A woman looks out a window with a pained expression on her face representing betrayal trauma recovery

Betrayal Trauma Recovery

Betrayal trauma is incredibly common, especially for people who’ve been hurt by infidelity. 

Take Jenna, for example. She’d been living with Jake for only a few months when everything blew up. One evening, she stumbled across a message on his computer from another woman. When she tugged on that thread, her entire life began to unravel, and she learned that Jake had been cheating on her with multiple women for the past three years. 

When Jenna and Jake arrived at my couples counseling office, they were hoping I could help them put a stop to the unending fights. They both said they wanted to recover from infidelity and save their relationship, but Jenna couldn’t seem to get over it, and Jake was tired of apologizing. After a few false starts at healing, Jake packed his belongings and left Jenna to recover on her own. 

Jenna and I continued seeing each other one-on-one. Her heart was broken, but it was worse than that. She was having vivid nightmares about Jake having sex with other women. Sometimes when she was working or driving, she would suddenly feel overwhelmed by intense fear, as if she was discovering his cheating for the first time all over again. Worst perhaps, the shock of it all had so eroded Jenna’s trust in her own instincts that she wondered how she could ever allow herself to love someone again. 

What Jenna was experiencing was betrayal trauma. When someone we love, trust, and rely on betrays us, it creates a deep, painful wound that can linger on for months or even years without the right care. 

If you think you may be suffering from the after effects of betrayal trauma, I hope this article helps you understand why you feel the way you feel. Learning about the process of betrayal trauma recovery and finding effective support from a therapist who understands it can help you heal and move forward. 

If you’d prefer to listen, I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. You can tune in on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

What Is Betrayal? 

We feel betrayal when someone we trust or depend on lets us down in a way we didn’t expect. Even relatively minor betrayals can have a powerful sting — like learning that a friend repeated a secret that you shared in confidence, or that a colleague took credit for your work. But big betrayals can be life shattering, especially when they’re not validated or attended to with care.

Betrayal stirs up a complex mix of anger, disappointment, sadness, shame, and guilt. It can also create a lot of self-blame, which can be the most painful part. As Jenna talked about Jake’s cheating, she often beat herself up for not knowing that something was wrong. Her self-esteem was in the gutter, and she didn’t feel that she could trust herself to keep herself safe.

It’s easy to look back with regret about not “trusting your gut.” But to heal from betrayal, it’s important that you have compassion for yourself. If you failed to protect yourself in the past, make a choice to protect yourself now from the harsh critic that lives inside of you. You can begin by making a conscious choice to treat yourself with love and respect as you heal and grow from this trauma.

Betrayal Trauma Symptoms

The symptoms of betrayal trauma fall into three buckets: intrusive, avoidant, and emotional. None of these symptoms are conscious thoughts. They’re instinctive, visceral reactions that don’t feel like a choice. 

If any of these symptoms sound relatable to you, you may benefit from working with a therapist who understands betrayal trauma:

Intrusive Symptoms

People suffering from betrayal trauma often have recurrent, involuntary, distressing memories of the traumatic event. Jenna couldn’t stop thinking about the horrible moment that she discovered the messages on Jake’s computer between himself and other women, for example. When she had these thoughts, she would feel emotionally flooded by fear as if something horrible was about to happen, even though she was perfectly safe.

Intrusive symptoms can be especially intense in moments that remind you of the betrayal. For example, if you have trust issues in relationships because of a former partner who cheated on you, you may feel triggered when a new partner tells you they’re going out with friends for drinks after work, if that’s what your Ex used to say when they were cheating. 

Avoidance Symptoms

Avoidance can show up in a few different forms after betrayal trauma. First, people may avoid things that trigger memories of the betrayal. They may also avoid relationships, or avoid being truly vulnerable in relationships. Avoidance can also look like escaping into self-destructive behaviors like addiction to avoid difficult feelings. 

Finally, sometimes avoidance symptoms can take the form of controlling behavior. Someone might develop an unhealthy level of jealousy in a new relationship and try to stop their partner from spending time with certain people, for example, if they’ve been betrayed in the past. Or, they may create strict rules about what their friends can say around them, or which places are okay for them to go and which are off-limits, in an effort to avoid things that trigger painful feelings or memories. 

Emotional Symptoms

Betrayal trauma also has emotional symptoms, particularly anxiety, anger, and depression.  

If you’re experiencing anxiety because of betrayal, you may be hypervigilant, constantly on the lookout for other signs that you’re about to be betrayed. You may feel a lot of anger about what happened to you, and you may have trouble letting go of your anger

Feeling depressed is also normal. After betrayal trauma, your life may become smaller as you begin avoiding people, places and things that remind you of the betrayal. This combined with low self-esteem and a sense of hopelessness about the future can make fertile ground for depression. In the wake of infidelity, many people question how they’ll survive.

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Betrayal Trauma Recovery

Healing after betrayal trauma is not like flipping a switch. It can be a long journey, and many people require the support of a trauma-informed therapist to fully heal. 

