Betrayal is a bad trip. It ain’t over ’til it’s over, and even then, it’s not over. You may have gnarly flashbacks. No matter how hard you wish away this horrible software update, you won’t get your old life back. The past only exists as a flawed and inaccurate memory now, and integrating this new and awful experience may require building a new life around it. There’s no way around the fact that it sucks.
When you’re done dirty
“Betrayal trauma” is a clinical concept that is pretty much what it sounds like. It’s the pain that remains when you’re out of harm’s way. It’s the cruel gag gift that keeps on giving.
There’s no way to erase it immediately, and you’ll probably hurt yourself more if you try. But there are a few things you can do that may eventually make the fire alarm feel like a less urgent part of your moment-to-moment experience.
When you’re done dirty, here’s what you can do.
Know it’s not about you
When you’re fresh off the shock of betrayal, it’s easy to blame yourself. Sometimes it can even make you feel more powerful — if it was really your fault, you can prevent it from happening again. But self-flagellation expends resources you can’t afford to lose.
And the truth is, it’s not about you. Betrayal is common. People lie, cheat, and hurt each other for cheap thrills, for fleeting personal gain, or just because they can. It’s impossible to know what anyone else is really thinking — no one can be 100% honest without being locked up or shot — and you could be betrayed by a comrade, romantic partner, or institution at any time.
Anyone with values will eventually get hurt in a world that incentivizes sociopathy. It’s cold comfort, yes, but it’s not your fault, it doesn’t say anything bad about you, and you’re hardly alone.
Know you might not feel like yourself — and you might not want to
When you get hurt, you’ll want to escape the pain. If it’s a wound to the core of your identity, you may even want to become someone else. One scary way in which betrayal feels like a bad trip is that you can lose track of your sense of self.
Psychedelic drug enthusiasts will pay thousands of dollars for this privilege, but it’s not much fun when it’s not consensual.
Dissociation is a common symptom of PTSD. If it lingers, certain therapeutic modalities, such as ketamine-assisted therapy or EMDR, might be worth exploring.
Notice if you turn against yourself
It’s not unusual to blame yourself for your own betrayal, wishing you’d kept your guard up and read the tea leaves differently. There’s no reason to feel guilty about feeling guilty, especially if it can help you better define and defend your boundaries, which it might, from the right perspective. But it can quickly curdle into a crisis.
If you’re deeply attached to the person, group, or concept that betrayed you, you may find yourself going to extreme, self-destructive lengths to preserve that part of your identity. As if being back-stabbed by your nearest and dearest wasn’t enough, you might even take their side and start betraying yourself. Bet you didn’t see that coming.
This is particularly common in cases of intimate-partner betrayal. When you’re determined to preserve what you thought was your most meaningful relationship — even if it means slicing up your own heart, guts, and sex organs — it results in predictable patterns of self-defeating shenanigans.
So you caught your partner cheating…
(As an aside: I can’t make your decisions for you, but based on everything I know, real reconciliation is rare, and you’re better off cutting your losses, whatever that entails for you.)
If it goes unchallenged, self-betrayal can wreck your self-esteem and lead to all kinds of rip-roaring capers. If you’re heading down this road, reach out to someone who will vigorously and unequivocably take your side. Easy to say, I know.
It’s hard to get through a traumatic experience without staunch and intimate allies, which can be a problem when it’s suddenly much harder to trust people.
When you’re wounded, it may take you a long time to get your social groove back. You may not like people that much. You may even dislike the people you like. You may behave in ways that are way out of character or isolate yourself to avoid alienating others, afraid they’ll wonder what the hell is wrong with you.
Make friends with your fear, mistrust, and paranoia — up to a point
And that’s okay. You get to be a skittish asshole for a while. Everyone is famous for 15 minutes, and everyone gets a week or two to be the worst person in the world.
Find the friends you can confide in, let them know what you’re going through, and stay close with those folks for now, even if it means shutting out anyone who’s not ride-or-die.
If your friends can’t allow you to mourn your betrayal, then you’re not the asshole. If they can, know that, someday, you can show them the same sort of strength and compassion.
Eventually, you’ll have to stop wallowing, but it doesn’t have to happen today.
Allow yourself to hurt
The best way to start healing Is to acknowledge and accept the rage and disillusionment. Give yourself room to fully feel that pain, even if it’s a slow process. Some of the best grief work happens when you ugly-cry, so let it rip, let it out, and let yourself grieve your losses now so you can cut them later.
And see if you can muster up some compassion for yourself. You’re the only one who truly knows what you’re going through. Make friends with your pain and paranoia, up to a point— they’re dicks, but they’re trying to help.
You’re not much fun right now, but you get it. So try to be there for yourself without laying on more guilt if you’re not feeling as tough as you want to.
Don’t get fooled again (until you’re good and ready)
There’s no set time to wait before you get back in the mix. You will need some time to heal and adequate psychic oxygen to care for yourself, but you’re not under quarantine.
You can’t heal in a vacuum, and some social activities might make you feel better if you can put them in the proper context.
(Another aside: In my experience, even a fun sexual fling can be good medicine as long as you a) don’t attach too much meaning to it, and b) realize that you will anyway and prepare yourself for some relatively manageable disappointment.)
Just know that, when you get back out there, you will make yourself vulnerable. There’s no way to eliminate the risk from life, and it’s doubtful that such a life would be stimulating enough to keep you awake. Practice guarding yourself enough to let your guard down, and expect to screw up a few times before you’re back in the swing of things.
Stop the cycle of asshole
When you’re hurt, it can be tempting to hurt someone else. You might think this will offload your anger or restore your high status. That’s fine, as long as it’s confined to fantasy.
And yet, if you’re capable of feeling the sting of betrayal, you can muster the emotional intelligence to know that hurting someone in real life will not help you. It’s much more likely to make you feel worse, and will certainly deepen your sense of alienation. Just don’t.
Instead, let this experience bring you greater awareness of the exquisite vulnerability of being human. Take stock of your values. Find strength in your integrity.
And don’t betray anyone else, unless you ask them first, or they ask you.
The world is small. Life is long. No one ever really gets away with anything. And no one is worth the trouble of screwing over.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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