Lessons in Forgiveness From a Lifetime of Betrayal
Table of Contents
1. Firstly: some context
Many years ago — more than 10 — I wrote a new-agey post about soul contracts, although back then I called it a life theme. In case you don’t want to read it (it’s quite short), here is the guts of it:
Before we take human form, our essence decides what “theme” it would like to experience as a human. It could be hardship, or celebrity, or addiction, or ill-health, or deception, or joy, or poverty, or racism, or happiness. You get the picture. That theme is then played out in your human form until the essence returns from whence it came i.e. you die.
I came to this conclusion because the thread that permeates my life, the common denominator I’ve identified, is betrayal. I have been further betrayed since I wrote that post 10 years ago, more than even I thought possible or could anticipate, by people I never thought would.
At the back of my mind, I’d always think about betrayal and my soul contract and figure I had lessons to learn in this life, and these people, the ones who betrayed me, were my teachers. It didn’t make the hurt or pain any easier to deal with but at least there was an explanation. I could understand what was going on. There is my old friend betrayal, I would think to myself, making sure I didn’t forget what I was put on this earth to experience. And I’d process the hurt and move on, experiencing more betrayals as they happened, and in more unexpected ways. It was like the Universe was coming up with new and different ways for me to be betrayed, and generally the betrayals would come from left field. Unanticipated (my daughter). Unexpected (my sister and my niece). I wouldn’t examine the betrayal in any depth because I figured it was just my lot; I would merely and stoically acknowledge its presence: it had happened. Again. An acknowledgement was all that was required of me.
2. Betrayal: a working definition
Dealing with betrayal is not pleasant. The pain eats away at your bones. It’s exhausting, because it’s always with you. When you are betrayed by the very people who are not supposed to betray you, like family (father, mother, sister, daughter, niece), it almost obliterates your ability to trust, to feel joy. I say almost, because I have refused to let it. I will admit that I have gone to a very dark place once or twice, but it has not destroyed me, although it has at times, defined me and consumed me, practically eaten me alive from the inside out.
But what is betrayal? And why is it so destructive? According to Vocabulary.com betrayal is:
“an act of deliberate disloyalty”… betrayal’s root is betray, which comes from the Middle English word bitrayen — meaning “mislead, deceive.” Betrayal has to do with destroying someone’s trust, possibly by lying.
I have my own working definition because betrayal is not just about disloyalty, even though disloyalty is key: it is an act or acts done either consciously or unconsciously, and that act destroys someone’s faith or trust or belief in another, where this other is someone in whom one should have faith and trust and belief.
No wonder betrayal is so destructive. It’s like someone has kicked the scaffolding out from under you, leaving you dangling and precarious, without support. It corrodes the very foundation on which a relationship is built, and relationships are fundamental to human survival. It’s how we are wired. Lose that relationship, that connection, in such an underhanded and (often) surprising way, and the pain is real. It should come as no surprise to you that I hate surprises.
3. Betrayal trauma is real
I’ve revisited the concept of soul contracts again lately and in particular mine: that of betrayal. I’ve had the thought that acknowledgement may not be enough and that maybe there are further lessons to be learned courtesy of this theme that’s played out across my life. Indeed: maybe healing from all this betrayal trauma is actually the lesson. But how on Earth does one heal from something as devastating as betrayal in all its awful forms?
So I’ve done some digging.
When I discovered the ex who nearly destroyed me was a covert narcissist, it was by pure chance. I Googled what I was experiencing — that I knew this relationship wasn’t healthy but couldn’t understand why I struggled to leave and felt like I was going nuts — and landed on a post by Teal Swan about intermittent reinforcement and was horrified by what I read. Regardless of your opinion of Teal Swan, her post was instrumental in me never seeing my ex again: it literally saved me. Of course, I knew about narcissists — I worked with quite a few of the grandiose kind and had a physical aversion to them — but I was too smart and too worldly to actually be involved with one. Right? Along came a covert narcissist and there went that self-deception. If you want to know how I became entangled and escaped, you can read my book.
I digress. When I decided to dig around, it was as a result of two years of extraordinary betrayal. I was questioning the idea of soul contracts — and whether I wanted to, or could, get out of mine. I didn’t want to play anymore because it was all too devastating and destructive and hard. Turns out the jury is out on whether you can or you can’t cancel your soul contract. Irrespective, the contracts are there to teach us something — and our relationships, including with ourselves, are instrumental in learning the lesson.