Processing trauma is not straightforward. Your instincts will be to avoid the source of your trauma, but what you actually need is safe exposure and to move those traumatic memories to a different part of your brain. I hesitate to list the “stages of betrayal trauma recovery” as if you should be able to check the boxes on this list all on your own, but I hope it gives you some ideas about what this work might look like and where to begin:

  1. Acknowledge the Betrayal & How It Impacted You

Betrayal is profoundly damaging. It is hurtful. The emotional fallout of a major betrayal can touch your life for years.  

This is the truth, but for many of us, our first instinct is to avoid, minimize, or deny what happened and how profoundly it affected us. But acknowledging the fact that this was a betrayal and that it was traumatic to you is the first step in healing — especially if the people in your life or our culture at large have not validated that reality for you.

  1. Build Your Personal Resilience 

What really allows you to heal after betrayal is building confidence in your own ability to protect and care for yourself. So ask yourself, what do you need from others that you’re struggling to give to yourself? And how can you change that?

No matter what other people do, you can always trust 100% in the relationship you have with yourself. This is what makes you feel safe enough to once again trust in others. Setting healthy boundaries in relationships, speaking up for yourself and honoring your own feelings, and building emotional intelligence skills that help you to manage painful feelings without turning them on yourself are all ways of becoming more resilient. 

  1. Invest In Safe, Healing Relationships

Experiencing positive, healing relationships with others can help you recover from a toxic relationship or traumatic betrayal. 

Healing relationships could be with people who are already in your life, like good friends you can trust and rely on, or a safe, validating family member. A therapist could also provide a healing relationship based on trust, kindness, and respect. 

To heal trauma, you need safety. You cannot begin to heal and process your trauma if you are still in the situation that traumatized you. This does not mean that you always have to walk away from relationships after infidelity or another form of betrayal, but the betrayal itself does need to stop before it can be healed.  

4) Exposure Therapy 

Safe exposure to the traumatic memories can be an important part of healing from trauma — but this is not something that you can do on your own. A trauma-informed therapist can help you go back into the memories and move them to the part of your brain where meaning is made and where thoughts are more powerful than feelings. 

At that point, the trauma doesn’t go away, but your relationship to it fundamentally changes. It will always be part of your story, but it won’t have the same power over you.

5) Healthy Boundaries

Creating new, healthy boundaries can be an important part of healing from betrayal. It’s not about blaming others, but about thinking about how you would like to manage relationships differently going forward. 

Maybe there are certain red flags that you’re unwilling to overlook the next time you get into a relationship, or certain types of treatment that you don’t want to accept anymore. When you set healthy boundaries and maintain them, you begin to feel better able to protect yourself.

Of course, there are some forms of betrayal that you can’t prevent, even with the world’s most perfectly healthy boundaries. That is actually okay. As you heal from betrayal trauma, your trust in yourself will grow and your relationship with yourself will be strengthened. At the end of this personal growth journey is a deep confidence that you can rely on yourself, no matter what anyone else does.

Betrayal Trauma Recovery Therapists

I hope this article and podcast episode gave you a better understanding of betrayal trauma, and how it may be affecting you. It can be difficult to heal, especially when you and the people around you treat the betrayal like it’s not a big deal. If you’re hurting months or years after a betrayal, it is a big deal, and you deserve support from an effective betrayal trauma therapist. 

Working with a counselor or a couples therapist can help you heal from the pain of betrayal and move forward, within your relationship or individually. If you’d like to meet with a clinician on my team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

P.S. — For more help with recovering after infidelity, check out our “Affair Recovery” collection of articles and podcasts. 

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Betrayal Trauma Recovery

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Music in this episode is by Men I Trust with their song “Billy Toppy.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://menitrust.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.

Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you are listening to the Love, Happiness and Success podcast. What happens to us when we are betrayed by someone we love, or someone we depend on? Someone we trust? Today’s episode is all about betrayal trauma, understanding it and learning how to heal your heart, heal your emotions, and possibly even heal your relationship after you’ve been betrayed.

I love this song, love this artist, this is Men I Trust with this song, Billie Toppy. I chose it for us today because not only is it a great song but I think it conveys this vulnerability, you know this please-don’t-hurt-me-kind of feeling that comes up for us when we have been through a betrayal trauma of what we know when we’ve been hurt or let down by somebody else, it changes us and I think it makes us more vulnerable in some ways, when we get close to people again, but in many other ways, it can also strengthen us, help us grow, learn about ourselves and other people, and ultimately become more resilient in the process.

I hear that in this song as well. For all of these reasons, I’ve decided that today we are listening to Men I trust with Billie Toppy and you can find out more about this band on their band camp page, Men I Trust all one word, .bandcamp.com. Today, we are tackling a tough topic together, but one that I’ve really wanted to talk about with you for a long time. Because as you know, I always make these episodes with you in mind, and I’m always asking you, what do you wanna hear about, get in touch with me. I have had so many questions over the years from you, from other listeners, but also from counseling and coaching clients. I mean a frequent topic of conversation is sealing with the mental, emotional, relational aftermath of having been betrayed by someone.

What Is Betrayal Trauma?

You know, the experience of betrayal is bad enough of itself. You know, it calls a lot of things into question. There are.. What do I do with these kinds of questions that need to be grappled with. You know, for many, I would say most people, the most difficult thing about it is figuring out how to deal with the residual, really traumatic response that is left behind whenever a betrayal occurs.

