The Agony of Disbelief: When Truth-Tellers are Silenced and Discredited

“In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure no one listens.” Judith Lewis HermanTrauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence — From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror

Lauren is exuberant over finally feeling palpable release from her abuser of ten years, a man she believed she would spend her life with. Nevertheless after a prolonged period of no contact and a meaningful trajectory of trauma informed treatment, permutations of anguish linger. The source of her distress is no longer about him, but about those who have bought into the narrative that her version of reality was distorted, extremist and untrue. She is plagued by having her victimization written off as a figment of her misguided imagination. Even worse, she is mortified that others view her instability as the basis for her assumed delusional interpretation of events, while the man who induced symptoms of trauma and dissociation is given a free pass.

This is a plight I frequently witness in those who seek me out for therapy in the aftermath of narcissistic abuse.

Undoubtedly, contentious truths that oppose one’s version of reality are psychologically debilitating. The reality is, we are compelled to discredit or deny difficult truths. When information provokes strong negative emotions (fear, anger, or anxiety) the inclination to protect one’s emotional well-being by denying or ignoring that information reflexively kicks in.

To shield one’s psyche against harsh reality, we limit the intrusion of new information or simply cancel out thoughts that counter pre-existing beliefs, in order to return to a state of internal equilibrium. By denying that which causes distress and simply choosing attitudes or beliefs that assuage anxiety a modicum of stability is guaranteed.

In short, cognitive dissonance and confirmation biases obfuscate truths which cause discomfort and contradict our worldview. Hence, significant truths are rejected and selective information is relied upon to support one’s desired conclusions.

Or as philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche plainly conveyed, “sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.”

Unfortunately this proclivity demoralizes and even traumatizes those who are silenced and discredited.

To be expected stigmatizing and marginalizing those bearing unwanted truths, generates profound suffering and has far-reaching consequences. Cassandra Syndrome, a state of madness caused by having one’s truth chalked up as lies, epitomizes what happens to those who are subject to the pain of invalidation.

The one condemned is branded a liar, a lunatic and a social deviant. Not only is their credibility denied and their integrity questioned, they are beset by shame and difficulties with trusting their own reality. Yet even though the inclination to silence and invalidate those who harbor unbearable truths causes extensive harm, this propensity is largely viewed as just desserts.

Research professor and founding editor of the Psychology of Violence journal, Sherry Hamby, PhD explains,“It’s this idea that people deserve what happens to them. There’s just a really strong need to believe that we all deserve our outcomes and consequences.”

On a global scale we see this penchant played out in the court of public opinion, where those who dare to scrutinize the validity of collective sentiments or authoritative beliefs incur righteous censure and even disciplinary measures.

In other instances notable whistleblowers like Karen SilkwoodMartin Luther King, Frank SerpicoDaniel HaleEdward Snowden, and Julian Assange endured debilitating consequences for exposing insidious truths and standing up to concealed wrongdoing. These examples typify how the suppression of truth, as well as the manipulation of truth can render insidious tactical and strategic methods.

For example, what is euphemistically known as a limited hangout,’ is a technique employed by sundry perception management systems to convey cherry-picked truths while omitting relevant details. Designed to mitigate and obscure scandalous information, this tactic involves selectively broadcasting revelatory information that effectively curtails further investigation. By diverting attention onto chosen facts more incriminating details remain hidden. What might look like ethical disclosure and ‘coming clean’ may simply be a strategy designed to manipulate and redirect focus.

Along these lines, when one attempts to counter not just disbelief, but incriminating lies a backlash referred to as the illusory truth effect may occur. This means that irrespective of evidence and facts, repetitive exposure to false information will eventually register as truth. Reiteration and familiarity catalyze validation. Meanwhile, facts become obsolete as the cognitive strain of analyzing complex issues is subordinated to the ease of blind acceptance.

All things considered, in this age of post-truth ‘in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’, it is particularly challenging to distinguish lies from truth. This is an odious scenario for those voicing controvertible information.

Clearly, being viewed as a duplicitous troublemaker has significant psychological repercussions. Daring to risk telling truths that incur persecution results in friends and family dropping away and having one’s credibility and reputation put under a microscope. Whether it’s victim blaming or discrediting innocent people who are wrongfully accused, vigilantism and other brutal forms of retaliation induce moral injury.

Naturally sustaining conditions of severe retaliation leads to more egregious mental health problems than being subject to accusatory skepticism. As a complex trauma therapist and former rape counselor I’ve witnessed how this sort of condemnation, especially when played out in the arena of sexual assault, is exceptionally damaging.

