Victims of Crime Research Digest, Issue No. 2, 2009

Victimization, Resilience and Meaning-Making: Moving Forward in Strength

By Dr. James K. Hill, Registered Psychologist[1]

Victims of crime often face daunting challenges; their world has been turned upside down and they need to cope as best they can. Some victims are so traumatized they can have personal and mental health problems that further upset their daily existence. Many victims, however, seem to be able to weather the storm without seeking professional help or ever coming to the attention of victim services (Gannon and Mihorean 2005). These people seem to be able to successfully marshal their resources and rebuild their lives. Victim services workers often see victims when they are in great distress; thus there is a tendency to believe all victims are traumatized (“trauma-bias” [Nelson et al. 2002]). In fact, victims of crime are likely to show various levels of resiliency and a wide range of reactions, positive and negative coping, and abilities to move forward.

In the Department of Justice Canada manual entitled, Working with Victims of Crime: A Manual Applying Research to Clinical Practice, Revised Edition (Hill 2008), issues related to the psychological impact of victimization and how to work with victims of crime are discussed. This article focuses on the research about resiliency, positive coping,[2] and strengths that victims of crime may use to move forward and reconnect with their loved-ones, their community, and society at large. The first part of the article focuses on resiliency and victimization, while the second half examines strengths as they might apply to different stages of the victimization/recovery process.

What is resiliency?

Although we often hear the term resilience and practitioners talk about resiliency, there can be some confusion about what people are really talking about. We believe it is a positive characteristic but we can be fuzzy on the specifics. Resiliency is a term often used to describe a person's ability to maintain a balanced state in the face of challenges (Bonanno 2004). This does not mean an absence of problems but rather the ability to remain unaffected and stay healthy despite challenges. Sometimes when practitioners talk about resiliency, they are really talking about recovery, the ability to “bounce back” after being traumatized (Bonanno 2005). Resiliency can also be considered from more of a “quick recovery” perspective; the person is able to process and make sense of the blow to their world, but they quickly mobilize their resources and successfully handle that crisis.

The research shows that resilience is relatively common (Bonanno 2004; Bonanno et al. 2006; Westphal and Bonanno 2007). In victims of crime, we can see that most people do not go on to develop mental health problems (Ozer et al. 2003) or even access services (Gannon and Mihorean 2005). Those working with victims of crime are more likely to meet truly resilient victims as they are preparing to testify in court. These victims may still need some support, but support that is focused on the criminal justice process (informational support)

We can look at resiliency as a continuum, where each victim will have certain strengths and abilities that increase their resiliency. Given this, what are some of the key research findings around resiliency and how can workers encourage growth and resiliency in their clients? Bonanno (2005) indicates that many of the activities we would identify as healthy living (personal resources, a good support network, pragmatism, etc.) promote resilience. The research literature also identifies several factors related to successfully facing challenges.

Hardiness/autonomy/self-confidence (Bonanno 2004; Bondy et al. 2007; Haskett et al. 2006; Williams 2007) refers to having the skills and abilities to create a life that you want. There is an element of being self-sufficient and able to self-direct your life and your choice. Bonanno (2004) argued that hardiness is made up of three related elements: (1) finding meaningful purpose in your life; (2) the belief that one can influence the environment and event (self-efficacy [Bandura 1997]); and (3) the belief that positive and negative life experiences are growth opportunities. In other words, those victims who feel their life has meaning, who feel that they are in control and who are able to see life events as learning opportunities may be more able to face challenges.

We can see some victims of crime positively coping by engaging in activities that help them regain (or gain) a sense of control over their lives. These empowerment activities might include victims of assault taking self-defence classes (Hagemann 1992) or laying charges and going to court (Greenberg and Ruback 1992). We might also see this taking back of control in victims who become activists and victim advocates (Hagemann 1992). They apply their experience at a social level, trying to change society so that it will create fewer victims or treat victims more fairly. This may also make the person feel that they are a part of creating that safe world (or at least a safer one). Becoming active in advocacy or peer support could also give a meaningful purpose to their lives (Bonanno 2004) and possibly increase their hope for the future (see section below).