You know, I am using the term trauma with intention, and it’s a little bit challenging because, I have actually been looking for a long time to find articles, experts, books on this topic, and I think, I hope they’re probably still in development, but the truth of it is that I have actually come to believe over years of clinical experience that when humans are betrayed, because our relationships, our connections are so fundamentally important to us, they are connected to our survival drives, we organize our lives around them, that they’re such core things that when we are betrayed by other people, it is a threat. It is experienced as a trauma that is on the order of going through a more recognized trauma.

Let’s say, you know, like if somebody shoots at you, if you’ve been a victim of a war crime, a rape, like these are the traumas that I think, we think of certainly the ones that match the diagnostic criteria in the DSM. But in my professional experience, people have very similar reactions to symptoms thereafter that are not unlike the things that meet criteria for a PTSD diagnosis. But just the trigger for that has been a betrayal rather than a situation where your life was actually in danger.

It’s been very interesting for me, and I’ve really wanted to talk with you about this and share some information with you because I think that this is also like a really common experience that people have, like who among us has not been betrayed in some form or fashion, right? But I think by understanding and legitimizing this kind of trauma, We’re able to (a) have more compassion for ourselves and others, but also (b) I think be able to deal with this in a more intentional, appropriate, and effective way.

Anyway, the time has come for us to be talking about this on the show, and I’m really glad that you’re here with me so we could do this together. Is this your first time listening? I should probably introduce myself, I think I haven’t done this in a while. I’m Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, I’m the founder of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. My professional background, I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist, I’m a licensed psychologist, I’m also a board certified coach, I am a supervisor of other therapists and a podcast host, and I love doing this. But I think I’ve been assuming lately that everybody I’m talking to has been listening to this show for a while now.

I thought the other day I should probably mention who I am just for newcomers. If this is your first time listening, I’m glad you’re here and if we are old friends and this is not your first time, thanks for being here yet again and thanks too for turning the show into a thing. I know I started doing this gosh, four or six I don’t know anymore years ago, what I did.

It was like, you know, maybe you, my mom, like two other people listening to this show, and I was looking the other day. We have like 300,000 monthly listeners and counting at this point, which I cannot even think about because I would get all shy and weird and anxious.

But thank you for sharing this with people, if you’re finding it valuable, if it’s been helpful for you, I think it’s great that you’re sharing this with others. Thank you too, for leaving reviews for me on places like iTunes, for subscribing to this show or encouraging other people to subscribe to this show because that is how we grow and we’re doing it together.

This show does not have mercenary intentions, I do this because I like it and also because, you know, I’m so well aware of the fact that many, even most people who might want, might need to be working with a good, competent therapist. You know, that can be hard to do. I think this podcast for me feels kind of like a public service where I’m throwing l little bottles in the ocean for you and others just hoping people find it in their time of need and really get something that is, you know, certainly not the same as having a relationship with their own therapist or with their own coach.

But helpful nonetheless, and that it’s helping them learn something new, it’s something useful, applying it to their lives. That is very meaningful to me and I do hope that is what this show is for you. Okay. I’m going to stop talking about myself now and start talking about what we have gathered together to do today, which is understanding betrayal trauma.

Let’s just dive in, let’s talk about… First of all, what constitutes a betrayal and why it has the impact on us that it does, right? What is betrayal? Betrayal is the experience that we all have, when someone you trust or depend on harms you, frankly, in a way, lets you down, surprises you in the worst possible way, in a way that you didn’t expect.

You know, I think that’s often a characteristic of betrayal is that we really didn’t see it coming in the way that it does, and It’s also important to consider that even though you know, other people can also be jerkoids and do mean things to us, it’s only when we trust someone that we can be betrayed by them without trust, betrayal isn’t really possible.

That’s like part of the equation and also part of why it is so traumatizing. I think the factor of dependence is also important here because it can create a conflict between your need for safety, but also your need for whatever you may be getting, receiving, having, you know, be done for you by the person that you are depending on.

It creates this like vulnerability and that’s salient because that kind of dependence, the vulnerability can be part of what makes it so difficult for us to protect ourselves in the first place. For example, you know, if you are listening to this because you have had a common and unfortunate experience of being cheated on by a partner, the betrayal itself is more intense, more difficult, more traumatizing because you have competing needs. Maybe you need to feel loved, respected, attached to this person who betrayed you and it’s in conflict, right? With your need to protect yourself, keep yourself safe emotionally.

You may also have a very real attachment bond that you need to maintain. If you’re married, if you have kids, there can be other dependencies happening there, economic dependence, a competing priority around the psychological, emotional wellbeing of your kids, right? If you’re trying to figure out how to keep your family together, but also now living with this person who was really hurtful to you and salient in other ways, certainly, you know, for children and parents for many obvious reasons.

How Betrayal Trauma Affects Our Connection To People

But I think more subtle ways too, like with employees and employers, certainly an employee could be dependent on an employer economically, and because of that struggle to protect themselves sometimes, which creates the vulnerability of trauma. It goes the other way too, employers are highly dependent on employees and if people are stealing or not fulfilling their end of the bargain. It can be very destructive for employers, but also hard to make decisions in the moment about “Should I let this person go?” But they have 10 years worth of organizational knowledge.

