Betrayal Trauma & Your Mental Health
Our mental and emotional wellbeing is as equally important as our physical health, and I want to touch on a topic related to past mental and emotional trauma. Both mental and emotional health are not talked about enough and are often not well addressed in our modern healthcare system. In particular, betrayal trauma is something that I have dealt with on a personal level, both in childhood and within an adult relationship. And I know this is something that affects many people but is often ignored or overlooked. And sometimes those affected don't even realize the damage that has been done.
Betrayal trauma is a specific trauma that stems from a violation of trust by someone you have depended upon for survival (parent, caregiver, or other trusted person/institution) or an intimate partner. This concept was first introduced by Jennifer J. Freyd, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Oregon. Her book Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse was published in 1996. This focused on why some people seemed to be unaware of or had forgotten about certain types of childhood trauma. She found that often these people needed to stay attached to the caregiver and this need overpowered the need to confirm betrayal, even when that betrayal was traumatic. This type of betrayal could be sexual abuse, physical violence, or mental & emotional trauma.
These childhood forms of abuse are just one aspect of betrayal trauma, but this is not solely limited to childhood experiences. Infidelity and abuse by an intimate partner are other examples of betrayal involving a breach of trust by someone within a close, intimate relationship. Physical, mental, and emotional abuse by a partner is a distinct violation of trust, and cheating is a severely impactful form of betrayal. These adult forms are equally as detrimental and painful.
The lingering effect on those traumatized is to feel fear and shame, anxiety or depression, or dissociation. Dissociation is defined as a mental process of disconnecting from one's thoughts, feelings, memories, or sense of identity. This dissociation is done as an attempt to distance oneself from reality and numb oneself from pain.
Betrayal trauma may sound similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), yet the two differ in how the affected person feels and then the subsequent behavior. Traditionally, PTSD results in fear and then ongoing issues caused by trying to avoid more fear. Betrayal trauma tends to result in shame and dissociation, followed by problems caused by attempts to then avoid further shame and dissociation. Because of this, treatment of these two differs.
Recovery from betrayal trauma involves a variety of possible elements to allow deep healing. Since betrayal trauma survivors often see themselves as damaged or that something is wrong with them, they have difficulty trusting themselves and others, they experience dissociation, and they may have mental health symptoms that they are unable to explain or fully comprehend. The shame and dissociation are simply survival tools that allowed them to keep the peace and not aggravate the perpetrator of the abuse, which could possibly have made things worse. In order to heal, these people need to recognize these symptoms as survival mechanisms and know there is nothing actually wrong with them. Rather than avoid difficult emotions, it is imperative to acknowledge them.
Because dissociation is so common in those abused in this way, they are often disconnected from their own bodies. This is where the skill of interoception can be valuable, wherein people learn to recognize their body's internal sensations and tune into what their body is telling them. The goal is to learn that messages from their own bodies are actually trustworthy and worth listening to. It also is important in knowing how to self-regulate.
And finally, therapists who are working with these patients need to be very compassionate so that the survivor will feel safe working through the healing process. In addition, the survivor must develop both compassion for and patience with themselves. The healing process is not going to happen overnight, nor will it necessarily be easy.
If you feel like you are a survivor of this type of betrayal trauma, know that you are not alone and know that nothing is actually wrong with you. Finding a compassionate counselor to work with is an important next step in healing.