So the question I ended up with was: what are the lessons that can be learned from betrayal? And that other more pressing question: how can I heal from betrayal trauma?
4. Can you really be healed?
I was drawn back to Teal Swan and found a video on healing. Down the rabbit hole I went.
Where something is unhealed, the pattern (energy in its most fundamental form) is exhibiting something that is not wanted. If healing means changing the pattern into something that is wanted, as Teal maintains, then to heal means the pattern must be changed to the opposite of the unwanted state. Lightbulb moment!
If I follow this reasoning, in order to heal, I needed to identify the opposite of betrayal. Immediately, my thoughts went to loyalty, which I quickly discarded. I can’t be loyal to my betrayer(s) because that would be ridiculous. I was loyal, and look where that got me. Betrayed. Nowhere. Going down the loyalty pathway would be metaphorical self-flagellation and that’s not particularly healing.
And then it struck me. If you are betrayed, you have one of two options. You can either seek revenge (that can’t be good and is definitely not the opposite pattern), or you can forgive: both the person who betrayed you, and yourself for trusting the betrayer.
5. What about forgiveness?
Aha! Forgiveness! Forgiving your betrayer is easier said than done. There are things a person can’t move on from. How do you forgive someone who has betrayed you? And how do forgive yourself for “allowing” the betrayer to get close enough to you to be able to betray in the first place? Will forgiveness mean that I have learned the lesson, and can now live the rest of my life in peace?
According to Teal, the way people generally deal with forgiveness is so damaging, it’s better not to even bother. No one can or should be forced to forgive anyone. No one should be guilt-tripped or emotionally blackmailed into forgiveness because conventional wisdom or well-meaning people deem it virtuous and “good for you“. Further, she says that forgiveness is simply the giving up of resentment or anger and the need for justice. Again: easier said than done, right? It’s much nicer to hold onto all that resentment and anger because the betrayal has to mean something. If you let go of the anger and resentment, it’s like the betrayal never happened. Who doesn’t want justice? Vengeance? Revenge? And isn’t giving up resentment and anger benefiting or even validating the betrayer?
If you forgive someone before you’re ready, and because it makes other people feel better, you damage yourself. Unforgiveness is a negative emotion, and you can’t just flick a switch or push a button to turn it off. In order to feel differently, you have to change your perspective entirely, and that can be super difficult, depending on the situation and circumstances. A child abused by a trusted family friend. A husband and father killed by a drunk driver. A divorce that leaves a woman homeless. Botched surgery that disables a healthy person. Scams. Family estrangement. Genocide. Apartheid. War. It’s almost impossible to see the positive from these things.
You can’t change what happened. You can’t unhappen it. Isn’t our energy better spent if we look towards the future, take action that improves the most hurt aspect of ourselves?
So what is needed to move forward and (eventually) be able to forgive? To move through the pain? Healing. And to heal, as discussed above, the opposite pattern needs to be the focus, not forgiveness. And there may be many layers to shifting the pattern to the opposite in order to heal. And one of the first steps is acceptance, that is, accepting and validating the reality of the painful emotional state you find yourself in, and acknowledging that you are not in a space to forgive. Non-acceptance of what happened is resistance, that is, a thought process that is rooted in the past. You can’t change what happened. You can’t unhappen it. Isn’t our energy better spent if we look towards the future, take action that improves the most hurt aspect of ourselves and, through this process, shift our perspective so that we have compassion for the villain by acknowledging that, they too, are in pain? And how can I get to a place of gratitude, which is a higher order emotion, where I view these betrayals as having added to my life, rather than subtracted from it?
I’m not sure I’m ready to cultivate compassion for the villains in my life — the ones who betrayed me. At least not yet. I can muster apathy for some of them because they don’t have the power to affect me, a sense peace from some who chose to absent themselves from my life, and grief and regret with others. Some of them I don’t think about because so many years have passed and what’s done is done. With others I understand why they did what they and why they made the choices they made but this doesn’t temper their actions or make what they did any easier to bear. Maybe recognising all this is small step in the process of accepting and letting go?
6. Can acceptance lead to forgiveness and healing?
A significant keys to unlocking healing is acceptance, that is, the reality of a situation or what is. Not accepting reality is not a bad thing — it’s often how the human race improves and progresses. Think transport, medicine, technology, social justice. However, not accepting things can lead to a life of suffering, which resonates with me. I have a strong sense of what is just and fair, and have been in many a stoush because things are neither just and fair — and should be, and I took it upon myself to try and make things better. It’s a pattern that has unfolded across my life, along with the theme of betrayal. Whatever we resist, persists.