There’s a lot here and that’s part of what makes this kind of trauma more complex, then, certainly not to make light of this in any way, but like if you are the victim of a carjacking or somebody mugs you or shoots at you like highly traumatic, we need to discuss it, deal with it.

In some ways it is more straightforward, it is less complex, it is almost easier to manage somehow than a much more complex trauma, which is often, a betrayal trauma. It is also important to know that a betrayal trauma does not have to be interpersonal necessarily, we can also experience those with institutions, particularly ones that we are trusting, depending on relying on.

For example, many people felt deeply betrayed by the Catholic church after news broke about the sex abuse scandals feeling betrayed after a layoff, you know, from a former employer, we could even feel betrayed by, you know, somebody that we looked up to, aspired to then that’s more mild, of course. But I just want to frame the fact that this can happen in many different ways and can impact us indifferent ways. 

But I think, although the common denominators here is that the more invested in the relationship you are, the more you trust someone, the more you on someone, the more intensely you’ll feel betrayed. You know, by definition, the more intensely you will experience the trauma of that betrayal, these things are all connected. 

The betrayal, whenever we experience it, it stirs up a complex mix of all kinds of different emotions. You know, there can certainly be anger, how could you do this to me? There can be sadness, disappointment, here can also be shame, like, why did this happen to me? Why did this person that I loved and trusted treat me this way? What does that mean about me? That they felt like it was okay to do that? Guilt, even people can blame themselves for betrayal trauma, which again adds to its complexity and some of the difficulties that we face when we try to, to deal with it.

You know, I think actually one of the most hurtful and really damaging parts of betrayal is when we begin to blame ourselves for it. You know, my partner wouldn’t have cheated on me if I exercised more or whatever, my business partner wouldn’t have stolen from me if I was paying better attention, if I managed my time and energy in a different way so that I wasn’t a scattered mess, like maybe I would’ve seen that coming.

Blaming ourselves for what happened, but you know there’s also a, I think even more diabolical, emotional experience when we go through something and in the aftermath are able to see, you know what, I knew something was wrong, I knew something was off, I did feel that and maybe I could, should have taken action to protect myself sooner, you know, and I didn’t.

Then it turns into, I didn’t just get betrayed by this person, I feel like I betrayed myself because I didn’t follow my instincts. I wasn’t being honest with myself, I wasn’t brave enough to handle this or confront this when I should have, and how do I trust myself going forward, much less other people. There’s a lot here. A lot. 

You know, here’s the two pieces of it. There is the betrayal, but then there is also the trauma of the betrayal. The betrayal is kind of like the experience, but the trauma is the wound, right, it’s the scar. It’s the fact that these things leave a mark on us that can persist a long time after the actual event and is often the hard part, right? Because the event itself, you know, yes, we’re cheated on, we go through a breakup. You know, we have an employee that embezzles money from us, we find that out, we fix it, we move on. But that, you know, for years afterwards, we can still be kind of twitchy in certain situations with other people.

We can doubt ourselves, it can change the way we think, we feel we behave when it comes to certain situations. You know, sometimes, and particularly if we’re not mindful of the impact of the trauma and if we don’t know how to effectively handle it, manage it, heal it. It can continue creating problems for us in new situations that have nothing to do with the original betrayal, but that yet can continue to create very real and very negative impact on us, on our lives, on our outcomes for a long time down the road.

This is even more difficult and more important if you’ve been betrayed by someone who you would like to maintain a relationship with, you know, in the case of an affair, things happened, and then the affair ended and the person who originally strayed has been working on themselves, making a lot of changes and really growing in the process.

You know, fundamentally being more trustworthy, figuring out why they did that in the first place, and being a thoughtful partner, being responsive to you, being self-aware, being empathetic. You know, they are really trying to do things differently and are doing things differently and need credit for that. If the betrayal trauma is not resolved directly and effectively, it doesn’t really matter because you are going to have these trauma responses, you’re going to feel vigilant., you’re going to feel afraid, unsafe, untrusting, angry, right? Like self-protective, even if your partner is really being quite appropriate at this point because your partner has changed, but until that trauma is healed, you will not be able to feel safe or behave in ways that are consistent with an emotionally safe relationship. Not because of them anymore, but because of the impact, the legacy of the original. 

It’s really important to understand what is going on here and why. But then even more importantly, like what do we do to heal this, to resolve this so that we can move forward once and for all and not have the original betrayal continue to impact us for as long as it can. We talked a little bit about betrayal, and now let’s talk about trauma and because I am such a nerd that I would actually bring a book to a party, I have brought my DSM to this party and I’m just going to talk through a couple of things with you.

Now my, my caveat here, I need to, you know, make everybody mentally sign a waiver that I am in no way, shape or form diagnosing anybody through the podcast or anything like that or making specific recommendations about what you should do. But I do wanna draw your attention to the fact that there’s a very interesting correlation between what happens to us in the aftermath of a betrayal and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Trauma Of Betrayal

I have my well-worn DSM right here in front of me. We’re going to hop over the part where, you know, part of the diagnostic criteria is that this person has lived through a life-threatening event. There has been, you know, they were almost killed, they were significantly injured, they saw something awful happen to somebody else because that’s the part of this that doesn’t fit. 

