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What science has to say about healthy accountability and survivor support

August 21, 2014
TNS1This post is one Support NY member’s attempt at gleaning useful insight from medical studies.  My under 500-word message for readers with short attention spans is that survivor support and community accountability are two sides of the same coin, both necessary to sustain social movements.  For support and accountability to thrive, on micro and macro levels, it is in everyone’s best interest to cultivate personal and social optimism, realistic goal-setting and competent communication skills.  This is a process that has a promising history in radical communities, all of us play a role in evolving, and it affects our minds, bodies and social interactions just as inter-personal abuse affects all three of these realms.  What this means:
-> For those seeking support in the aftermath of oppression, abuse or assault:Know that you are already in a process of resilience and personal growth through what’s called transformational coping.  You can cultivate this by engaging with people who support you and facing conflictual or negative experiences head-on trusting in your ability to overcome with ease with the choices you make.  While certain factors were outside of your control, know that these are statistically unlikely to repeat, and limited in their scope or effects.
-> For those of us who have caused harm or perpetuated cycles of abuse directly with our behavior:To transform yourself, engage with people who can support (not enable) you, make realistic plans for how you are going to repair the harm as much as possible and prevent similar behaviors, then (this is the important part) follow-though with these plans by developing whatever skills are necessary.  Know that you can bring about a positive outcome by exercising choice in how you respond to being called out.
-> For social movements or those peripherally affected:Cultivating resilience as a community or movement strengthens and sustains movements in the long-term.  Do this by actively engaging with conflict and harm, trusting that a positive outcome is possible and creating a culture that engages social networks and ties with a keen analysis of oppression and power dynamics.
I am a science nerd, so I wouldn’t make such sweeping statements if they were not based on empirical and measurable evidence subject to principles of reasoning. Sure, each situation is unique, but I believe there are a few important lessons scientific studies teach about how to be supportive and accountable because there are patterns to the way our brains operate.  Read on if you want to follow my line of reasoning.

Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist and I am not using psychological terms or studies to pathologize the common everyday experiences of trauma, abuse and assault.  This is more about applying scientific evidence to these experiences regardless of how interested you are in science.

There is one basic psychological concept in post-trauma psychology that will lay the foundation and that is the ideal of resilience.  Individuals (and movements) demonstrate resilience when they rise above difficulties with strength and grace.  In science, resilience is not a rare ability; it is more of a process engaged in by the average individual and it can be learned and developed.

Before we go into the things individuals can do to promote resilience, it is notable that the primary factor in resilience is having positive relationships with mutual, reciprocal support and caring. This is the single most critical means of handling both ordinary and extraordinary levels of stress, which underscores the importance of the community response to inter-personal violence both in survivor support and perpetuator accountability.Aside from social ties, studies show there are 4 main factors which develop and sustain a person`s resilience:[1]  Since these are tasks that every person within a community regardless of their survivor and/or perpetuator status can assist with by developing, let’s expand on them.   

     1.    The ability to make realistic plans and being capable of taking the steps necessary to follow through with them 

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably familiar with the process of setting goals and following through with them in your social justice work so we won’t cover the basics.  One factor in applying goal-setting to the aftermath of trauma or abuse is that the goals of the survivor and the perpetuator are almost always different.  It is for this reason that the accountability process and the goals of such can or even should be handled separately (at a different, time, space, and probably even involve different members of the community) than the survivor support goals.  In terms of follow-through, know that tasks or goals to address inter-personal abuse often take months or years to complete.  Many social justice movements recognize that the struggle is long-term and a certain amount of persistence or longevity is important.  Transformative justice is no different, and creating alternative justice structures is worth it.