I’ve spent the last year or so pondering the betrayals in my life, especially the more recent ones. How did it all go so wrong? What could I have done differently, if anything? If I knew then what I know now, would I do the same things with the same people? And the answer to this question is that I’m not so sure I would, but I can’t change anything. I can’t go back. These things have happened and here we are. My life, as it currently unfolds, is the truth of what is. I have no choice but to accept it.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. At times I resist, and the questions bounce around my head like a young child on a trampoline. These questions usually begin with what if…?. But these questions, in the end, don’t matter because this is my reality. This. right now. And all that that entails. Acceptance does not mean that I condone or like what happened. It just means that I acknowledge the reality of my right now. The facts. What is so. As much as I want things to be different, they are not.
The thing is: if you can’t accept what is, you can’t make lasting, positive changes in your life. You will be stuck in the rut of resistance unable to move forward from where you are, always using your energy to look back in anger (possibly) and mourn (probably) and ruminate on (likely) the what ifs, the should haves, the ought tos. You cannot prevent something happening that has already happened, as much as we wish we could. Hindsight, right?
Magic happens when the energy you would have poured into the regret and self-pity and anger of resisting reality is refocused into what can be done now, if anything. Sometimes doing nothing is the best course of action. I learned that the hard way. What I am doing is trying to shift my perspective to find the positive in what is, which is admittedly challenging and difficult. For example, if I hadn’t been stuck overseas and abandoned by the Australian government during the scamdemic (betrayal), I would not be studying law (the now). I couldn’t find a lawyer to help me challenge the hotel quarantine fee (what is so, the reality), so I decided to become a lawyer and self-represent (the now). Studying law has opened up a whole new world for me at a time when I really did wonder why I came back to Australia (positive perspective change). I don’t like what the Australian government did to 100s of 1000s of us, and I certainly don’t condone it (hence studying law). And to be honest, I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive them. See how complicated this all is?
7. Letting go
Am I finding it easier to accept and let go the betrayals? I’d like to say yes, but every day is a work in progress. I do catch myself feeling happy, content and at peace, particularly in the last six months. Is this what healing is? Maybe. I do know that I’m fighting with things and myself less. I’m calmer. Probably nicer and kinder (mostly) and more relaxing to be around. Not so angsty. My energy is back to a point where people comment on it and are drawn to me because of it. Strangers have even accused me of being cheerful. I laugh more. I’m lighter. I think about the hobbies I want to pursue, about travel, further study, social connections.
My life is very different from how I imagined it would be when I returned from Vietnam, but I have now accepted this reality. I can’t change it. I thought I could, but I can’t. Yes, I was betrayed by the people closest to me, but I can’t change that either. All I can do is deal with the reality of what is, put one foot in front of the other and move forward in a positive direction. And heal. I’m sure forgiveness will come, and if it doesn’t, that’s ok too.
8. Further reading
Coincidentally, I recently read (ok, listened to) The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer, which is all about acceptance, and the freedom that comes from this state of being. I like his writing style, which is simple and easy to read (ok, listen to), without being dumbed down.
This article popped up in my feed and discusses the science behind forgiving and forgetting. Echoing Teal Swan, this researcher has found that you can’t force people to forgive, but a reappraisal of negative emotions associated with wrongdoing can lead to someone moving on in a healthy way without necessarily forgiving the wrongdoer.
9. About the #12Essays2024 Challenge
I haven’t given my blog much love or attention over the last couple of years. I wasn’t in the headspace to write, at least not the personal essays I’m known for. But in the words of George Costanza: I’m back, baby. I’ve made a commitment to write one essay a month in 2024 — a slimmed down version of the #26Essays2017 challenge I set for myself in the first year I was in Vietnam. I will be experimenting with structure and form, so you might see some weird stuff. Please stick with me. Some essays will be short, and others will be split into parts because they are long. Maybe I’ll end up publishing them into a collection. Who knows?
Please consider buying me a coffee to show your support for my writing ♥
Image: Judas, Jesus and the Apostles from the most brilliant Andrew Lloyd Webber musical ever — Jesus Christ Superstar. Here’s the opening scene of the 1973 movie, which is sublime and you absolutely should watch it: