where others simply see complexity. Mindful of these patterns, you play out alternative scenarios, always asking, “What if this happened? Okay, well what if this happened?” This recurring question helps you see around the next corner. There you can evaluate accurately the potential obstacles. Guided by where you see each path leading, you start to make selections. You discard the paths that lead nowhere. You discard the paths that lead straight into resistance. You discard the paths that lead into a fog of confusion. You cull and make selections until you arrive at the chosen path—your strategy. Armed with your strategy, you strike forward. This is your Strategic theme at work: “What if?” Select. Strike.


You like to think. You like mental activity. You like exercising the “muscles” of your brain, stretching them in multiple directions. This need for mental activity may be focused; for example, you may be trying to solve a problem or develop an idea or understand another person’s feelings. The exact focus will depend on your other strengths. On the other hand, this mental activity may very well lack focus. The theme of Intellection does not dictate what you are thinking about; it simply describes that you like to think. You are the kind of person who enjoys your time alone because it is your time for musing and reflection. You are introspective. In a sense you are your own best companion, as you pose yourself questions and try out answers on yourself to see how they sound. This introspection may lead you to a slight sense of discontent as you compare what you are actually doing with all the thoughts and ideas that your mind conceives. Or this introspection may tend toward more pragmatic matters such as the events of the day or a conversation that you plan to have later. Wherever it leads you, this mental hum is one of the constants of your life.


You love to learn. The subject matter that interests you most will be determined by your other themes and experiences, but whatever the subject, you will always be drawn to the process of learning. The process, more than the content or the result, is especially exciting for you. You are energized by the steady and deliberate journey from ignorance to competence. The thrill of the first few facts, the early efforts to recite or practice what you have learned, the growing confidence of a skill mastered—this is the process that entices you. Your excitement leads you to engage in adult learning experiences—yoga or piano lessons or graduate classes. It enables you to thrive in dynamic work environments where you are asked to take on short project assignments and are expected to learn a lot about the new subject matter in a short period of time and then move on to the next one. This Learner theme does not necessarily mean that you seek to become the subject matter expert, or that you are striving for the respect that accompanies a professional or academic credential. The outcome of the learning is less significant than the “getting there.”

Pretty good description I think…I like to relate to a small group of people. I like getting deep with a few. I enjoy the work of seeing the individual differences of friends, staff, clients, etc. I’m pretty good at getting a plan of action going right away. I’m not so good at carrying it out because I love to think and learn and so new information is always available and since I like to think about a wide diversity of things, it can be hard to stay focused on any one thing for too long. 

What I like about this particular tool is that it looks at a variety of strengths rather than personality traits.

Anybody have experience with this tool?

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Filed under counseling, counseling science, personality, Psychology, Uncategorized

“Niceness is a decision”?

Cover of "Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists,...

Cover via Amazon

For “light” reading over the break, I decided to read Anna Salter’s book, Predators, Pedophiles, Rapists, and other Sex Offenders (Basic Books, 2003). I’ve known of this book for some time and viewed her DVDs which cover a chunk of the book’s topic. **I don’t recommend you read this book at night or at all if you have any history of sexual abuse.**

The book reviews research on those who commit these kinds of crimes. What I found most helpful is her treatment of the problem of deception, common techniques, and how both the average person AND expert clinicians are easily seduced by the presentation and lies of offenders. She closes out the book with chapters on detecting deception and protecting children from abusers.

But one particular paragraph caught my eye. The context of what you read below is her discussion of the necessity of a double life (appearances of sincerity, likeability, honest, etc.) in order to gain access to children. As she says, “a surly and obnoxious person would have little access…” (p. 38)

“Niceness is a decision,” writer Gavin De Becker wrote in the The Gift of Fear. It is “a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character train.” There are days I want to tattoo this on my forehead. De Becker is right, but who believes him? (ibid)

Do you agree? Niceness is a decision not a character trait?

Niceness is an action, a behavior. Frankly, any of the fruits of the Spirit may be short-term behaviors as well. I can choose to be gentle or patient for a time. But true fruits come from Holy Spirit induced character change. But what bubbles up in us when no one is looking tells a bit more about who we really are.

We ought to be just a bit more suspicious about ourselves and be wary of the tendency to pat ourselves on the back for being nice–especially if we find ourselves doing calculations on the benefits we might receive for our good behavior.