That I don’t think that there is enough recognition for the injury that is actually caused to humans by experiencing a betrayal. With that in mind though, kind of the origins of trauma, let’s look, there’s a second at the symptoms and so now I am literally going to read parts of the DSM to you.

But trauma responses like PTSD, there are different parts, there are intrusive symptoms, and then there are avoidant symptoms and then there are emotional kinds of symptoms. But all of these things I think are frequently present in us when we go through a betrayal trauma. Think about as awful as it is, you know, a really hard betrayal that you experienced, somebody that you loved, you trusted, you were vulnerable with, and then, you know, it just felt like being punched in the gut, right?

With that in mind, think about whether you experienced any of these things in the aftermath. The presence of intrusive symptoms like recurrent, involuntary, and distressing memories of the traumatic event. Like you keep thinking about it over and over, maybe dreams, nightmares, that are haunted by that person or the situation.

Sometimes you can experience flashbacks. Now these can be really extreme, you know, something like a combat veteran may lose touch with present moment reality and actually feel like they are in a situation where they’re getting shot at, right? But I think you can also be experienced by being flooded with fear in the face of relatively neutral events, right? 

We feel like the horrible thing is happening to us again, even if logically we can look around and say, no, that thing is not happening right now. But I feel like it is and also a lot of distress, like fear if anything happens that is reminiscent of the original betrayal trauma, your spouse cheated on you and now you’re in a new relationship with somebody who is out and it’s 11 o’clock at night and they said they’d be home at 10 and they’re not answering your texts. Many benign reasons why that may happen and if you are still harboring a betrayal trauma, you are going to be on the ceiling with fear, “Oh my gosh, what’s happening?” And like imagining all these terrible things. 

Even the context of a perfectly normal loving and healthy relationship because of the trauma that you experienced in the past. There’s also a lot of avoidance that comes with any kind of trauma including betrayal trauma, so that means avoidance of anything that feels threatening. In a similar way in relational trauma, a lot of times that can look like control or attempts to control another person when we want to avoid any possibility of being re-traumatized, it is being very upset with your partner and saying, no, I don’t want you to go on a trip out of town with a friend. I don’t want you to stay out late at night. I don’t like it when you go out to lunch with those coworkers because that girl is there and I know she’s perfectly fine, but I still feel threatened by her.

You know, like all of the different things, efforts to control, efforts to avoid, it can also look like, you know, not entering into relationships. If we’ve been traumatized many times, I could look like not being open with other people, not letting other people in, not being authentic or vulnerable with new people. Because we’re avoiding the possibility of being hurt again in the future and I also just want to say that these aren’t like thoughts, you know, these are automatic reactions that are created by the original trauma. That is this instinctive, kind of visceral, like, nope that inhibits us without us even sometimes being conscious that we are. It can be difficult to spot. 

Then certainly a trauma can really change the way that we think, the way we feel, the way we behave on a day-to-day basis. It can impact our memory sometimes, it can lead us to feel anxious in all kinds of different situations. Anger is actually a really common experience for people that have gone through a trauma. Because of all this too, there can be efforts to kind of avoid and escape that turn into self-destructive behaviors.

I mean, the classic example is the Vietnam Vet who gets off a plane from Saigon or whatever in 1972, walks into the closest bar and stays drunk for the next 50 years, right. It’s because they’re attempting to anesthetize themself, right? When they aren’t, impaired, they are experiencing very intrusive thoughts, feelings. They need to avoid situations that make them feel afraid. But also I think numbing yourself out in a variety of different ways is also safety seeking in the most compassionate way. That can look like so many things in relational trauma, betrayal trauma, it can look like just keeping ourselves away from people developing an unhealthy relationship with video games or non-threatening kinds of relationships. 

I think, you know, for some people have really been hurt by others in the past. A non-threatening way of maintaining some kind of connection with other humans can happen through social media, gaming, pornography, certainly. Just to be able to understand what it can look like, anger actually can also be very protective if we stay angry, you know, we’re not letting people in, we’re not trusting that we are gonna be hurt again.

Also, certainly too, anxiety can be a big part of this, agitation, irritability, but also like this vigilance around, what’s going on? There could be something happening, there probably is, I just don’t know what it is yet. But you know, my mind is already thinking about all these awful things and I feel anxious. I feel escalated, that’s so hard. Depression too can actually be protective in some ways for, from somebody who has experienced a trauma.

You know, depression is avoidance, low energy. It is thoughts of guilt and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness and it doesn’t matter anyway. But it also, you know, often turns people into shells of themselves that aren’t trying, they aren’t trusting, they’re not growing, they are avoidant, they are reclusive. Oftentimes, they are telling themselves stories about the terrible things that are going to happen anyway.

You know, it’s inevitable, why try I can expect this, but it’s incredibly impairing and it’s not a great place to be in, depression hurts. But it’s also really understandable, right? In the face of particularly a betrayal trauma because when we are depressed, we are wrapping ourselves into a giant cocoon where we just get to lay there and feel bad about what happened and just kind of stay there.

