Betrayal and Feeling Unsafe
Many clients who have difficulty trusting and depending on people had childhoods in which they experienced big T or little t trauma. It’s one thing to have your brother sexually abuse you (big T), another to have an alcoholic parent constantly berate and belittle you for not living up to his or her expectations, and another to have both parents leave you hungry and cold night after night, neglecting your needs because they’re out partying. All three examples illustrate not only traumatic experiences but betrayal.
In “Trauma and Betrayal: Complex Combination” (Social Work Today, May/June 2019, pp-23), Scott Janssen, MSW, LCSW argues that “Betrayal originates in action, or a failure of action, by individuals, groups, or institutions that causes harm to those who have given their trust.” In most childhood cases, we’re talking about parents or relatives who care for us. Scott goes on to say that, “The effects of betrayal can share features with PTSD, making it difficult at times to differential between them.” He explains that “Psychological trauma and the wound of betrayal often originate from the same events,” characterized by the person hurting you being the one who should protect you or this person looking the other way as someone else repeatedly causes you pain.
If you get beaten by the school bully and need to be hospitalized and your parent is there for you, that’s different than if it’s your father hitting you so hard that you end up in the ER. You expect to be able to trust your parents to protect and take care of you. This trust is violated and upends your world if the perpetrator of violence is your parent. Another example is if your brother repeatedly sexually assaults you and you tell your mother but she doesn’t believe you and, instead, punishes you for telling tales. Or if your father makes excuses for your mother being unable to care for you because she’s drunk and passed out all day every day. He should be protecting you, not her.
Betrayals go beyond childhood and personal caretakers, extending to institutions. Maybe you get raped at a frat party, but the school refuses to press charges against your rapist. School officials were supposed to protect you but betray you by looking the other way. Or maybe as a combat soldier you see a buddy die. Upon your return home, you exhibit PTSD symptoms, but the VA says they have no treatment slots and will put you on a waiting list. In this case, your government betrays you by not being there to care for you when you need emotional help.
If you don’t trust people, look to past betrayals to understand why, but remember that though a handful of people were not there for you when you needed them, there are many more who would be honored to protect and take care of you now.