Betrayal is a normal human experience. Having gone a few rounds with it myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that the worst of the pain and damage betrayal causes is not about the immediate harm done. It’s about my relationship with reality.
Partly this is because my sense of self is relational. I don’t see myself as a discreet unit. Who I am is informed by who I interact with and how I interact with them. Who I love, who I invest in, and who I spend my time with shapes my identity. If I trust someone and they betray that trust, I am left questioning who I am. The more invested I was, the more disorientating it is. I then have to decide whether the broken trust is somehow my fault – I know I am pre-disposed to self blame. I question whether I deserved it and what it says about me. On several occasions of back-stabbing, I’ve just had to retreat from everyone because it has left me feeling like I couldn’t do relationships with people at all. These days I am a good deal more resilient.
When we invest trust in a person, we invest in them as part of our reality. When they break that trust, it can be world shattering. I’ve been round this a few times now, and for reasons of comfort am going to focus on the oldest example I’ve experienced. I was in my early twenties, and I worked with someone for a year. At the end of that year, it became obvious that I’d been lied to at every turn, used, and compromised. The worst of the damage was done to someone else. My reality was broken. I no longer knew what was real, or what I could trust. It took me a long time to pick the truth from the lies, and I felt very unstable and vulnerable as I was doing it.
I’ve had to repeat that process several times now, with varying degrees of severity. I note that the shock to my sense of what’s real is the hardest thing to take. I watch myself flailing about trying to make a new story that accommodates everything. I doubt myself – how could I have been so blind, so foolish, so naive? Is this what happens to people who are too trusting? Should I harden myself, close my heart, keep everyone out… Each time I’ve been round this I’ve taken the conscious decision not to let whatever’s happened become the story my life revolves around. I choose not to treat anyone based on the ways I have been betrayed by those I trusted. I give other people second chances and third chances and opportunities to do better. I keep my heart open, even when openness feels like a bleeding wound. It is a choice.
Not all betrayals are deliberate, some are just awkward collisions of people on different trajectories who mean each other no harm but cannot help the damage done. It does not take long to see that in a set of experiences. The normal ending of a romantic relationship can be much that way. What feels like betrayal at the time softens with perspective, becomes understandable and easier to let go of. Deliberate betrayal is a whole other thing. It’s usually full of lies and the intent to mislead. It may well include the intention to cause harm and inflict suffering. It may want your money or other resources, it may just be in it for the pleasure of seeing you knocked down. It encourages you to see the worst in everyone.
I think back over the people who I know have deliberately betrayed me in this sort of way. I note that none of them were happy or confident, even though most presented as really sure of themselves. I note that there was a lot wrong in their lives, and where I know how it played out after me, that remains the case. I think they were all so invested in the idea of being unlovable, that they would break the person who loved them rather than change their own story. Which is tragic. Most people, given some safe space to thrive in, will thrive. Some people are so wounded in themselves that they have to fail, they have to ruin everything so as to confirm their own stories about their own identity. Of course it’s disorientating when you get caught up in someone else’s madness in that way. But, the one thing that cannot be done, is to save a person from themselves. Only they can do that.