Do you believe you or someone you know may be struggling with trauma that is rooted in past betrayal or abandonment? If so, then you’re in the right place!
In this article we will cover:
- What is Betrayal Trauma?
- Signs of Betrayal Trauma
- Betrayal Trauma Recovery
- Strategy 1: Acknowledge Instead of Avoid
- Strategy 2: Understand Betrayal Trauma Triggers
- Strategy 3: Practice Accepting and Naming Your Emotions
- Strategy 4: Take Care of Your Body
- Strategy 5: Develop Self-Care Tools
- Strategy 6: Share Your Story
Let’s jump right in!
What is Betrayal Trauma?
Betrayal trauma is the result of the violation of a deep attachment, where there has been abuse or neglect of an individual who depends on that attachment for their safety and well-being.
Betrayal Trauma occurs most commonly from:
- Child abuse- including physical, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse (e.g., manipulation, gaslighting, verbal abuse, etc.)
- Partner Betrayal- a partner has an affair or lies to you about something significant in your relationship (money, sexual addiction, etc.)
Betrayal trauma differs vastly from other types of trauma because it involves not just the experience of abuse but also the experience of being betrayed by a key relationship, such as a parent, caregiver, guardian, significant other, or other individual who is relied upon for support and safety.
Because the victim is frequently reliant on the perpetrator to meet their physical, mental, and/or emotional needs, they often adapt their behavior in order to maintain the relationship.
They may develop:
- cognitive dissonance (the ability to hold two conflicting thoughts at the same time)
- minimization (downplay the severity of an event), or
- betrayal blindness (failure to see betrayal despite overwhelming evidence).
This form of psychological blindness is a coping strategy that protects the individual’s mental and emotional safety by blocking out what is too painful or too frightening to confront.
For example, a child may blame themselves for their parent’s bad behavior or come up with an explanation that helps them feel better about what is happening.
This can explain why many victims choose to stay with their abusers, and minimize the impact of abuse after it occurs, or why children who are secretly being abused can appear to have a loving relationship with their abusive caregiver.
Signs of Betrayal Trauma
The signs and symptoms of Betrayal Trauma vary, but generally include symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as:
- Intrusive thoughts and images
- Nightmares or flashbacks
- Avoidance behaviors
- Hypervigilance (constantly scanning your environment for potential threats)
- Irritability or angry outbursts
- Social withdrawal
- Feeling emotionally numb
- Physical symptoms of tension headaches, migraines, and fatigue
Betrayal Trauma is unique in that it involves the intense feelings of shame associated with the act of being abused or violated.
Therefore if you have experienced betrayal trauma you may suffer from:
- Shame, guilt and self-blame
- Low self-esteem and self-worth
- Negative beliefs about self and others, such as “I am unworthy,” “Everyone is dishonest,” or “No one can be trusted”
- Unexpected mood swings
- Difficulty regulating emotions
You might also feel distrustful and hypervigilant about whom you can depend on. This often results in:
- An inability to trust
- Difficulty maintaining relationships or allowing others to become close to you
- Difficulties with intimacy
- Difficulty believing in your own decision making abilities
People who have experienced betrayal trauma may also experience social withdrawal and anxiety. To learn more about social anxiety and how to overcome it check out our blog → HERE
Additionally, you may have developed strategies to cope with the betrayal trauma that include:
- Dissociation during times when you feel especially triggered/ unsafe
- A sense of disconnection from emotions may cause some people to shut down during a flashback
- Memory issues (e.g., distorted memories, false memories)
- Negative coping strategies such overeating, substance abuse, etc.
Recovering from Betrayal Trauma
Although betrayal trauma can be painful and life changing, there are many tools and strategies that can help you begin to heal and reclaim your life.
Strategy 1: Acknowledge Instead of Avoid
Accepting that you have been betrayed is the first step to overcoming betrayal trauma. People who experience betrayal blindness tend not to see their own trauma because it can be too overwhelming and painful to acknowledge what has happened.
In order to cope with these feelings, many people will go into avoidance mode by minimizing the situation, pretending it never happened, or “checking out” of life completely (e.g., depression, substance abuse etc.) However, as hard as admitting the truth may be, avoiding or denying it will only increase the stress and anxiety you feel.
Acknowledging betrayal trauma empowers you to be proactive in your recovery process. You may be able to use the trauma of betrayal as an opportunity for personal growth, and implement safety measures if necessary to prevent future harm.
Once you can acknowledge what has happened, you can work on finding healthy coping strategies to support yourself while working through the process of healing.
Strategy 2: Understand Betrayal Trauma Triggers
Triggers are sounds, sights, smells, sensations that remind you of the traumatic event. Betrayal trauma triggers can take many forms depending on your unique history.
Betrayal trauma can be triggered when you’re reminded of the initial situation of betrayal: what was said and done, how you felt, and so on. Some common reminders of the trauma might include the people involved, certain places or times of year, and seeing someone who reminds you of the perpetrator.
People often react to reminders of betrayal somewhat unconsciously or without awareness. You may suddenly feel angry, defensive, or anxious without fully knowing why.
Whatever the case, knowing what betrayal trauma triggers are likely to affect you can help you manage your emotions more effectively.
Strategy 3: Practice Accepting and Naming Your Emotions
When we hear the word “betrayal” it can bring up a lot of negative emotions (e.g., you may feel ashamed, furious, grieved, or sick). When people experience these intense feelings from traumatic events, they typically try to make them go away in any way possible.
