As this healing identity came into focus, Debbie could see clearly that she’d become bitter, anxious, and irritable during her marriage, not the kind of person she wanted to be. It isn’t unusual for people to cope by mirroring the unwanted behaviors of those who’ve betrayed them. To combat this tendency and remind clients of who they want to be, I ask them to write a letter to themselves, stating how they’ll behave differently from their betrayers. Debbie wrote, “He lied all the time; I’ll be truthful in all my relationships. He cheated on me; I’ll be loyal and sensitive to the well-being of those I love. He abused me; I’ll be compassionate to those I love. He was manipulative; I’ll be kind and supportive to those I love. He criticized me for reading too much; I’ll enjoy learning.”
Soon after writing her letter, Debbie decided to pursue a forgotten dream of launching an online macramé outlet, and she set a goal of volunteering at an animal-rescue operation once a month, which she’d enjoyed doing before her husband had ridiculed the activity as a “waste of time.”
Reconditioning the Mind
Emotional healing happens when the brain associates painful images of injury or damage with restorative images of personal symbolic significance. Restorative images motivate behavior that encourages growth and enhances a sense of safety and well-being. For most people, this process occurs naturally over time, as is evident in the normal grieving process following the death of a loved one. In the beginning, memories of the deceased amplify the sense of loss and inhibit emotional investment in others; over time, however, the focus shifts from what’s been lost to what’s been gained from knowing the loved one. This shift allows positive memories, or restorative images, of the deceased to dominate the mind.
To move on from her negative memory loops, Debbie made a list of all the multiple betrayals in her marriage, and then she chose restorative images—such as holding both her children when they were babies, her favorite necklace made by a close friend, and helping her arthritic neighbor weed his garden—to counteract each negative item on her list. To begin the reconditioning process, she put aside 15 minutes every day to go over her practice of pairing restorative images with each painful memory on the list. For most people, this activity becomes easier after a few days, but Debbie was still having difficulty after several weeks. So she tripled her list of restorative images and increased her practice sessions to seven times a day, repeating the associations for as long as it took to feel calm—usually around 10 to 12 minutes. Within six weeks, as she succeeded in training her mind to invoke her restorative images automatically, the intrusive images of betrayal waned in frequency and intensity. For the first time in her life, she felt as though she could control her thoughts and feelings.
Guilt and Shame vs. Compassion
In the aftermath of intimate betrayal, people often experience deep guilt and shame, but the key to healing is for clients to develop self-compassion and an understanding that their worth isn’t a reflection of how they’ve been treated. Instead, their self-value is ultimately connected to their deeper values and feeling of compassion for others.
To help Debbie find an alternative to the negative emotional states that dominated her life, I asked her to list the things causing her to feel guilt or shame and then to explore possible ways of expressing self-compassion and compassion for others. The following example of the process is one of several she came up with.
- Guilt/shame: I lied to my family about the abuse I suffered all through my marriage, falsely assuring them that things were fine.
- Self-compassion: I was so ashamed that I couldn’t face the truth myself. I’ll embrace the power of truth in the future, because I’m a truthful person.
- Compassion for others: I’ll assure my loved ones that they deserve the chance to be compassionate and helpful to me. I’ll be honest and open with them.
It took several sessions, with plenty of homework, for Debbie to finalize her lists, but soon she was incorporating what she wrote into her actions on a daily basis. The process of extending compassion to herself and others helped her clarify and embrace her deepest values.