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Moving Past Betrayal

Four steps to avoid surrendering your happiness and success to others.

Key points

  • Trust is an innately wired human instinct.
  • Betrayal of trust represents both a psychological and physical injury.
  • Understanding and forgiveness can heal both the psychological and physical wounds of betrayal.
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The study of disasters can inform us about how individuals and groups react to extreme adversity. There is evidence that human-made disasters are more psychologically toxic than are natural disasters. There is further evidence that human-made disasters that are intentionally created are more psychologically toxic than human-made disasters that are accidental. If we can understand why, it may yield insight into how to recover and move on, not just from disasters but from other adversities as well, especially betrayal.

Trust Is Biologically Hard-Wired

Human-made disasters are more psychologically toxic, we believe, because they somehow involve a violation of a promise, either explicit or implicit, to be trustworthy. On a smaller scale, children implicitly trust their parents to be trustworthy. A community trusts its leaders because of the explicit promises that were made. Intimate partners trust one another because of both implicit and explicit promises. A breach of such trust can be devastating.

Sociobiologists tell us that human beings are hard-wired to live in groups, usually small groups of 10 to 12 people. For these groups to function effectively and survive, there must be some degree of mutual attraction and trust amongst members. Something this important to the success of a species must therefore have a biological infrastructure that may then be shaped by experience. The anatomy of trust appears to be an interaction of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex with the cingulate gyrus. Chemically, trust is fueled by the hormone oxytocin and the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine.

Trust is not only important for functional collaboration between group members, it also serves an energy conservation function. Thousands of years ago, human beings resided in a remarkably hostile environment, physically speaking. It was necessary to be hypervigilant, always scanning the environment for threats with the capacity to respond by fighting or fleeing at a moment’s notice. This, too, is hard-wired. This is the function of the amygdaloid nuclei. Such safety-promoting vigilance requires energy, both psychological and physical. It cannot be sustained indefinitely without some adverse consequence. So the task of keeping the group safe must be shared, but that shared responsibility is based upon trust. There is evidence that those who live their lives with no one to trust, constantly “on guard,” are more vulnerable to depression, illness, and perhaps premature death. When experienced, trust lowers arousal of the baseline activity of the amygdala and both body and mind are allowed to rest and rejuvenate.

Phases of Betrayal

Betrayal is a breach of trust. Betrayal by a trusted friend or partner is not only a psychological injury, it’s a physical injury as well. The moment you are betrayed, your first reaction psychologically is confusion. The sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system is activated and your body is flooded with adrenalin. Unlike fear where you can focus your response, betrayal is more diffuse. The second phase of betrayal is denial. You simply cannot believe treachery has taken place. Your heart rate decelerates as you try to make sense of the circumstances at hand.

The third phase usually consists of one of two pathways (although sometimes one will toggle between them both). One pathway is self-blame. The other is anger. Physiologically, adrenalin and cortisol are typically elevated, and chronically so. Cortisol is an adrenocorticosteroid, which serves to increase blood glucose levels and diminish the efficiency of the immune system as well. It also has catabolic properties, setting the stage for myriad stress-related illnesses. Finally, the angrier you become, or the more you blame yourself, the better you become at it until, through a mechanism of neuroplasticity, it may become a habit. And you ultimately lose yourself in the reiterative process as the phases repeat themselves. Betrayal has the potential to be a chronic plague upon your happiness and success. But that does not have to be so.

Four Steps to Moving Past Betrayal

As debilitating as betrayal might be, it is not a fait accompli. Quite the contrary. Here is a four-step approach to moving past betrayal.

  1. Stop blaming yourself and stop being angry. It’s a waste of time and precious energy. you deserve better. Those who depend upon you deserve better.
  2. Try perspective-taking. Try as best you can to understand why you were betrayed. This does not mean you have to agree with or accept the betrayal. But do not become obsessed with the quest. Sometimes bad things happen and there is simply no rational reason whatsoever. Understanding and even acceptance can be empowering.
  3. Remember the “fight and flight” function of the amygdaloid is fueling your reaction. The angular gyrus will dampen the amygdaloid. All you have to do is turn it on. Forgiveness activates the angular gyrus.
  4. The more you are angry, or the more you grieve, the greater the control you give those who betrayed you. Make a promise to yourself, and those who depend upon you, to no longer surrender control of your happiness to others.

Change does not come overnight. Start small. With practice, moving past betrayal will become a habit. The more you practice, the habit will become a trait. Once it is a trait, it will be the new you.

© 2022, George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D.

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