    2.    A positive self-concept and confidence in one’s strengths and abilities

‘Positive’ here relates to dispositional optimism, or envisioning the best possible outcome from a given situation.  Optimism lends itself to stress-hardiness, and transformational coping [2] where people turn stressful experiences into healthy opportunities for growth, greater understanding and health.[3][4]  Even the Mayo clinic recommends optimism as an antidote to post-traumatic stress, and emphasize that optimism is can be cultivated by surrounding yourself with positive people, identifying areas of change, practice positive self-talk, being open to humor, checking yourself and following a healthy lifestyle.

“Optimists emerge from difficult circumstances with less distress than do pessimists.” due to …“facing problems head-on, taking active and constructive steps to solve their problems; pessimists are more likely to abandon their effort to attain their goals.”[29]  Similarly, beliefs about our capabilities to execute the courses of actions required to manage prospective situations highly influence the situations we seek out and the goals we set [5].  All of that is to say that if we have confidence in our personal and collective abilities to change for the better, the bigger our goals can and will be.  On the social level, this means we need to give each other the benefit of the doubt (until there is no longer reason to doubt) and believe in our abilities to transform the circumstances that enabled the abuse and prevent a future occurrence.

    3.    Communication and problem-solving skills

If you are reading this blog, you are also probably aware of and see the benefit of healthier communication styles and conflict resolution strategies.  In applying these to the aftermath or trauma, what is called non-violent communication (NVC) can provide some useful suggestions for both preventing and addressing issues within relationships (either directly or through intermediaries in an accountability process).

    4.    The ability to manage strong impulses and feelings

Impulses are often controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, or what is commonly called by the fight or flight response.  Post-traumatic stress is when the sympathetic nervous system continues to be activated even once the threat is no longer immediate.  This is a healthy response in situations of re-occurring trauma such as relationship violence or abuse until one can achieve safety outside of the warzone or relationship.  Current models expand this to include freeze and appease and two additional impulses.  Each person typically has one default mode, or an impulse that has proven helpful to them in the past that they tend towards for that reason.  This is largely unconscious, but our conscious minds can be engaged to override this in most if not all situations.  Even though your default mechanism has prove useful in the past, that doesn’t mean it is going to be the best option for every future situation.  Learning somatic techniques can aid in making choices in activating situations.  Resilient individuals may even be able to restrict sympathetic activation to only particularly dangerous or stressful situations [6].  It is not that resilient people don’t experience negative emotions, but that they effectively balance negative emotions with positive ones, such as ones discussed alongside optimism.

To be clear, the goal is not to suppress or override strong impulses and feelings that are both normal and healthy.  Both personally and for social movement, fighting back might be the best option in some cases.  Frantz Fanon recognized the role fighting back or transformational coping plays in revolutionary movements and struggles for justice. He says that militancy is not just tactically necessary — its dual objective is to transform people and “fundamentally alter” their being by emboldening them, removing their passivity and ridding them of “the core of despair.”[7]


[1] Meredith, L., Sherbourne, C., Gaillot, S., Hansell, L., Ritschard, H., Parker, A., Wrenn, G. 2011 Promoting Psychological Resilience in the U.S. Military. RAND Corporation. Santa Monica, CA.
[2] Maddi, S. R. (1999). “The personality construct of hardiness: I. Effects on experiencing, coping, and strain”. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research 51 (2): 83–94.
[3] Florian, V., Mikulincer, M., & Taubman, O. (1995). “Does hardiness contribute to mental-health during a stressful real-life situation: The roles of appraisal and coping”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 68 (4): 687–695.
[4] Soderstrom, M., Dolbier, C., Leiferman, J., & Steinhardt, M. (2000). “The relationship of hardiness, coping strategies, and perceived stress to symptoms of illness”. Journal of Behavioral Medicine 23 (3): 311–328.
[5] Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Human Behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman [Ed.], Encyclopedia of Mental Health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998).
[6] Morgan, C. A., 3rd, Wang, S., Southwick, S. M., et al. 2000. Plasma neuropeptide-Y concentrations in humans exposed to military survival training. Biological Psychiatry, 47, 902–909.
[7] Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched Of The Earth. New York : Grove Press, 1963.
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