Positive personal identity refers to having a positive view of one self which can help a person remain centred in the face of challenges. It makes sense that people who have a positive view of themselves (“I'm a good person and people like me”) will be resilient in the face of crisis. Even those who have an unrealistic positive view of themselves (a type of overconfidence called self enhancement) are also more successful at facing challenges than people who have a neutral or negative view of themselves (Bonanno 2004; Bonanno 2005). Associates may not like them and may view them as narcissistic; however, self-enhancers tend to deal with loss more effectively than the general population. In other words, a positive belief in yourself helps you cope.

People who are adaptable (Bonanno 2005) and able to adjust to life's challenges are likely to have improved ability to cope. This may be emotional or behavioural adaptability (Bonanno 2005) or finding the positive elements in negative events (“silver lining” [Tugade and Fredrickson 2007]). Another element with respect to adaptability might be the willingness to adjust course mid-stream and make minor corrections in coping behaviours. This would likely increase the chances of successfully facing problems. For example, a person may feel distress and decide to phone a friend to talk. If there is no answer, the person may need to adapt the plan and go for a walk, call another friend, meditate, call a help-line, or whatever. Those people who are not able to adapt their plan may stop at only one or two options and decrease the odds of successfully coping.

People who have a positive outlook in the form of hope for the future tend to be more resilient (Bondy et al. 2007). Similarly, resilient people tend to see the world as a safe place (Williams 2007). Workers can recognize that many victims struggle with both hope and feeling safe after being victimized. In fact, much effort goes into building hope and motivation when supporting victims of crime. Therefore, the victims who are able to have some hope or who feel safe are much more likely to withstand the crisis of crime victimization.

Some researchers talk about repressive copers as people who tend to avoid negative thoughts, emotions, and memories. Research shows that repressive copers tend to emotionally disengage from challenging situations in that they report that they do not feel stress even when physical measures indicate that they are stressed (Bonanno 2004). These are often the people who say that “it didn't really bother me.” Popular opinion holds that these people are “shut-down” and need to get in touch with their feelings. Although this may be true for some victims, others may be better left to this natural coping strategy. Even experienced clinicians can push too hard and cause distress that might have been avoided. A sensible practice is to examine other areas of the person's life; if everything is moving forward in much the same way as before the crime, then it may not be helpful to challenge their natural style. It is suggested,  however, that it is important to provide information to all clients on what services are available in case they find they do need help in the future.

Those people who are able to experience and manage complex emotions (Coifman et al. 2007; Haskett et al. 2006) are better able to face challenging situations and not feel overwhelmed. In contrast to the repressive copers, these people are able to identify and experience emotions very well, without blocking. Workers may recall certain victims who are excellent at handling their emotions when dealing with the challenge of the victimization and with the justice system. It is interesting to note that research indicates that resiliency is linked to both repressive copers and those who process emotions well. This emphasizes the fact that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work for all victims; you must allow the person to lead you to his or her strengths and usual ways of coping. You can then help them fortify their normal strategies.

Experiencing positive emotions (Bonanno 2005; Tugade and Fredrickson 2007) help people through two avenues: (1) replacing negative emotions and (2) countering the effects of negative emotions (Bonanno 2004). In looking at the beneficial effects of positive emotions, Frederickson (1998) developed the “broaden and build” theory of positive emotions, which basically holds that negative emotions (e.g., anxiety, depression, fear) force people to focus their attention, while positive emotions allow people to be more open to new ideas and new ways of thinking. Therefore, positive emotions improve creativity and problem-solving (Fredrickson 1998). It is also possible, as Bonanno (2005) points out, that others may be more supportive to people who express positive emotions. In looking at victims of terrorism, Fredrickson et al. (2003) noted that positive emotions such as gratitude, interest, and love helped people cope after the 9/11 attack.

People who have social support (Bonanno 2005; Gewirtz and Edleson 2007; Haskett et al. 2006; Sun and Hui 2007; Williams 2007) and high quality relationships also show greater resiliency than those who have fewer social resources. There is much research and theory noting the benefits of social support to crime victims (Greenberg and Beach 2004; Greenberg and Ruback 1992; Leymann and Lindell 1992; Norris et al. 1997) and victims who receive positive social support show better adjustment (Nolen-Hoeksema and Davis 1999; Steel et al. 2004). Support may help victims release troubling feelings or get a “reality check” about thoughts, actions, and feelings (Greenberg and Ruback 1992; Leymann and Lindell 1992; Nolen-Hoeksema and Davis 1999; Norris et al. 1997). Further, it appears that even the belief that you have support can make the victim feel better (Green and Diaz 2007), especially if anger is an issue (Green and Pomeroy 2007).