If we can, if we are expecting a new, terrible thing to happen, it feels like we’re protecting ourselves, as awful as it is. Those are all associated with any kind of trauma, but those are also parts of betrayal trauma. I just want to invite you to consider whether, you know, the original traumatic betrayal that I invited you to think about when we first started talking about this.

Recognizing One’s Trauma

You know, when you think about what happened and what happened to you, because of that, who were you and how did you feel, and how did you show up in the world prior to that betrayal? How did you cope with the immediacy of that event? But that’s brief, that, that we can deal with those things pretty quickly.

But how did going through that change, who you were in some ways, how did it change how you’ve felt your internal experience, your internal narrative, how safe you felt in the world, how did it change your behaviors going forward? I know these are difficult things to think about, but you know, in my experience, the reality is that people who have lived through a betrayal trauma do not fully appreciate the degree to which it has impacted them and continues to impact them for a long time going forward.

I think that part of the reason for that is that betrayal traumas and relational traumas are not recognized and validated frankly, in the same way that more obvious traumatic experiences often are, and because of that, we’re not even encouraged to think about the residual trauma that the betrayal created.

It’s just not part of our cultural narrative. That is also part of the reason that I wanted to make this podcast for you. I think we need to start talking about this in a more direct way. Let’s talk for a second about the process of healing from a betrayal trauma, and so I’m going to explain how this works and hopefully give you some actionable ideas, but also just have to say this out loud, that this is a journey, it is a process.

It is not flipping a switch and being fine. Most people really benefit from and, honestly need a supportive relationship with a trauma informed therapist who understands the reality of betrayal trauma, who’s not gonna invalidate your experience, but who can help you work through this and heal from the trauma that it is part of successfully addressing and healing from trauma requires an exposure component that because of the resulting, you know, trauma response makes us very much want to avoid big part of trauma work that I do and other therapists do is helping people feel safe enough in sessions to be courageously going back into the traumatic memories, the traumatic stories for the purpose of re-experiencing them in productive ways.

We’re not ruminating, but actually processing that trauma in such a way that, we’re changing the narrative, we’re changing the experience, and we’re actually like moving memories from one part of the brain to the other part of the brain. I know it’s fascinating, but you know, trauma is very physiological in nature, among other things. I just wanted to say that it is difficult to do that by yourself, you deserve to have support in this process. I just, you know, we’ll talk about the things to do, but just don’t want you to feel like you can or should be able to do these things all by yourself, because most people can’t.

So with that in mind, I think the first step in healing from a betrayal trauma is acknowledging the betrayal itself, but also how traumatic it was. Sometimes betrayal can be so painful that we almost don’t acknowledge the reality of what happened to us, and that is especially true if we are in a relationship that we want to maintain. If we can’t or don’t want to end a relationship, it’s very easy to minimize the extent of the betrayal trauma that we experienced, because we almost have to minimize that in order to maintain the relationship. We might tell ourselves that it wasn’t that bad, we might even struggle to remember the details of it, we may find other ways to avoid it through addictions, emotional numbing, you know, just so many avoidance tactics that we all have available to us now these days. 

But acknowledging the fact that this was really a betrayal trauma and that it was traumatic to you is the first step in healing, because without that, You don’t even have your arms around the fact that there is something to heal, and I am sorry to report that you’re probably gonna have to do this yourself, because again, we don’t talk about betrayal trauma the way that we should be.

I mean, you know, there’s maybe a couple books and things or articles or this podcast, but other than that, you know, it’s a kind of trauma that flies under the radar, and so it is very necessary, therefore, for you to be saying to yourself, that was actually awful. That was so terrible what I went through. You’re validating your own experience, but also understanding that it did impact you. Again, if we’re avoiding, if we’re numbing, if we’re minimizing, we don’t fully understand how a trauma has changed us, and it’s important to do that. Because then you can move into the next step of healing from a betrayal trauma, which is being very aware of what your particular flavors of trauma response look like, eel like and how they impact you in different situations. 

You know, going back to that idea of who were you and how did you show up before this thing happened and how would you describe yourself and your way of operating these days. On the other side of it, like how are you different? How has this changed your way of thinking about yourself or about other people you know, what to expect from others, who others fundamentally are just being aware of it? How has it changed your feelings in certain situations? Do you feel anxious or tense about some things that maybe you didn’t before? That’s important to know and certainly how has this changed your behavior? How has it changed your behavior in relationships? How has it changed your behavior with an employer, with an employee, religious institutions.

I mean, I know people who had really bad experiences with, um, betrayal trauma in a spiritual setting, and it destroyed their spirituality. You know, it wasn’t just, how do I protect myself from getting involved with a charismatic cult leader again is like, I no longer believe in God and will not participate in any kind of spiritual things at all.

You know, even a private personal relationship with a higher power, it’s gone, right? Thinking about how it has changed your thinking, your feeling, your willingness to engage your behavior in relationships, you know, are there things that now feel intolerable for you or are you hyper-vigilant? Are you quick to anger? Are you more critical? Are you more avoidant? Just mapping out what all those things are and then you know, the reason for doing that is so that you can move into this next piece, which is asking yourself, “Okay, what do I need?” The answer to that question then turns into the rest of the healing work, right?

