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Victim rediscovers identity and sense of meaning through contact with fellow victims

Victims and survivors of a traumatic experience can once again find a sense of meaning in life by sharing their experiences with others. In the research project entitled “The journey of sensemaking and identity construction in the aftermath of trauma: Peer support as a vehicle for coconstruction” NSCR/Victim Support Netherlands PhD student Pien van de Ven explores this issue further.
By Pien van de Ven MSc | 11 September 2020 | Victimology

Victims and survivors of a traumatic event often experience a loss of identity as a result of this. Part of their identity is rediscovered through interaction with fellow sufferers, state participants in peer groups. A weight also falls off their shoulders when they share experiences with others. They notice that somebody who has not experienced the same thing often cannot (fully) comprehend the difficulties faced by victims or survivors. This can lead to a lack of understanding in the immediate environment. The study reveals that the contact with peers provides a platform which serves as a safe environment in which victims can jointly formulate answers to questions about identity and finding meaning in life.

Gaining self-awareness and helping others

During the meetings with peers, processes of affirmation and normalisation contribute to finding meaning after a traumatic experience and to the construction of a posttrauma identity. By listening to and talking with people who have similar experiences, people can acquire self-awareness and help others. From this so-called coconstruction a renewed identity arises as a result of which people can go on with their lives. Furthermore, participation in the peer group provides a feeling of connectedness, which participants felt they had lost after the traumatic experience. The contact eases the quest for recognition and acknowledgement as a result of which the damaged connection with the social environment can be restored.

Traumatic experience part of posttrauma identity

Victims and survivors of traumatic experiences go through different phases when they participate in a peer group. This is not a linear but a fluid process in which participants move between the different phases. By sharing joint experiences, questions and emotions, the experience becomes manageable, and participants can integrate this into their life story as part of their posttrauma identity. This process leads to a restored self-image and can be seen as posttraumatic growth. For professional practice, this mainly means that in facilitating peer contact for victims and survivors, not only the effects of the contact must be examined, but also the experience as a whole in which making sense of things must take centre stage.

Observational study of peer groups

The research arose from a lack of knowledge about the processes that take place during peer contact and the role this plays in recovery. From anecdotal evidence, it could be indirectly concluded that victims and survivors feel they are recognised and acknowledged among peers, but there is insufficient empirical evidence for this. Through the observational study of peer groups, Van de Ven describes the processes of making sense and identity construction. She observed groups of victims of sexual abuse, parents of sexually abused children, parents who had lost a child due to a traffic accident, parents who had lost a child due to suicide and survivors who had lost a partner due to suicide.

Publication details and further reading

Van de Ven, P. (2020). The journey of sensemaking and identity construction in the aftermath of trauma: Peer support as a vehicle for coconstructionJournal of Community Psychology.

Pien van de Ven MSc

PhD Candidate

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