The Tragedy of Unexpected Betrayal
By Elayne Savage, Ph.D.
It's hard not to take it personally. I find myself distressed by recent events in Washington. I'm trying to understand why I have this sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. It seems to be affecting me in a personal way -- as if it were happening to me.
In a way, I guess, it is. Or was. Memories come flooding back -- of being betrayed by people I thought I could trust.
What I find most upsetting is the double-cross between the so-called "friends," Monica and Linda, and the puppeteer-like manipulation by the third one, Lucianne. This kind of treachery calls up my own childhood and adolescent experiences of rejection and betrayal by peers.
Most of us have painful memories of junior high or high school days. Who hasn't felt anxious and overwhelmed by peer pressure. Who hasn't experienced shunning, teasing, baiting, harassing, tattling, name-calling, secret-telling or rumor-spreading. These plagues can be found in the classroom, on the playground, in competitive activities, between friends, and most certainly between enemies.
Enemies can be especially vicious if they think you've crossed them. If they see it as a personal affront, they fight back with the dirtiest of personal attacks. The barrage of lies and distortions seems never-ending. It's humiliating.
But even more devastating are unexpected betrayals by friends. Did your best friend ever suddenly stop talking to you? One day that person was your loyal friend and the next day was freezing you out or shifting allegiance to your arch enemy. Do you remember how miserable and alone you felt? How it seemed surreal, like a bad dream? You may have found yourself thinking, “How could this be happening to me?”
This may not be the first time you felt hurt or disrespected by peers. It often starts in the sandbox when one child flicks sand at another. The picked-on child feels hurt and confused. "Why me? What did I do? Do I just sit here and take it? Do I try to ignore it and pretend nothing happened? Or do I up the ante and flick sand back?"
We also feel betrayed when people disappoint us, especially parents and teachers. When we place people on pedestals and view them as icons, they might come tumbling down. We may begin to doubt our own perceptions, thinking, "How could I have been so wrong." And the more unrealistic our expectations, the bigger the disappointments, and the more we take it personally.
There often comes a time when we realize our parents or teachers aren't the "pin-ups" we thought they were. We begin to see them as all-too-human beings. They sometimes make mistakes that end up being hurtful. For example, a parent may fail to protect their child from harsh treatment by others. Or they may not realize that a separation or divorce can feel like an abandonment in the eyes of a child. Some teachers read out the names of students who get low grades on a test. Others might make an "example" of certain students to try to shame them into complying. It feels so unfair to be singled out like that.
Feelings get hurt whether these actions are intentional or not. What counts most is the child's perception of the event. For years to come these impressions affect our beliefs about the safety of our world and the people in it, causing huge gouges in our sense of well-being and ability to trust.
These imprints follow us into adulthood, having an immense effect on present day events. New hurts pile on top of old ones, and it doesn't take much for this stockpile to ignite. Our larger-than-life responses often take us by surprise. And we wonder, "Why on earth am I reacting like this?"
There's lots of overreacting in Washington these days. Maybe something useful will come of it all. At least for me it presents the opportunity to make some personal discoveries. I'm sure learning a lot about betrayal.
Elayne Savage is a Berkeley psychotherapist, consultant and author.
© Elayne Savage, Ph.D.
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