After a mind-bending abandonment by my long-time partner I received a lot of well-meaning advice. Some friends recommended to me, if I was serious about healing, that I take “one-hundred percent responsibility for everything that happened.”
When I expressed my pain and outrage, others suggested more benignly, “you know, there are two sides to every story,” “everything is for the best,” or “with a couple, everything is fifty/fifty.”
I searched diligently in myself to find the bright side, and the “fifty/fifty responsibility” key. For I, too, had accepted these attitudes—almost as articles of faith—until I went through this emotionally violent event. Now I could no longer make these neat, tidy, appealing formulas, meant to erase all blame and resentment, and instill instant forgiveness, fit the facts of having my trust betrayed and my life shattered.
Attitude Is Everything
We live in a culture that is blind to betrayal and intolerant of emotional pain. In New Age crowds here on the West Coast, where your attitude is considered the sole determinant of the impact an event has on you, it gets even worse.In these New Thought circles, no matter what happens to you, it is assumed that you have created your own reality. Not only have you chosen the event, no matter how horrible, for your personal growth. You also chose how you interpret what happened—as if there are no interpersonal facts, only interpretations.
The upshot of this perspective is that your suffering would vanish if only you adopted a more evolved perspective and stopped feeling aggrieved. I was often kindly reminded (and believed it myself), “there are no victims.” How can you be a victim when you are responsible for your circumstances?
When you most need validation and support to get through the worst pain of your life, to be confronted with the well-meaning, but quasi-religious fervor of these insidious half-truths can be deeply demoralizing. This kind of advice feeds guilt and shame, inhibits grieving, encourages grandiosity and can drive you to be alone to shield your vulnerability.
Blame is a Defense Against Powerlessness
Betrayal trauma changes you. You have endured a life-altering shock, and are likely living with PTSD symptoms— hypervigilance, flashbacks and bewilderment—with broken trust, with the inability to cope with many situations, and with the complete shut down of parts of your mind, including your ability to focus and regulate your emotions.
Nevertheless, if you are unable to recognize the higher purpose in your pain, to forgive and forget and move on, you clearly have chosen to be addicted to your pain and must enjoy playing the victim.
And the worst is, we are only too ready to agree with this assessment! Trauma victims commonly blame themselves. Blaming oneself for the shame of being a victim is recognized by trauma specialists as a defense against the extreme powerlessness we feel in the wake of a traumatic event. Self-blame continues the illusion of control shock destroys, but prevents us from the necessary working through of the traumatic feelings and memories to heal and recover.
What is wrong with this picture? In the next post I will explore why we are so negative about victimhood.
Adapted from “Love and the Mystery of Betrayal” —now available in print and ebook.