Betrayal Trauma in Childhood

Keywords: Betrayal Trauma

The hurt of betrayal and dishonored trust will be one of the deep pains you will carry with you when you have gone through and had to deal with childhood trauma.

Often, your childhood trauma relates directly to those who were close to you when you were young; your parents, siblings, close family, or friends.

When you are young, you are vulnerable and dependent on your prime caregivers for safety and emotional and physical nourishment. When that safety isn’t provided, is lacking, or even turns into physical, emotional or sexual abuse, you are left with a deep sense of betrayal which is so painful that you will very likely not be able to sustain that level of emotional pain.

You will dissociate.

Reacting Out of Dishonored Trust

When you dissociate as a survival mechanism, you create coping structures on top of your emotional wounds. You will, in effect, choose survival patterns that will best fit your situation in order to maintain some sense of integrity and sense of self.

Over time, you will likely also develop issues around trust and relationships, and get entangled in reenactment patterns that can further retraumatize.

When you feel betrayed, your mind naturally moves to its opposite.

You either have a deep longing for wanting to be loved and honored, or you will have made a resolution to yourself, when you are young and betrayal is reinforced through further experiences, that nobody can be trusted and you have to go at it on your own.

When you are young, you are vulnerable and dependent on your prime caregivers for safety and emotional and physical nourishment. When that safety isn’t provided, is lacking, or even turns into physical, emotional or sexual abuse, you are left with a deep sense of betrayal which is so painful that you will very likely not be able to sustain that level of emotional pain. 

A third option might be that you pendulate between those two states of wanting to be loved and honored and trusting too much, getting hurt in the process, and thereby going back to your belief that nobody can be trusted.

The Hurt of Betrayal and The Pleas-Appease Response

As the pain of betrayal and dishonored trust sits on such a deep and primal level in your consciousness when you were still developing a sense of self, its impact will be enormous.

Without a foundation of safety and security, many of the characteristics you develop later will be built on top of your initial hurt and relate directly to it.

You might default to keeping others at a distance, and have difficulty engaging, socializing, and interacting.
When the feelings of isolation and loneliness turn into depression, you might get stuck there, or move towards its opposite by trying to connect, trusting too much in the process and getting hurt again by someone who takes advantage of that trust, or who feels threatened by the weight of your expectations and withdraws from relating to you.

Both lead you to feel hurt once again.

This cycle will continue when these processes stay unconscious.

The example above outlines a flight response—isolation—followed by a please response—trusting too much and perhaps having too many expectations which comes out of your initial hurt—followed by a shutdown-freeze response when there is blowback.

The Fight Response and Repercussions

Another way of coping might be that you default to a fight response. The hurt of dishonored trust and betrayal makes you act as though nobody can be trusted.

Your sole belief is that you are in a dog-eat-dog reality, and the only way to win, and to compensate for not feeling good enough, is to gain a sense of control and dominance in each and every situation.

This might express itself in a mild way, such as having to have the last word in every discussion; perhaps you may be somewhat self-righteous; or, it can morph into something much more destructive.

If you look into the world, you can probably see how rampant narcissism and psychopathic behavior has become, especially in those who are in positions of power and influence, which might well be the outcome of and the compensation for their early life emotional pain.

How Unaddressed Pain Will Always Go Full Circle

Because the fight-response still comes out of an initial hurt, at some point there will be a point of defeat.

A breakdown.

This must happen because the fight-response comes out of an emotional wound and so it always must go full circle, back towards the fear of being hurt again, and the terror of connecting with the pain of betrayal.

The Possibilities of Post Traumatic Growth

Those breakdowns are also where the possibility of growth and breakthrough lies.

You have gone full circle through some of your emotional and hardwired nervous system patterns.

You can either reinforce the cycle of hurt by repeating similar experiences in different circumstances; or, by bringing awareness to these processes, create a variable and allow the energy that is invested in these reactionary dissociative survival patterns of fight, flight, please-appease, and freeze-shutdown responses to flow back into awareness.

As you awaken and become aware of your patterns of reenactment, you will have to start moving through the various layers through which you have been coping, surviving, dissociating, and acting.

You will have to observe the shutdown, depression, and freeze response, and realize that dissociation is a ‘safe’ place when you feel emotionally too overwhelmed.

When you take away any conflict around dissociation and depression, at some point you will have to start to address your coping emotions; your fight-anger response, your flight-please-appease response, your unrealistic expectations and how they relate directly to your past, your anxiety about being hurt again, and so forth and so on.

You will have to do this until, by working through the layers, you are able to connect with the hurt of betrayal and the lack of emotional safety; the rawness of it, the deep sadness of not being honored and protected.

Healing will take time as you will likely be reacting to your emotional pain. It will be a process of awakening.

To your recovery,

  • Hele says:

    Thank you, Roland. As always, you have accurately put into words a process that is difficult to share. While reading, I found myself nodding, and saying, “Yes, yes, that is just how things were/ sometimes are for me. Clearly I relate to the flight-please-appease behavior pattern. Being with an amazing therapist has helped me see and work through the process of healing. Thank you for your amazing insights, Roland.

  • bob says:

    this is perfectly explaining what i’m going though now and what i’ve realised i need to do to heal, thanks for writing this very clear and helpful article. I’m so close to connecting with my original emotional betrayal and the true raw sadness of my trauma and connecting with the lost part of my soul.

  • Cécile says:

    Oh wow. Amazing article which confirms everything I have been experiencing and working on for the past 10 months through EMDR and for many years before…narcissism and psychopathy are rampant which means child victims of all sorts of abuse are also rampant. This is the sad reality.

  • Lorraine says:

    Thanks Roland for naming the feeling in the battle to recover as ‘betrayal’. When I read this article I had a moment of recognition & relief knowing that ‘yes’ betrayal is what I felt so often way back then as a child & teenager. Also I after realising how my husband had mistreated me. Now I am experiencing it again just remembering but now I recognise it as what was and will deal with it now & move forward to stop the circles that still happen.

  • Guest says:

    Everything you have said is so true. My problem is I do recognize the fight-flight, appease etc. I don’t know where to start healing. My whole life so far has been about betrayal, neglect the feeling of never being good enough to be loved and appreciated. The 1 person who loved me unconditionally passed away. How do I change my mindset and heal?

  • Maria says:

    I just read about my life. I am 63 today. After my father died on my 13th Birthday my mother moved our family closer to her family. From then on I was sexually abused by 2 uncles and 3 adult male family friends for years. I told my mother about the first one but for some reason I was always accused of lying. I never told her about the rest. I managed to get to this point in my life on my own but it was extremely difficult and always kept things to myself. I don’t believe I have healed, I have just shoved it all into a box in my head. It seeps out every now and then. I did get married and had 3 children, my husband found out about the abuse but was not understanding at all and told me it was in the past and to forget about it but he would also do things to me that were uncomfortable and wouldn’t change his behaviour which eventually led to divorce. I live alone with my pets and I will stay single for the rest of my life. I cannot stand the thought of ever sharing my life with another man. I still sometimes wish I was dead but I have children and grandchildren and my pets rely on me for their lives and they are the only reason I still live. I apologise for the long “saga”.

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