Both natural supports (e.g., family, friends) and professional supports (e.g., police, lawyer, clergy, medical services, mental health services) can offer help to the victim. Although the decision regarding where to go for support lies with the victim, those who use natural supports are also more likely to seek professional help, especially if they felt positively supported (Norris et al. 1997). Supportive people may provide information, companionship, reality checks, emotional support, and money or a safe place to live (Everly et al. 2000). Support also seems to reduce the victim's anxiety (Green and Pomeroy 2007). Workers will want to pay attention to the victim's natural supports and may even want to educate natural supports about victimization.

Perhaps it is not surprising that people who are socially competent (Bondy et al. 2007; Gewirtz and Edleson 2007; Haskett et al. 2006) also tend to be more resilient. Social competency includes the person's skills in communication, empathy and caring, and the capacity to positively connect to others. This likely improves resiliency by helping the person successfully meet any needs and may increase the size and quality of the person's support network.

Finally, some researchers note that cognitive skills (Bondy et al. 2007; Gewirtz and Edleson 2007; Haskett et al. 2006; Williams 2007) such as intelligence and effective problem solving/planning skills are also related to being successful in facing challenges. This makes sense in that the person will have more internal personal resources from which to draw when dealing with problems. They may also be better able to examine and choose between different options. It is my argument that much negative coping we see clinically is simply the person believing it is the best option they have to deal with the problem. People with greater cognitive skills should be able to generate more options (both positive and negative) and may be more likely to choose those options with fewer negative effects.

Furthermore, victims who have greater cognitive skills may be better able to receive benefits associated with social comparison. Victims may build understanding by comparing themselves to others who have suffered a similar crime. They may he inspired by victims who are doing well (Greenberg and Ruback 1992). They may also compare themselves to victims who are worse off and feel grateful they were not more harmed (Hagemann 1992; Greenberg and Ruback 1992; Thompson 2000). Such social comparison seems to help people gain perspective and may even relate to a focus on the positive aspects of being a survivor (Thompson 2000).

It is reassuring to know many of the elements that relate to resiliency are present in how we understand victims of crime. We now turn to the second half of the paper which focuses on strengths as they might apply to different stages of the victimization process.

Victimization Process and Meaning-Making

To understand positive coping, one must understand the victimization process. Casarez-Levison (1992) developed a simple model of how people move from being a member of the general population to being a victim to becoming a survivor. She indicated that people move from a precrime state (previctimization), to the crime event (victimization), to initial coping and adjustment (transition), and to moving forward (resolution) (Casarez-Levison 1992). The model is simplified even more here by focusing on the psychological strengths the person might apply before and during the crime and those strengths that might be more evident as the person deals with the crime and moves forward.

Strengths That May Apply Before or During the Crime

Previctimzation, each person has strengths and skills that come to bear on how he or she will deal with any stressor, including crime victimization. There can be individual differences in some of the characteristics detailed above regarding resiliency. What level of social support does the person have? Are they nearby and accessible? Has the person successfully dealt with and learned from previous victimization? Since research shows that current victims of crime often have a history of previous victimization (Byrne et al. 1999; Messman and Long 1996; Nishith et al. 2000; Norris et al. 1997), it is likely that the person has learned coping strategies to deal with this stress. What are these skills? Are they effective?

During the crime or in the few hours following it, the psychological strengths of victims can manifest in problem-solving, attentiveness, help-seeking, etc. Oftentimes, the victims will seek out informational support to make a decision on what they should do (Greenberg and Ruback 1992). Further, we are likely to see victims activate their support systems during this period, possibly to receive support, or get information, or make decisions, or get money or shelter (Hill 2004). Early coping strategies may also be seen during this period.