What do I need to feel safe with other people within myself, within the world? You know, what would restore me? What would allow me to regain the person that I was before. But also understanding that you always change, you will be wiser and stronger and will have grown from the process. You know but holding onto that idea, but thinking actively around, what do I need right now to feel safe? Do I need to experience something with my partner that I’m not experiencing right now?

But also understanding that very common for people who have lived through a betrayal trauma or a relational trauma to try to manage their own anxiety by now controlling the behaviors of other people that feel scary or threatening to them or avoiding being in certain situations with your partner, preventing your partner from being in certain situations that feel threatening to you. Just realizing that while we need to validate your needs for safety and think about what that is.

How To Heal From A Trauma

We also really need to be actively doing that in healthy ways that focus on our own abilities to regulate our emotions, to feel safe on the inside through our inner narrative, through our ways of talking to ourselves by the ability to be emotionally safe inside of ourselves no matter what other people do or don’t do and really identifying in a reality-based way, you know, what is actually a threat, what is a sign that I am in danger in this relationship, you know, little d danger, like what is a sign that I am being betrayed or that I am with somebody who is untrustworthy?

What is a sign that I’m with someone who doesn’t really care about my needs and rights and feelings versus what is the residue, is what I’m trying to say of the original betrayal that is making me feel unsafe. In the presence of relationally neutral or even positive things, because that’s part of why any kind of trauma is so hard, is that people don’t feel safe even when they are safe. 

Beginning to map that out in a deliberate way, when am I safe? How would I know if I’m not safe and what do I do if I’m not feeling safe on the inside? How do I manage that? You know, in situations where it’s actually my job to calm down as opposed to now try to control somebody else or avoid situations. That also, you know, in addition, requires a lot of emotional validation, right? Whenever we’re going through a traumatic response, it brings up feelings, angry, sad, confused, guilt, shame, fear, all the things.

Being able to tolerate and kind of stay in the ring with these dark emotions is necessary for healing. That is part of the reason why I recommend therapy if you’re going through this, because that is the job of your therapist, is to help you stay in the ring with things that you would maybe rather not be thinking about or feeling or talking about, but that are actually quite necessary, but also helping you do this in productive ways, you know, we’re not just ruminating, we’re naming them, noticing them, feeling them, and then processing them in the in the… as a result of that exploration, that’s important to do. A journaling practice might be really important if that’s something that you would like to explore, just for the purpose of, you know, I’m not here to change anything. I am just here to notice what’s going on inside of me and validate that in a very intentional way. 

Then with that in mind, you know, the next stages of healing are to figure out how to create safety, which is absolutely necessary to heal any kind of trauma, particularly in traumas that are relational betrayal traumas like we are often hurt by others and we are by others too. There are hurtful relationships and there are healing relationships, and so how do we start having corrective emotional experiences with. Not just other humans, but within ourselves. You know, like how do we create emotional safety, physiological safety, relational safety for ourselves, within ourselves?

That is important to know, I think that trauma is a very physiological experience that is not rational in nature. We have very old and deep and powerful parts of our brains and our bodies that exist for the sole purpose of saving your life. When we have experienced trauma, those parts of us get mobilized because in that trauma itself, our bodies experience a life-threatening something, right? 

You know, an attachment, trauma or betrayal can be experienced as dangerous as a life-threatening event because our attachment bonds are so fundamentally important to us. But when that happens we will have a non-conscious, very real physiological response that makes us feel flooded, flooded with terror, flooded with anger, flooded with fear. Sometimes people get flooded and they just feel really sleepy, it can show up in all kinds of very interesting ways, but in order to begin processing that and you know, moving it around and transforming, safety, safety is the number one most important thing.

It is not possible to heal from trauma, particularly from a betrayal trauma. If you are still in a situation where you are not, you don’t know if you’re safe or not, and this can be very complex if you are in a relationship with somebody where there’s been an affair or financial infidelity, right, something like that and you are not experiencing the things that you need to experience with them in order to feel safe enough to heal. Like if they’re still kind of being weirdos or cagey about certain things, or not emotionally responsive to you if they haven’t done enough work on themselves to be a partner in your healing.

You know, while it is your responsibility to manage your traumatic responses in such a way that they don’t damage an otherwise healthy relationship. You know, it’s not uncommon at all for people who are dealing with us to still be in relationships with people who are asking them to get over it. But not really being the kind of partner in healing that is required for actual healing to work. You know, sometimes a big piece of this can figure out, do I need to make structural changes to know that I’m safe before it’s not just, you know, reasonable for me to heal, but before it’s responsible to heal because the other thing about traumatic responses is that if you aren’t safe, that’s part of like your red flag warning system that will help keep you safe.

