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Life After Betrayal: Getting past the victim identity

By Steven Stosny

Intimate betrayal strikes at the core of our capacity to trust and love, violating the fundamental expectation that gives us the courage to connect deeply—the belief that the person we love won’t intentionally hurt us. Whether the betrayal is through infidelity, emotional abuse, verbal aggression, or domestic violence, the psychological wound that cuts deepest is the perception that, ultimately, the person we love doesn’t care about our well-being. When humans feel betrayed, we tend to withdraw from contact or furiously lash out in distress, just as do other mammals suffering intense pain.

Cases of intimate betrayal require therapists to reach a balance between validating their clients’ pain and empowering them to improve their lives. If you don’t validate their experience enough, betrayed clients will resist your best therapeutic efforts, feeling you don’t understand their pain. However, if you validate their emotional suffering too much, they may get stuck in their intense and immediate pain. They may even feel that moving on in their lives means losing their identities, since many of them can’t imagine themselves as anything except depressed, anxious victims.

Finding this particular balance was my challenge with Debbie, who’d been married for more than 13 years to a resentful, highly critical man, who’d recently taken most of their retirement savings and left her for a younger woman. Seven months after her divorce was final, Debbie came to see me following an incident in which she’d burst into angry tears after a harried grocery checker had sighed at her for swiping her debit card backwards. Her instantaneous expression of remorse and embarrassment had only made the situation more awkward for her, the cashier, and the shoppers in line behind her.

This dramatic overreaction was one of many such incidents that had plagued Debbie since her divorce. Her previous therapist had tried to help her by exploring her emotions around her husband’s multiple betrayals and linking her anger, resentment, shame, and feelings of abandonment to childhood events. But her flare-ups over everyday occurrences had only increased. Finally, the therapist suggested she use medications, which she refused to do.

Taking a different tack, I assured Debbie that her feelings and reactions were normal—a natural response when a heart is scraped raw by a devastating betrayal. Rather than delving into her childhood, I proposed that we work on increasing her sense of self-worth while teaching her to embrace her deepest values. Through the process of becoming the person she wished to be, I said, she’d learn how to disarm her hair-trigger defense system.

Establishing a Healing Identity

The first therapeutic challenge with Debbie was to help her overcome her victim identity. Like so many who’ve suffered intimate betrayal, she’d come to identify with the bad treatment she’d suffered and all the defects and weaknesses she saw in herself as a result of it. To establish an alternate, healing identity—one that tapped into her resilience, deep values, and desire to improve her life—we began with an inventory of her strengths, which she decided were intelligence, curiosity, resourcefulness, adaptability, and integrity. Then we explored her deeper values, which she said were honesty, responsibility, spirituality, fairness, compassion, love, and appreciation of nature. When we sought out evidence of her resilience, she remembered a time several years before, when she’d recovered from a serious illness while dealing with the loss of her closest friend from breast cancer.

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