Peterson and Seligman (2004) identified character strengths and virtues that are common across various cultures and settings. It can be helpful for people working with victims to review the list and identify the strengths they see in their clients. Their list includes six strengths that are made up of a total of 24 virtues; some may seem more immediately applicable to victims.

  1. Wisdom and knowledge: creativity, curiosity, open mindedness, love or learning and perspective;
  2. Courage: bravery, persistence, integrity, and vitality;
  3. Humanity: love, kindness, and social intelligence;
  4. Justice: citizenship, fairness, and leadership;
  5. Temperance: forgiveness/mercy, humility/modesty, prudence, and self-control; and
  6. Transcendence: appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope, humour, and spirituality.

Certainly being faced with a crisis of crime victimization and successfully coping with the criminal justice system or facing the accused in court requires many of the strengths above. In fact, one might say that some victim services workers spend much of their time building and bolstering many of these strengths in the person. From a clinical perspective, it is easier to develop the strengths the person already has, rather than trying to add new ones during a stressful period.

After the Crime and Moving Forward

Once the initial reactions have passed we may start to see meaning-making activities, which can be very important to moving forward from loss or trauma (Cadell et al. 2003; Davis et al. 1998; Layne et al. 2001). Meaning-making is important to general crime victims (Gorman 2001), rape victims (Thompson 2000), and in dealing with any type of trauma (Nolen-Hoeksema and Davis 1999). In fact, it is often included as a major element in treatment interventions (Foy et al. 2001).

Meaning-making may begin with making sense of their victimization. Some people will do this by seeking out information (Hagemann 1992). This might help them understand common reactions, treatment options, the justice system, their rights, and so forth (Greenberg and Ruback 1992; Prochaska et al. 1992). Others might prefer to cope emotionally, facing their emotions head on to help move beyond negative feelings. Recent research suggests that emotion focused coping may help to reduce stress and improve the victim's self assessment, especially among some women (Green and Diaz 2007; Green and Pomeroy 2007). It is important for the victim to lead the worker on what type of coping is most effective.

Resolution is similar to previctimization in that the person is not focused on being a victim of crime; he or she is simply living life. Resolution does not mean returning to “the past,” as though the crime did not occur. Rather, the person integrates the crime and their reactions, coping into their new identity. Posttraumatic growth (PTG) refers to when a personisaffected by the trauma and learns new coping strategies or gains a new perspective by facing the problem. Victims may focus on how they have grown from the experience (Hagemann 1992; Thompson 2000). In fact, people will often see themselves as much weaker before the event, even if that is not true (McFarland and Alvaro 2000); this may be in an effort to see benefit in an obviously difficult situation (Davis et al. 1998).

PTG does not mean that dealing with trauma is a positive experience in these people's lives. Even those people who report high levels of PTG also indicate many problems and difficulties related to the trauma (Calhoun and Tedeschi 2006). In other words, most people would rather have avoided the trauma altogether but are able to recognize how they have grown. Calhoun and Tedeschi (2006) looked at PTG statistically and found that people tended to describe their growth in ways that fell under three overall categories:

  1. Change in how the person sees herself
    • Personal strength: I can survive anything
    • New possibilities: I want to explore new interests/activities
  2. Change in how she relates to others: connection and compassion
  3. Change in life philosophy
    • Appreciation of life (enjoy the little things)
    • Spiritual change

Workers may better understand crime victims and provide guidance for how they might move forward by watching for, and supporting, growth themes. These avenues of growth and resolution should be fostered to help the person leave victimhood behind. Being a victim of crime will always be part of what has happened to them, but hopefully it will not define who they are.

Conclusion: Moving Forward

People face the challenge of criminal victimization by applying any and all of their coping strategies, both positive and negative. These strategies can help them move forward or hold them back. It can be helpful for those who work with victims to be reminded that positive coping and resiliency are a major factor in a victim's ability to make meaning out of what happened and move forward. This core of strength can be identified and developed in even the most distressed victim of crime. By fostering that strength and facilitating the growth of positive coping, victims can more quickly make sense of what has happened to them. We know that resiliency is common. We know that many victims do not seek out victim services for help. It is hoped that this article has served as a reminder that the trauma and pain of crime victimization is something people can, and do, face with strength and dignity. People who have been victimized should be reminded of this as well.