Treating Clients Who Have Suffered Betrayal

Editor’s note: The following is a guest post by Steven Stosny, PhD, author of  Living and Loving After Betrayal: How to Heal from Emotional Abuse, Deceit, Infidelity, and Chronic Resentment

The great struggle in working with clients who have been betrayed is to strike a balance between emotional validation—affirming, with sympathy, the “rightness” of their feelings—and empowerment—instilling the ability to change their states of being, including their feelings and behavior, for the better. Clients can get stuck in an endless cycle of pain, depression, anger, and resentment when they focus on the experiential element of their emotions, meaning how they feel, rather than the motivational component—what their emotions are telling them to do.

There are several ways to facilitate the shift in focus from validation to empowerment. I usually start by explaining that there is always a healing motivational message hidden in pain. Pain in your foot, for example, tells you to take the rock off it, get more comfortable shoes, soak it in a tub of warm water, or visit a podiatrist. I say, “Let’s brainstorm about what your pain might be telling you to do, in order to heal and improve your life.” This shifts clients out of the more primitive limbic area of their brains, where they are bound to feel helpless and defensive, to the higher-level prefrontal cortex, where their mental powers reside. It helps the therapist shift from validating to empowering—to supporting the client’s continuing focus on healing and growth, rather than his hurt, despair, and retaliatory impulse.

Another way to help the shift toward healing and growth is, after validating the negative feelings, helping clients focus on how they want to feel. When we focus on how we feel, we bring into implicit memory past instances that evoked similar feelings, thus creating an illusion that it’s always been that way and, by implication, always will be that way. If the feelings are painful, the brain must interpret, explain, and justify them. This whole process serves to habituate them—make them habitual feelings that will recur under stress. In adults, the vast majority of emotional reactions are habituated ones. Feelings are always about the past, and they will, over the long run, keep you repeating past mistakes.

A better strategy is to focus on how you want to feel, which will be more future-oriented and less susceptible to the feedback loop of past mistakes. I use a process called TIP (think, imagine, practice) to develop new habits. For example, I feel resentful, but I want to feel kind. I think of times in the past when I have felt kind, and recognize that I really like myself better at those times. I imagine myself doing things that will bring those feelings to life, such as wishing others happiness and well-being. Then I practice allowing myself to be concerned with the well-being of my significant others. Then I practice behaviors that embody my concern for them. Repeating the association of resentment with kindness several times a day for about six weeks will develop a conditioned response, such that when I start to feel resentful, I will begin to think and act kindly.

Of course, for the process to work, I have to really want to be kind, rather than resentful; that is, I have to want to feel more valuable, rather than temporarily more powerful from the tiny dose of adrenalin that comes with resentment. I have to really want to improve my relationships, rather than be validated as being “right.”

If you’re interested in learning more about healing after betrayal, check out Steven Stosny’s new book, or his Psychology Today blog.

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