When folks grapple with symptoms of sexual trauma, but there is no legal justification, no overt bruises, as the violation occurred within an ostensibly loving relationship, incredulity is a common response. Moreover even worse, if the trauma occurred in the context of a one night stand or a date gone wrong in the confines of a vehicle or a residence, victims encounter shameful recrimination. In actuality, even when there is forensic evidence victim’s allegations hold little weight. As a result, one’s trauma goes unacknowledged.

The notion that women love abuse at the hands of a dominant, virile man is so entrenched in our culture that masochism and passivity are viewed as inherent characteristics of the feminine ideal. This legitimizes the eroticization of cruelty and contributes to why victims are not seen as credible.

It’s no wonder that despite the high prevalence of sexual assault, it remains one of the most underreported crimes to law enforcement.

Paradoxically, while it’s indisputable that men commit far more violent acts than women (U.S. stats indicate they account for some 90% of known murders) violence is best understood as a human problem whose gender dynamics are very complex and are often polarized to the exclusion of balanced assessment (women good, men bad). A more accurate understanding is that women express aggression indirectly in ways not necessarily recognized by criminal codes and when women are physically violent it is often trivialized and concealed.

All this is to say that it isn’t only men who are offenders and it isn’t only women who are traumatized by disbelief. The aptitude for violence and abusive behavior in women is a stark reality, although it receives little recognition from the social sciences and when it does it is viewed as exceptional behavior.

Consequently, men are often discredited and erroneously vilified as predators. By the same token, their vulnerability and traumas incurred from malignant mothers, spouses or female employers are collectively scoffed at due to cultural prescriptions which afford female abusers the latitude to manipulate and harm in ways that conceal their malevolence and vindictiveness.

In all fairness, when the perpetration of intimate partner violence is carried out by a female, we typically trivialize and ridicule men who claim victimization, even in cases when medical attention is warranted. In fact, I’ve provided treatment to many men who were hit by their female partners and even threatened with false allegations of rape if they didn’t comply with untenable demands.

Another vast arena in which legitimate concerns are dismissed and mistrusted is healthcare. Case in point is my client who recently suffered medical abuse when her requests for palliative care in a hospital was met with insinuations of drug addiction. In fact she was in excruciating pain from acute cholecystitis. Perhaps the color of her skin and her dreadlocks factored into the nurse’s assessment. Also likely is that due to America’s opioid epidemic, algorithms and national drug databases are being used to identify a patient’s risk of misusing opioids. That my client’s recent bout with lung cancer necessitated the use of prescribed controlled substances was not factored into the equation.

This Kafkaesque ordeal physically and mentally traumatized her.

Ironically the very people who enabled the fraudulent prescribing of oxycontin as non-addictive, are now withholding necessary pain treatment from those who need it most.

Although the ramifications of not being believed varies in intensity and duration depending on the individual, their resilience, and the specific circumstances, in the grand scheme of things not being believed heightens anxiety and depression, erodes self-worth, and foments pervasive distrust and anger that can culminate in social withdrawal.

Nevertheless, regarding others with suspicion is a ubiquitous and necessary part of life. It’s important to critically analyze people and circumstances so that falsehoods can be discerned and differentiated from truth. Unfortunately, when we impulsively discount, dismiss and chide those whose truths oppose the status quo and ignite discomfort, we cause great harm.

Unfortunately, we are witnessing how shaping public opinion by subordinating logic and factual information to emotional reactivity is a recipe for disaster. We have become increasingly myopic, meaning narrowly focused on our own small scope of reality, even when that scope lacks the facts and particulars that could provide comprehensive understanding. As a result, there are serious casualties and collateral damage.

This collective intractability has led to deficits in opening up to meaningful dialogue and ways of thinking and being that allows for respectful interaction. Instead, resentments, hatred, violence, stereotyping, polarization and group division has taken root. Diplomatic inquiry has become an antiquated notion. We have forgotten how to learn from one another, how to listen and how to ask each other questions.

Lastly, although discerning the truth is undoubtedly a complex task, one thing is certain. We need to resist being blindly led by subjective feelings and popular opinions. Thinking critically, weighing evidence and seeking a burden of proof allows for judgments that are coherent and logical. Enhancing our interactions means suspending assumptions, so as to offset marginalization and foster a more inclusive curious mindset. Perhaps these small but meaningful gestures can ameliorate the plight of scorned truth tellers, so that those expressing opposing thoughts will be proffered their right to be heard.


Thank you, Sheri! Another great article!


Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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