Filed under Abuse, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, deception, personality, Psychology

Psychological mystery recommendation: White Lies

Just finished Anna Salter’s novel, White Lies. The book was published 10 years ago, so you may have already come across this great read. If not, Dr. Salter is a forensic psychologist with expertise in the area of sex offending. I highly recommend the book if you want to see how a psychologist goes about gathering data on a perpetrator so as to recommend treatment or predict future re-offending.

What I found most interesting was her use of sentence analysis (written and spoken) to highlight how we tend to deceive self and others. Lying comes in what we say and don’t say. At one point, the offender (a doctor) states that he started his residency at such-and-such a place but never mentions where he finishes it. She evaluates the sentence and tells the reader that the offender has told more of the truth than he planned. No one would say they started it somewhere unless they didn’t finish it there. Instead, you would say, “I did my residence at…”

Her work reminds me of some training I got from Eric Ostrov as an intern at a juvenile jail facility. Dr. Ostrov told us that people generally want to confess their sins–or at least a more acceptable version of them. They make themselves passive in an event, they confess a sin they wished they committed (e.g., crossing sexual lines with a client who seduced them) rather than the sin they did commit (inviting and manipulating a client into a sexual situation).

Long ago I had aspirations of becoming a forensic psychologist. In fact, I did some training and practice in my pre and post doc and had a job offer lined up. I ended up choosing to come to Biblical Seminary. While I don’t regret that choice, the work of exploring self and other deception still interests me.

Anybody out there read her other two novels: Fault Lines or Shiny Water?

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Filed under Abuse, counseling and the law, counseling science, Good Books, self-deception

Geographical Psyche? Does your location shape you?

Is “Mid-west Nice” an empty stereotype? What about “southern hospitality? Are people in the Northeast more neurotic than those in the West?

The most recently published American Psychologist (v. 65:6) has a couple of articles on the topic of geography and psychology that pique my interest and may give us some clues to the relationship between location and personality.

Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson (U Mich) look at regional variation in character strengths of cities say the following,

“The place where we grew up or currently reside is more than physical space. It defines who we are, how we think about ourselves and others, and the way we live.” (p. 535)

The authors used an Internet-based “self-report of character strengths” measuring 24 different strengths. These strengths are loosely lumped into two general categories, head strengths and heart strengths. By this they mean those that are more individualistic and intellectual vs. those that are more emotional and interpersonal.

Interestingly, the cities with the highest “head” strengths were LA, San Francisco, and Oakland and those with the lowest “head” orientation were Arlington, TX, OK City, and Omaha, NB [NOTE: this is a very large convenience sample, not a representative sample]. Those with the highest “heart” orientation were El Paso, TX, Mesa, AZ, and Miami. Lowest “heart” cities were Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston.

Then the authors correlated head and heart cities with 2008 presidential voting data. Head cities correlated with voting for Obama (.44) while heart cities correlated with votes for McCain (.46). These correlations are not huge but significant.

So, it may be that where you live influences the development of head or heart. Or maybe we tend to migrate to like-minded/hearted people. Also, the media in these cities have ways of influencing what we know and feel. Having lived near Philadelphia and Chicago, I can attest to the influence of the nightly news. Though Chicago is a larger city, the evening news was nowhere the crime/body count I watch in Philadelphia.

The second article explores, “Statewide Differences in Personality” (Peter Rentfrow, author). Rentfrow wants to give evidence that our stereotypes (e.g., “New Yorkers are outspoken, neurotic, and always in a hurry”) have a basis in reality. 3 different studies (1973, 2002, and 2008) reveal “surprisingly consistent geographical patterns for Neuroticism and Openness”

Neuroticism tends to be high in the Northeast and Southeast and low in the Midwest and West….Openness tends to be high in the New England, Middle Atlantic, and Pacific regions and comparatively lower in the Great Plains, Midwest, and Southeastern States.” (p. 549) [Openness, by the way, does not mean “nice” but openness to new ideas, change, etc.]

Rentfrow wonders what might account for these differences. Do people migrate to areas where others also have their same traits? Is it more the result of social influence? Or, is it the result of ecological influences (e.g., environmental or infectious disease load influencing disposition)?

He concludes with considerations of the impact of personality differences in regions. It matters because of consequences to social connectedness, political power, and overall health.

So, what do you think? How much does the region you live (or were raised in) influence your demeanor, personality, etc?


Filed under Psychology

Are you a risk-taker?

