What Is Institutional Betrayal And How Can It Affect You?

What Is Institutional Betrayal And How Can It Affect You?

Institutional betrayal is a concept that has gained significant attention in recent years, shedding light on the profound effects it can have on individuals and communities. The term refers to a breach of trust or harm inflicted by an organisation or institution upon individuals who depend on it. Institutional betrayal could occur within workplaces, families, schools, religious institutions, governments and the military, or any organisational system. Jennifer J. Freyd, a prominent researcher in this field, defined it as "a wrong perpetrated by an institution upon an individual dependent on that institution” (Freyd, n.d.). This betrayal can take several forms, including negligence, punishing victims and whistleblowers, cover-ups, failures to respond adequately and normalising abusive situations within the organisation (Smith & Freyd, 2014).

The various forms of institutional betrayal

1. Negligence

Negligence or failure to prevent abuse is one of the most common forms of institutional betrayal. It transpires when institutions fail to take the proper safeguards or respond adequately to stop harm from happening to individuals in their care. For instance, an educational institution's failure to address bullying or harassment can be considered a form of negligence that can deeply affect students' well-being.

2. Punishing victims and whistleblowers

Punishing victims and whistleblowers refers to situations where institutions take action against individuals who come forward to report wrongdoing or abuse. These punishments can range from victim-blaming behaviour to firing and retaliating or pressing charges against employees who speak out about unethical practices. Punishment is carried out to discourage others from reporting, thus perpetuating a culture of silence and fear within the institution.

3. Cover-ups

Institutional betrayal often involves efforts to cover up wrongdoing or protect the institution's reputation at the expense of the victim. This can involve suppressing evidence, silencing victims, or failing to report incidents to authorities. Although the abuse might be public knowledge within the institution, bystanders might choose to stay silent in fear of becoming the next target (Smith & Freyd, 2014, p. 9). Such cover-ups can worsen the harm suffered by victims and diminish trust in the institution.

4. Failure to respond adequately

When an organisation doesn't act promptly in response to allegations of wrongdoing or abuse, it can make individuals who are affected feel betrayed. Inadequate responses could involve ignoring complaints, skipping investigations, or giving victims minimal assistance. This can also include deliberately creating difficult reporting procedures where victims are unclear or unaware of the reporting policies. In some cases, policies that require victims to report to supervisors may even mean reporting to the perpetrator themself.

5. Normalising abusive context

Normalising abusive contexts involves institutions downplaying or ignoring abusive behaviour or practices, making them seem acceptable or routine. This can create a toxic environment where harmful actions are considered ordinary, preventing necessary change or accountability. For example, a workplace that minimises bullying as typical behaviour rather than addressing it contributes to a harmful culture of abuse.

The Impact of Institutional Betrayal

The consequences of institutional betrayal can be profound and long-lasting, affecting individuals on multiple levels. Some of the key effects include:

1. Emotional distress

Victims of institutional betrayal often experience intense emotions, including anger, sadness, anxiety, and shame. The betrayal can shatter their sense of safety and trust, leading to persistent emotional distress.

2. Mental health issues

Betrayal trauma theory posited by Freyd (1996) suggests that the abuse perpetrated within close relationships inflicts more harm than that of interpersonal relationships with unfamiliar individuals, primarily due to the breach of trust inherent in such necessary relationships. Betrayal trauma is associated with higher rates of various outcomes, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and borderline personality disorder. Institutional betrayal, whether it takes place in a school or workplace, may have long-lasting impacts on a person's psychological health, similar to that of betrayal trauma of interpersonal relationships. This highlights the significance of receiving support through outlets like adult counselling in Singapore, to help them address and manage the emotional challenges and psychological effects associated with institutional betrayal

3. Diminished trust

Institutional betrayal erodes trust not only in the specific institution responsible for the harm but also in other institutions and authority figures. This erosion of trust can have far-reaching societal implications.

For example, diminished trust in institutions and authority figures can lead to reduced civic engagement, resulting in lower political participation, and weakened community involvement. Additionally, it can erode social cohesion, fostering social division, and a breakdown in the sense of community as people become more suspicious and less cooperative.

4. Impaired social functioning

Individuals who have experienced institutional betrayal may struggle with their social relationships and have difficulty forming new bonds. The sense of betrayal can make it challenging to trust others, even in unrelated contexts.

Coping with Institutional Betrayal

Dealing with the complexities of institutional betrayal can be incredibly challenging and emotionally taxing. Here are some strategies individuals may find helpful to navigate this difficult journey:

1. Seek Support

Talking to friends, family members, mental health professionals, or seeking psychotherapy in Singapore can be instrumental in processing the emotions and trauma associated with institutional betrayal. Building a support network can help individuals feel less isolated and more understood.

2. Advocate for change

Many survivors of institutional betrayal become advocates for change within the institution responsible. By speaking out and pushing for reforms, they can not only seek justice but also work towards preventing future instances of betrayal.

3. Self-care

Engaging in self-care practices, such as exercise, creative outlets, and the power of mindfulness, can help individuals manage their emotional distress and regain a sense of control over their lives. For example, exercising helps with releasing endorphins, which are natural mood lifters, to help reduce stress and anxiety.

4. Legal recourse

In some cases, pursuing legal action may be a viable option to hold the institution accountable for its actions. Consulting with legal professionals can help victims explore their legal rights and options.


Institutional betrayal is a deeply troubling phenomenon that can have profound effects on individuals and communities. Recognising its various forms and understanding its impact is essential for addressing and preventing such betrayal in the future. By supporting survivors, advocating for change, and holding institutions accountable, we can work towards a world where institutional betrayal is less likely to occur, and individuals can trust the institutions that are meant to protect and serve them.


Freyd, J. J. (1996). Betrayal trauma: The logic of forgetting childhood abuse. Harvard University Press. Freyd. (n.d.). Institutional Betrayal and Institutional Courage. https://dynamic.uoregon.edu/jjf/institutionalbetrayal/ Smith, C. P., & Freyd, J. J. (2014). Institutional betrayal. The American Psychologist, 69(6), 575-587.