Accepting unpleasant feelings is an important part of dealing with betrayal trauma. Try to face your feelings head-on and acknowledge them as they arise. This means naming how you feel without judgment or blame (e.g., hurt, angry, scared).
Although it can be painful at first, learning how to accept difficult emotions, such as those related to betrayal, will allow you to move through them and regain control of your life.
Accepting doesn’t mean that you like your feelings or approve of the situation; rather, it means acknowledging that difficult emotions will come and go as part of the healing process.
Naming your emotions can help make them more understandable and tolerable. It also helps you feel in control of your feelings rather than having them control you.
Some emotions may feel too overwhelming to acknowledge. If this is the case, try to “feel” your way through it instead of trying to understand what you are feeling. Using your body as a guide can help you do this.
You might find that simply naming the physical sensations that you’re experiencing is enough for now (e.g., “my heart feels like it’s racing,” “I’m having trouble catching my breath”).
Check out this great resource on feeling and body sensation words → HERE
Strategy 4: Take Care of Your Body
Taking care of your body entails everything from eating well to taking time for self-care. Though they may seem unrelated, the body and mind are intricately connected. When you consistently meet your body’s needs for food, water, and rest, you are also taking care of your mind by building a strong base for your mental health and well-being.
You can begin by eating well and getting plenty of sleep. Proper nutrition is essential all throughout your life—not just during times of stress—and has been linked with improved mental health. Drink lots of water and eat healthy foods that contain vitamins and minerals (e.g., fruits and vegetables).
Try to establish a regular routine so you know what to expect from day to day. This predictability will help as you move closer toward recovery.
You may also find it helpful to take time each day for yourself to relax and recharge. For example, read a good book instead of watching television, take a walk outside, or do something nice for another person.
Exercise is also one of the best ways to take care of your body. When you exercise regularly, you release endorphins that naturally boost your mood. It’s also a great way to get rid of pent-up emotions.
As you put in the time and effort required to meet your body’s needs you are telling yourself that you are a valuable person worth taking care of!
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Strategy 5: Develop Self-Care Tools
The best self-care is the kind that you do right when you become triggered or feel an urge to engage in destructive behavior. When we don’t have coping mechanisms, our emotions can control us, instead of us being able to work through them productively.
Many people have found it helpful to keep lists of coping skills they can refer to when they feel an intense emotion coming on. These tools are called crisis survival skills and should help get through any difficult emotions that arise without causing harm or making the situation worse.
- Create a Safe Place– A safe place is somewhere that feels relaxing and comfortable, where you can go in your mind when things get tough. It’s good to have several places that serve as your safe place—a beach, a mountain, a meadow. The more senses you use to describe your safe place, the better.
- Develop A Mindfulness Practice- Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present in each moment, without judgment or criticism. When you are mindful, you are aware of everything around you rather than spacing out or becoming caught up in your own thoughts about what happened or hasn’t happened yet. Mindfulness can help you center yourself when negative emotions start to overwhelm you so that they do not get the best of you.
Check out our Guided Mindfulness Recordings → HERE
- Practice Self-Compassion and Self-Acceptance- Self-compassion means being kind to yourself when you have failed, been hurt by others or mistreated, or faced a difficult time or setback. It can be as simple as taking a few minutes each day to give yourself some encouragement for surviving the rough situations that you face. Self-compassion enhances your ability to cope effectively, manage negative thoughts and feelings about yourself, and increase your personal motivation.
- Take deep breaths- When you feel stressed, your breathing becomes shorter and more shallow, which actually exacerbates the feeling of panic or stress. Breathing in and out slowly from your diaphragm resets your nervous system to a calmer state and can help you calm down when you’re upset or overwhelmed.
Strategy 6: Share Your Story
Talking about your experiences with people who are understanding and supportive can help you process your thoughts and feelings in a safe environment. This might be a family member, a friend, a therapist or support group with members who are trustworthy and empathetic.
Family and Friends: Healthy relationships provide you with a sense of connection and belonging and give you an opportunity to not feel so alone in the world. Because we become less able to cope when we are overwhelmed, we need the support of others so that we don’t get stuck in negative patterns of thinking or behavior that only serve to compound our struggles.
You might find yourself feeling hesitant about trusting other people again after a betrayal, but it’s important to practice extending trust to those who have earned it and who show, through their actions and words, that they care about your well-being.
Journaling: Sometimes it’s easier to find the words when you tell your story in writing instead of speaking. Journaling about what you are experiencing can be a very helpful first step AND a continued act of self-care in making sense of your thoughts and feelings. You can also journal about coping strategies that you have used or that you would like to practice.
Support Groups: Just listening to the stories of others can be incredibly beneficial. Sitting in on AA meetings or support groups can help you to feel less alone in what you’ve been through. When you listen to other people’s stories, you can learn from their experiences and see how they’ve been able to cope and heal. This can motivate you to take the steps needed for your own recovery, even when it may seem hard or too challenging at times.
Therapy: Therapy is specifically intended to be a safe place, where you can talk about your deepest thoughts and feelings without judgment or criticism. Your therapist is there to listen with an open heart, to help you build coping skills, find new ways of understanding what happened (and what’s happening now), and move forward in a healthy way.
If you’d like to know more about overcoming trauma check out this great video → HERE
Just the act of receiving empathy and validation can make a big difference in your recovery. Being real and raw with your story can be scary, but it is also incredibly LIBERATING!