Saturday, February 1, 2014

Exploring Betrayal & Disillusionment

This is an excerpt from my Masters Thesis, Cultivating the Orchid (2005)
[I'll be giving a workshop on February 21 - 22, 2014 Exploring Betrayal through Film; for more details]

"As betrayal strains the logical viewing of how the world works and the logical assumptions on which relationships are built, it throws the person experiencing it into an illogical mode where nothing fits – an inexpressible, altered state."~Caryl Gopfert

Gopfert’s description aptly describes my state after my own experience of betrayal during which touching tabletops was my most solid sense of reality. It took me almost a year to start fully trusting my perceptions once again. The beauty of this altered state as I experienced it is that it finally brought me to question profoundly the way I had viewed life and people, and what I had ended up creating for myself and why. In her dissertation, Student Experiences of Betrayal in the Zen Buddhist Teacher/Student Relationship, one of Gopfert’s interviewees proclaimed that her betrayal experience heralded the end of her projections onto idealized figures. Every time the opportunity presents itself, no matter how small, we have the chance to work this edge, to make this realization come to life in actual living.

One of the painful ways that life will teach us about ourselves is through disillusionment. This can key us into the ways in which we project, what we expect, what we set ourselves up for, what we turn a blind eye to, and how we give our power away, among other things. There are not very many crossroads we come to in our lives where what we experience irrevocably transforms us. These intersections are often devastating, and nothing that we would consciously choose. However, once we have traversed the crossroads, once the pain has subsided, we might become reflective. We have hopefully begun to live in new ways and we can appreciate the pain for what it was. Perhaps it was exactly the wake up call we needed to move on to the next stage in our development.

Often these experiences are disillusioning. In turn this disillusionment can be our best teacher. Psychotherapist Stephen Johnson points out that “disillusionment provides opportunity for developing ego structure and real self”. We demolish old beliefs and patterns and values that have kept us stuck. We raze the old, so that the new can be created. We free up layers of false self, and rebuild our lives in a more meaningful way, closer to our essential self, our true nature.

I myself needed the full experience, the disillusionment and the devastation, to grow beyond old beliefs and systems that were keeping me stuck. My experience of betrayal served to show me the truth about myself. Because I refused to see myself as a victim any longer, I took a good, hard look at myself and why this had happened, which aspects of myself set the stage for such an event to occur.

Betrayal comes in many forms, as does trauma. We cannot compare traumatic events or betrayals one to another. The depth of the trauma of betrayal very often depends on what it triggers in the betrayed. What one person might shrug off, ravages another. Gopfert says that “the betrayed may have given too much power to the betrayer out of the need to allow that person to hold the hidden aspects of him/herself”. What Gopfert is referring to by these hidden aspects are projections and idealization. She goes on to say the following:
"Such experiences are the path to adulthood … They also allow us to experience the integration of ambivalence … both betrayer and betrayed know what the other is doing, only they do not talk about it; there is mutual, though unconscious, complicity. We are both knowing and unknowing, noble and base, altruistic and narcissistic. Seeing the ambiguity in the other and in ourselves is important."

James Hillman, the highly respected Jungian psychologist, believes that the crisis of betrayal jettisons us into the “real world of human consciousness and responsibility”.
If the betrayer refuses to explain him/herself or give an accounting, Gopfert says that “the betrayed is left to make meaning through his/her own interpretation of the event.” According to Hillman, making this meaning is impossible if we fall into the traps he classifies as revenge, denial, cynicism, paranoia, or self-betrayal. 

What I would like to expand upon here is self-betrayal. Growing up, I always felt there was a treasure chest deep inside of me. I could not list the contents, but I knew what it felt like, and I had a sense of what it was. When I unveiled this part of myself and was betrayed, I felt like I was being spit out, like a bad taste in someone’s mouth. I told myself that I was stupid to think that the treasure chest really contained anything of value. This is where I betrayed myself. I dared to show that tender part, and when it was not honored, I told myself that it was worthless, after all. I was moved by Hillman’s description as follows:

"In the situation of trust, one lets something open. Something comes out that had been held in: “I never told this before in my whole life.” A confession, a poem, a love letter, a fantastic invention or scheme, a secret, a childhood drama or fear – which hold one’s deepest values. At the moment of betrayal, these delicate and very sensitive seed pearls become merely grit, grains of dust. The love letter becomes silly sentimental stuff, and the poem, the fear, the dream, the ambition, all reduced to something ridiculous, laughed at boorishly, explained in barnyard language as merde, just so much crap. The alchemical process is reversed: the gold turned back into feces .… For it was just through this trust in these fundamentals of one’s own nature that one was betrayed."

Working past betraying ourselves is exceedingly hard work. It entails both seeing the wrong committed and seeing our part in it. In the beginning, it is impossible to hold both these positions at once, so we flip-flop between who we blame, them or us. As Hillman stated, we cannot come to a resolution for ourselves if we get trapped by self-betrayal, denial, revenge, cynicism, or paranoia. If we are in denial, we might trivialize what has happened or stay in disbelief, by saying, “This can’t be happening to me.” For some, anger and revenge fantasies, while not ideal, are healthier than acting in, or taking the hurt and blame out on ourselves. If we become cynical, we devalue hope, faith, and goodness, in order not to be hurt again. If we become paranoid, we simply stop trusting. I have experienced all of the above.

The process has its own timing and pacing for each person. Each betrayal has its own specific, inherent lesson. It cannot be rushed. And instead of an eye for an eye, or turn the other cheek, there is a third option: transformation.


  1. Marla,
    Enantiadromia...over time the prey becomes the predator and then back again. The betrayed and the betrayer are linked in the paradox of opposites.
    Thank you for an excellent offering on betrayal.
    Aloha, Michael

  2. Thanks Michael. I've found my own inquiries on how 'betrayal" has appeared and worked in my life has led to lots of growth...