If you are dealing with people who are not trustworthy and who might hurt you, having a trauma response where you’re feeling afraid or angry is really healthy and it’s really protective and it’s important to not disassemble that or make this about, you know, your trust issues or your trauma response, if you are in fact maybe not safe. There’s a lot here, there’s a lot here. But assuming that that safety has been created, then the next steps of this often involve, some kind of exposure therapy, exposure processing, where you’re kind of going back through the events, making sense of them in their mind, and really kind of moving this like physiological limbic brain. fear response into a part of your brain where meaning is made, where our thoughts are more powerful than our feelings. We’re able to process it, we’re able to create a story that helps us. I I think part of this too is learning how to act in ways that are congruent with who you are, who you want to be, and the kind of outcomes that you want to have, no matter how you are feeling on the inside.

That would be consistent with things like Acceptance and Commitment therapy or the goal of which is to teach us how to notice, accept, be compassionate with and manage strong emotions that we’re having on the inside while also being careful, deliberate and intentional to be able to manage the way we behave.

That may be very different from how we’re feeling. For example, I am feeling flooded, I’m feeling very anxious with this person because, you know, I, I know I’m having a trauma trigger go off right now, I had an employee in the past who stole from me, and I just had a weird experience with this person.

If we just acted in the way that we felt at that moment, we may be hostile, accusatory, angry, not handling it well, essentially. But, the work here is to notice, ooh, this is how I’m feeling. I have some regulation skills. How do I kind of talk myself down and feel, okay enough to have a thoughtful, productive, authentic conversation about the experience that I just had with an employee that strengthens our relationship, adds to the trust, is a positive experience for them and for me, is more likely to lead to the result that I want, which is just a conversation about something that probably makes perfect sense.

We’re not, you know, like jumping to conclusions and behaving like something terrible is happening when maybe it’s actually not. That’s a big piece of this work too. Then, finally, you know, another important part of this is once we’ve done this work and we’re able to manage ourselves, process those feelings will still always probably be more sensitive to some situations because of the traumas that we have experienced butt you know that we’re not, they’re not driving the bus, they’re not running our lives anymore, we can with clarity and confidence.

Figure out how to use what we have experienced to set healthy boundaries with other people. You know, these experiences can be quite instructive and help us understand more about other people, about warning signs that we may not have been aware of before.

But also about us, you know, I mean, part of this work, can be a lot of processing around why did this happen? That’s not all about, you know, let me tell you the 87 reasons why this person was untrustworthy and a narcissistic sociopath. What was it about me that allowed this to happen and not in a super self-critical way.

Not that it’s all your fault, not blaming yourself into oblivion, but having an honest conversation around, you know what, I’m in this situation again. How would I like to handle this differently? What would I be looking for differently? How would I respond to some of these situations in a way that probably would’ve helped me if I had done that last time. You know, if we’re not using these experiences to help us grow, we’re not fully benefiting from them, and we’re also not doing all of the work, right? These things can help you learn about yourself, be able to set healthy boundaries, and because of that, grow more confident and trusting of yourself in the process.

Again, so much here and I would strongly advise you to get the support of a good therapist to help you work through this trauma informed therapist. In a sense of betrayal trauma to work with somebody who really understands relationships like a marriage and family therapist. If the context of your betrayal was like a career related trauma, it could be a great idea to seek out a career counselor to do this with.

On that note, most career counselors or career coaches are not trained as therapists, they can provide career counseling, but have not been taught how to handle, you know, trauma and how to help you work through that. If it was a workplace trauma that you had ex experienced, I would strongly encourage you to seek out a career counselor who is a licensed therapist.

Looking for a licensed therapist who specializes in a career is the way to go there. Then also making sure that they feel comfortable in working with trauma as well. Then very lastly, if the betrayal trauma you’re experiencing is part of an affair situation or if there was infidelity involved, there are many other facets and variables of that kind of trauma that are honestly, complex and difficult to heal from. So very important that you’re connecting with a highly competent MFT and you might also consider listening to some of the other podcasts that I put together for you on affair recovery in particular.

So other episodes that would be helpful to you: Sorry’s Not Good Enough. How to Repair the Trust in a Relationship, I think another one is called Stages of Healing After an Affair. There might be one around affair recovery then also certainly consider listening to another podcast that I did on the topic of how to trust yourself, because think that’s important too.

I’m trying to think of other resources, I know there’s one, how to feel more secure in a relationship that could additionally be helpful. But in addition to just, you know, frantically taking notes on your phone as you’re listening to this podcast, there is an easier way to access all of these. I have actually created all the stuff that I do into little content collections for you.

If you go to my website, growingself.com, go to the blog and podcast page, and from there, you can choose the Love Collection, Happiness Collection or Success Collection, and enter into those, and then you’ll find specific content collections. Example, there’s a whole collection on affair recovery where you’ll find some of the podcasts that I mentioned.

There is a collection on emotional, where you’ll find other podcasts that I mentioned, you know, like around trusting yourself, those kinds of things. But anyway, podcasts are there and also like a lot of articles, some of which I have written, some of which have been written by other therapists and coaches on my team that are just excellent.

They’re so helpful and really very generous with their advice, you can check those out. They’re all free, they’re all there for you, and I hope that they support you in your journey of growth and healing, and I hope that, you know, hearing the ideas that I shared today were helpful for you too.

Okay, here’s more Men I Trust with Billie Toppy. Enjoy it and I’ll be back in touch next week with another episode. Take care.

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