Betrayal and trust

Devastating Impact Of Betrayal

The fourth topic in our 'sexual abuse and mental health' series

By Rebecca Mitchell

Another main issue which has a huge impact on mental health is the consequences of the betrayal of the abuser’s actions. On TV and in the media people who abuse children are often seen as strangers who don’t know the child.  However research shows us this is an incorrect picture.  For example, of the children counselled for sexual abuse by ChildLine in 2007/08 the vast majority were abused by someone they knew:

  • 59 per cent said they had been sexually abused by a family member
  • 29 per cent said they had been sexually abused by someone else known to them
  • 4 per cent said they had been sexually abused by a stranger

As you can imagine the closer the person is to the abuser the more traumatic it will be for the victim. The more intimate the relationship, the more the pain, the deeper the betrayal, and the more damaging it is on that child and consequently adult’s mental health. 

Trust Is Broken –Relationships Suffer

One of the main sad consequences of this dreadful betrayal is that it is usually very difficult for people who have been abused as children to form deep and trusting relationships with others as adults.  Relationships can also be characterized by feelings of extreme anxiety and fear. This can be  known as “Hypervigilence”. Hypervigilance is one of the consequences of trauma and indeed one of the criteria of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder according to research by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. (3)  

This can lead to lifestyle of constant watchfulness, strong inability to trust and is therefore extremely emotionally draining. Each slight change in voice tone is noted and analyzed, a text can be read and re-read countless times, an email will be written and re-written numerously.

Some behaviours associated with Hypervigilence may look like:

  •     An over awareness of what people see or think about us
  •     Constantly concerned about others
  •     Lack of objectivity – reading too much into situations
  •     Over scrutiny/analysing behaviour of situations
  •     Looking for others to betray constantly
  •     Our minds tell us partial truths that we latch onto
  •     Not being aware of what is obvious to others

It is indeed a gruelling and paralyzing way to live- stressful both for the person and for their friends, partners and family.  Hypervigilant people live their lives “on guard” at all times and their hypervigilance pervades everything they do, say and believe about themselves and others.

Walking Away From Distrust

So how can we let go of such ingrained behavior and be able to connect with people in a more relaxed and healthy way?

Firstly, like all unhealthy behaviours, the initial step is to recognise you are doing it. Catch yourself out when you sense yourself spiraling down your own personal hypervigilant thought patterns. Even more illuminating  - see how many times a day or week that you find yourself having hypervigilant or catastrophizing/suspicious thoughts.

Secondly, try to be “in the moment” for a few minutes.  This could be by focusing on your breathing in and out slowly.  This will give your mind a couple of minutes to calm itself.

Thirdly, record your negative thoughts on a notepad or (if you are more digitally inclined!) your Smartphone Tablet etc.  Over time you will notice the times when you are most likely to spiral into damaging thoughts and patterns. Thinking back do these remind you of anything from your past abuse. You may need help and support to do this perhaps talking though this with a counsellor or support group.

Fourthly, try to get into the habit of some positive self-talk. Instead of thinking “Why is she late home again is she having an affair? ” and ruminating on it for hours. Try instead something along the lines of “Next time she’s going to be late I’ll ask her let me know beforehand so I can relax.” 

Learning to trust is a long and painful road.  We also need to be wise, not everyone is trustworthy.  We need to accept that without being suspicious of all people.  We can observe certain attributes about people that give us clues as to whether we can trust and take the risk of a relationship with them.  A good exercise you could do is to try and consider for yourself what qualities you would be drawn to in order to start considering trusting another person.

You Can Work It Out!

Freeing yourself from shame and the damage of betrayal can be a long arduous process. Isolating yourself can be a natural response to so much pain – however loneliness can bring even more suffering. 

At “Into The Light” we offer workshops and groups to people who have experienced abuse as well as one to one work.  Time after time people who use our services say they have benefitted so much in just being in a room with other Survivors. This might not be right for you but do consider joining a self help group or community group that can provide the companions you need in your journey into recovery.

Finally - don’t give up!  

I can say from experience growth and healing takes huge amounts of time and effort. But, help relationships and good friends are out there - don’t give up until you get the support you deserve.

With great thanks to Rebecca Mitchell:

Rebecca was a victim of child sexual abuse and in 1993 co-founded “Into The Light”. “Into The Light” a not for profit project that offers support, information and resources around the issues of sexual abuse for those who have been abused and those who support them. The project has website, groups, one to one support, workshops and training seminars.  Rebecca has also had a self help book published on recovering from sexual abuse called “New Shoes.”  For more information see the website:

Please also see:


(1)Source:  “Rescuing The Inner Child” – Penny Parks – Human Horizons Series  Published 1990  page 43

 (2) Source: Adapted from an ideas in “Helping Victims of Sexual Abuse”– Heitritter and Vought – Bethany House Publishers – Published 1989

(3) Source: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Leaflet: Royal College of Psychiatrists: March 2010

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