Some people thrive on risk. Normal is boring to them. You might find them taking large risks in a start-up business, a poker table, or the X games. I’ve just finished a book that I think captures the mindset of this population. Freddie Wilkinson has written One Mountain Thousand Summits: The Untold Story of Tragedy and True Heroism on K2 (New American Library, 2010). It is the story of Summer 2008 when 11 men died while trying to descend from the summit of the most dangerous peak.While all mountain climbing has risks and all high altitude climbing has even more risk, climbing K2 is out of this world risky. Wikipedia says 1:4 climbers who make it to the top do not survive the return trip. Even if the 1:4 is overstated, can you imagine engaging in an activity that gives you a 10 percent chance of dying?

What do you think drives folks to take this kind of risk? I’ve been to the top of a couple of 6,000 foot mountains and when you get a clear day it is an impressive sight. I suppose standing on top of a 26,000 foot mountain probably is pretty cool too. But, climbing Everest or K2 requires piles of money, weeks of strenuous preparation, hours of impossible climbing on the last day, probable frostbite, and only a few minutes of being at the top before you have to face the riskiest part–getting down before hypoxia sets in and without being killed in an avalanche. Oh, and you just as likely will see someone in your party die from a fall or from cerebral edema and you won’t be able to help them lest you die helping them.

Back to my question. What drives this kind of risk-taking? Fame? Utter confidence in self (narcissism?)? Excitement?

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Filed under Good Books, personality

Changing Your Narrative in Counseling?

If you have gone to counseling, then you probably wanted something to change in you or something connected to your life. If you have counseled someone or been their wise friend, you also wanted something to change. There are a variety of ways to try to calculate or observe change. Is there a reduction of unwanted behavior or an increase of hoped for behavior? Is there a change in affective or perceptual change (i.e., do I feel better or have more hope?)? Is there more insight? More acceptance of what cannot be changed? Greater responsibility taking for what can be changed? Is there greater congruence between faith and practice, head and heart?

While everyone (counselor, counselee, insurance company) wants objective evidence of positive change to prove that counseling was worth the cost and effort, the most powerful and most valuable change gets little attention. What is that change? Script or narrative change. We all live by a storyline. We use that story line to make sense of our world and of ourselves. However realistic we think we are, we never really use all the data to determine our reality. Rather, we use scripts to fill in blanks and supply us with the “truth.” Don’t think this is true? Just examine the common fights of a couple. Most likely you can remove the content of the fight and you will find an enduring pattern of feelings and perceptions about self and other in each spouse.

How did we get these scripts? We have experiences of self in the world? We make interpretations of what we experience. Others communicate interpretations for us. But we are not blank slates, we come to these experiences with a distorted imago dei–a God-given image and agency that is both active and yet distorted due to Sin.

So, how does counseling change a script or life narrative? There are a couple of options. You can begin with behavior change. Changes in behavior may cause someone to re-evaluate view of self and other. For example, a person may move from “I can’t” to “I can” based on the evidence in behavior change. You can begin with insight. What is my dominant life narrative and is that really accurate or is there a better one to live by? You can begin with relationship. This form of intervention is less clear but probably more powerful than the first two. By focusing on the “here and now” you are having an impact on narrative as it plays out in the moment. In opposition to insight which pulls narratives apart, this form of intervention is predominantly an experience that shapes the narrative in a more implicit fashion. In other words, we realize the change sometime after the fact.

What you cannot do is exhort someone into a new script. When we try (and we do sure try: “Don’t be afraid of ____ …It isn’t that bad…”), we fail. Even if the counselee “buys” the new script, they have only listened to you say it. They have not yet written it on their heart. Passive acceptance ought not be mistaken for real change. In fact, sometimes hearing the needed change over and over only makes the person more resistant to it. A change in script must be practiced and owned for it to become real. That is why an addict may well become sober by accepting the limits imposed by others and still yet remain an addict at heart.

Narrative changes usually take time. It is possible for powerful experiences to create instant change in our view of self and other. Certainly conversion experiences are evidence of massive script changes. Many of us have had powerful “a-ha” moments that also change our perception of self and the world. But most of our script changes happen via the drip method–water dripping on rock does indeed make changes when viewed over the long haul. When we look back on our lives, we often note places where we have indeed changed–sometimes for the better, sometimes not.


For more on intervention points in counseling, check out this post I wrote 2 years ago. I tried my hand at illustrating both the script and the intervention points.

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Filed under christian psychology, counseling, counseling skills, Psychology, Uncategorized

Winter personality test

Try on this question to determine your snow related personality:

Do you shovel once at the end of the storm or do you shovel multiple times to reduce the amount of snow you move at a given time?
This only works for those of us who still shovel…

I’m a multiple shovel kind of guy.


Filed under "phil monroe"