Surviving the Wound of Betrayal


I think that every person has experienced betrayal in some form. For some people it can be very devastating. Although the reactions we have to betrayal are complicated, when we deconstruct them we find that they reflect many feelings and aspects of ourselves that we are usually not aware of.

Fortunately when we become more aware of how our own, often unconscious feelings about ourselves are feeding into our reactions, our reactions can change. It is then possible to make clearer decisions about how to take care of ourselves in what can be a traumatic emotional event.


In childhood, as our sense of self develops we need positive reflection and recognition of our thoughts and feelings to form and sustain a solid and continuous experience of ourselves in relation to others. When we are related to adequately the outcome is a positive self-image. We have the general feeling of being capable, lovable, and acceptable. We can enjoy being with others in an alive and spontaneous way, without feeling burdened by feeling compelled to please others to gain their approval.

When our growing self does not get recognized by having our relational needs responded to enough of the time, we learn to put away those needs. We are then left with the absence of the responses we needed and a feeling of being abandoned by others.

Most infants and children protest strenuously when their needs are not being responded to, and if this situation is chronic they have to adapt by abandoning their own needs and their protestations. As a child adapts, his or her negative feelings, i.e., protests, feelings of helplessness and hurt, are put out of consciousness. Each child in a situation like this, develops new ways of relating to him or herself and to others to compensate for the lack of responsiveness and to defend against further hurt.


There are many different coping strategies that a child develops when he/she is not responded to. One common way is to abandon our spontaneity and to dislike those parts of our own selves that do not seem to be acceptable. We conclude that parts of ourselves are not acceptable because no one is relating to them. In this way our more alive, spontaneous and expressive selves get put away into our unconscious minds. We adapt to unresponsive emotional circumstances by abandoning ourselves. Unfortunately, when we abandon ourselves it causes a great amount of pain and we are left with a fundamental sense of betrayal.


We survive by developing defenses that involve new ways of relating. These defenses protect us from feeling the pain of not having our needs met and having had to split off parts of ourselves. One way to protect ourselves is to try to become perfect in order to gain approval. In our attempts to attain approval we form high expectations for ourselves and we become very exacting of both ourselves and others.

Another way we defend ourselves is to create rules that keep us safe. These rules determine the parts of ourselves (our thoughts, feelings and behaviors) that are allowed to exist and those that are not. As the rule keeper starts to predominate in our daily experience, we become highly self-conscious because we are constantly evaluating ourselves to see if we are following the rules exactly. We turn into judges and task masters, keeping not only ourselves on the "right track" but often being very judgmental of others, thinking that everyone should comply with similar rules.


When someone else behaves in ways that do not comply with our rules we become outraged. We are outraged because the other person is allowing themselves to have feelings and obtain things that we are not allowed to have. We often narrate to ourselves the story of what they have done and how wrong they are over and over again, reinforcing the rules that we protect ourselves with, but at the same time reopening the painful wound of our own abandoned self. Because these narrations hurt us, they generate more and more anger.


Our attractions to others are generated in large part by our unconscious minds. We often find ourselves with partners who we later discover, sometimes painfully, to be quite different from how we see ourselves. Uncannily, it turns out that these same characteristics are very similar to aspects of ourselves that we have abandoned. We are often unconsciously attracted to those aspects of our partners that we do not allow to exist in ourselves. The relationship keeps us connected to those parts of ourselves, although vicariously.


When we feel betrayed by a person who is serving an unconscious purpose, we feel a traumatic sense of loss. Our loss is compounded because as we experience the potential loss of our relationship, we are simultaneously being re-exposed to the original loss of ourselves. We re-experience the wounding that forced us to put ourselves away in the first place. Our original sense of betrayal is re- experienced.


At this point, we often focus on our outrage; how this person is breaking all the "rules". We are deeply threatened because these are the rules that have held us together. When our rules are challenged directly we are exposed to layers and layers of feelings of abandonment that have accumulated inside us. This is an experience that can shake us at our foundation. For some people one experience of this kind can keep them from forming intimacy for the rest of their lives. Closing down, shutting out, and holding onto the rules with even more intensity is a typical outcome of feeling deeply betrayed.


Trying to put the current wounding of a betrayal within a psychological context helps us to understand the depth of our feelings. We can gain connection to our unconscious or disowned self though allowing ourselves to experience the feelings of the current loss. No matter how painful this may feel, we are simultaneously connecting to our disowned feelings. In this way we can resurrect those aspects of ourselves that we have had to put away.

We abandoned ourselves because the survival of our psychological self was being threatened. We were not getting enough of what we needed from our environment to grow. We put parts of ourselves away to survive. We developed defenses to protect ourselves. Later we unconsciously picked our relationships to help us stay connected with our deeper selves. When our relationships are threatened it feels as if our survival is threatened again.


We can learn to distinguish the past from the present. As we connect to our disowned feelings, we reconnect to ourselves in a new way. We realize that we have survived the original threat. We have survived before and we will again.

During the original wound we were not able to think about what was happening; our only defense was to stop feeling the pain by unconsciously putting it out of our minds. We are now capable of experiencing the feelings and staying conscious by thinking about what is happening to us.

We do not have to stop feeling when we think about what we are feeling. By thinking we can understand our current experience. We can use our minds to guide us though the difficult experience of betrayal. We can change our experience from a traumatic replay of our history, to a re-awakening of a lost part of ourselves.

Copyright 2015 TruceWorks