Coping with Betrayal
By Dr. Robert Leichtman
A betrayal causes a deep wound to our sense of who we are. Once it occurs, we are never the same. Betrayal can permanently alter our values and outlook in ways that compel us to be more cautious about what we believe and accept in our life.
Betrayal can occur in two significant ways. Most common is when we are exploited by others or by organizations. People take advantage of us by intimidating or misleading us with false promises. Other times we betray ourselves by being enticed or commanded to act in ways that eventually violate our values and integrity.
For example, we might feel betrayed by the government, religion, employer, or mentor who falsely assures us that they serve noble causes or provide remarkable benefits. Or agents of these organizations may compel us to act in ways that violate our ethical standards.
The damage from betrayal can range from minor to devasting, but the principle involved in all types is an assault on our dignity and personal values. Thus, we realize that important events and benefits we planned to experience will never happen. We also may have had expectations to avoid significant trouble and distress that eventually occurred anyway. Other times it is the loss of companionship and additional support we expected.
The most hurtful part of the betrayal is often the wound to our dignity and self-respect. Because our expectations were high, the broken promises may cause painful injuries to our confidence and plans. The core of our humanity is affected, and we are now uncertain of our self-worth and ability to trust our judgment. The result can be a combination of bewilderment, distrust, anger, and despair.
Our reaction to betrayal can be a greater problem than the betrayal.
Some people are stalwarts, and they can manage crises with a firm resolve and a pragmatic outlook. They deal with disappointment and disloyalty with dispassion. They focus on surviving and controlling the temptation to nurse their grievances and engage in endless self-pity. These people have a solid capacity to be self-determined and self-reliant.
The rest of us can be lost in the substantial changes that are forced on us. Our sense of who we are and our belief in ourselves may have been severely strained. Perhaps some of our significant expectations have now been permanently crushed. Or maybe we feel an essential part of our future has been murdered.
The equivalent of a psychological earthquake has occurred in our life, and it may have left us without a stable core purpose and meaning to our life. We may feel so confused and hesitant that it now becomes difficult to decide whom to believe, what to trust, and why anything is worthwhile. A period of indecision and nihilism can set in as we respond to our betrayal.
The great threat to us now is not just the fact of being betrayed but our reaction to it. If we begin to feel worthless, useless, and uncertain about the value of everything, ourselves included, we will have disconnected too much from our core beliefs and standards.
Some of this confusion and uncertainty will be a natural response to the fact that our recent judgment and decisions turned out to be so faulty. Of course, some review and modification of our beliefs and habits will be essential. But significant distrust in ourselves and our core values is a step too far.
There are fundamental beliefs and strengths we need not doubt or give up. We are alive and able to think, reason, and make wise decisions. After the shock of betrayal quiets down, we are likely more able to make accurate interpretations and judgments than before. Some of our naivete is gone, and as a result, enthusiasm and wishful thinking will have less impact on us than before. We can more readily separate our desires and fears from facts.
In many ways, we have matured in our awareness and judgment. As wounded as we might be, we now can view life more soberly and accurately than before. Most importantly, we can work out a sound plan for recovering from our betrayal and learning how it can strengthen us in the long run.
The next discourse will explain the details of this plan.