Self-betrayal is a theme that comes up regularly within the therapy space, and I believe, is also a concept most of us are not aware may be taking place within our own lives. Because this dynamic can occur ever so subtly, you may not realize that you may be engaging in your own self-betrayal, and without awareness of this phenomenon, there is little room to begin making the needed changes to reduce or stop self-betrayal and begin living a more honest, authentic life. Today, I want to dive into just what self-betrayal looks like and ways in which you can stop this pattern if this is something you experience within yourself and your relationships.
What is self-betrayal?
Self-betrayal is the act of denying or minimizing your needs, wants, and desires, often by prioritizing another person’s needs over your own. Self-betrayal often presents as “people pleasing,” where the discomfort of making other people unhappy or upset is so strong that you would rather deny your needs and wants in order to ensure other people are emotionally comfortable. Here are a few specific examples:
Almost always engaging in activities that don’t interest you simply because another person likes them.
Not expressing what you want to do or where you want to go, and instead doing what another person wants.
Regularly being dishonest about or minimizing your feelings in order not to upset other people or make them uncomfortable.
Never saying no to activities, events, and situations you know you don’t like or enjoy.
Often feeling that you are responsible for another person’s behaviors and emotional reactions.
Prioritizing “keeping the peace” over everything else in order to avoid upsetting others or creating disagreeable feelings in others.
Hiding your authentic self and not expressing your unique personality, viewpoints, opinions, likes, and dislikes.
Struggling to listen to and trust yourself, your intuition, and your innate wisdom.
Settling for less than what you want professionally, in relationships, and with your personal goals.
Why do we self-betray?
We often learn to self-betray within our childhoods. You may recall misbehaving as a child and having a parent yell at you, belittle you, ignore you, punish you, or use physical force in order for you to comply with their expectations of your behavior. If you experienced any of these reactions from your caregivers, you likely internalized the message that you needed to behave or act in certain ways in order to avoid the harsh treatment or emotional neglect of your parents. You began figuring out what behaviors elicited responses from your caregivers that helped you feel physically and emotionally safe. This self-betrayal, or minimizing of your authenticity, was adaptive at that time in your life, because it kept you safe from threatening and unwanted reactions from your caregivers. However as you proceed through life now, these emotional safeguards that you created early on in life no longer serve to protect you in those same ways, and instead become a hindrance as you bury, minimize, and deny your wants, needs, desires, and authentic self.
How to shift away from patterns of self-betrayal and begin prioritizing yourself
Awareness is the first step toward any meaningful or significant change that we make. To begin identifying whether you are in a pattern of self-betrayal, ask yourself the following questions as a means of building awareness:
Do I often agree to things in order to avoid the possibility that others will be disappointed or upset with me?
What do I do when I am unhappy with another person’s behaviors or actions? Do I express my feelings or do I avoid expressing myself in order to avoid a possible negative reaction?
Am I able to differentiate between expressing my needs and how another person reacts? Do I feel that it is my fault when another person reacts angrily to the expression of my needs, wants, and desires?
Is it more important for me to “keep the peace” than to get my needs met?
What emotions come up for me when I consider expressing my viewpoints, opinions, likes, and dislikes? Do I feel I will be punished, reprimanded, or rejected if I express my true self?
These kinds of questions can help clarify areas in which you may be betraying yourself, and whether you may wish to take steps to begin shifting this pattern.
Test the waters in emotionally neutral situations
As mentioned earlier, you likely learned to self-betray as a protective measure, and therefore, while self-betrayal may be hindering you in numerous ways, it may also feel like a security blanket that is impossible to shake off when considering engaging in new behaviors. Without the behaviors that are attached to self-betrayal, you may fear that others will hurt you in ways you may have experienced when you were younger. If this feels familiar, it may help to find emotionally safe and neutral ways in which to prioritize and express your true self and feelings. This can look like:
Letting the waiter know he brought you the wrong order
Asking for more cream in your coffee at the coffee shop
Saying no to a distant acquaintance’s party invitation
Find emotionally safe people
We are often drawn to people in our lives whose behaviors and actions feel familiar to the dynamics in which we grew up. After all, even if you grew up in an environment in which you had to self-betray or put on a false self in order to avoid negative consequences, those people, environments, and patterns may feel familiar and comfortable to you, and therefore you may inadvertently or subconsciously be drawn to others who keep you in the patterns in which you grew up.
It can help to look at whether the relationships in your current life replicate relationships from your past, and whether you feel safe within your current relationships. You may benefit from identifying new relationships with people who break away from the patterns you were exposed to growing up. Group therapy can often be a starting point to meeting people who are working on developing newer, healthier relationship and communication patterns, and can be a jumping off point to meeting people who are practicing ways of communicating that help you feel safe. When seeking out new relationships and friendships, some helpful questions to ask yourself may be:
How does this person react when I speak up for myself? Are they critical or harsh, or understanding, non-judgmental, and gentle?
How does this person treat me when I am honest about my feelings, desires, or preferences?
How consistent is this person’s behavior? Do they demonstrate a pattern of being consistently compassionate and loving?
How accountable is this person? Do they take ownership of their emotional reactions and behaviors?
Does this person work toward finding a middle path when there is disagreement, do they validate your perspective and lived experience?
Coping ahead is a powerful DBT skill that can be helpful in all kinds of situations. Coping ahead is the practice of visualizing yourself successfully navigating a difficult or challenging situation. When you are practicing the steps of becoming more authentic and prioritizing yourself, it can help to cope ahead and picture yourself successfully having a difficult conversation, expressing your opinion, speaking up in a meeting, or letting someone know when they upset you. Rehearse the situation in your mind, imagine the words and statements you will use, and picture yourself confidently delivering your message. Indeed, the cope ahead skill can serve to help you feel more prepared and ready to confront fear-inducing and unfamiliar situations.
Examine your self-worth
It can be difficult to shift out of the self-betrayal pattern if you struggle with your sense of worthiness. I encourage you to take some mindful moments to explore your relationship with yourself. Do you see yourself as deserving of a better life, of emotional peace, of getting your needs met, and being validated? If not, what experiences led to those beliefs that have diminished your view of yourself? Can you access those parts of yourself that feel devalued and worthless and offer compassion and validation to those parts? What does it feel like to do this? Do you notice a shift of any kind?
If you are struggling with deeply-rooted beliefs that hinder your belief in yourself, therapy can be a starting point to unpacking the layers of life history and experience that are creating obstacles toward your happiness and a more authentic, confident way of living. The pattern of self-betrayal can be so insidious, subtly affecting all aspects of your well-being and hindering your ability to build a life worth living. I hope this article has provided some helpful ideas to identify whether you are engaging in any patterns of self-betrayal and how to begin to break free from these patterns in order to begin standing up for yourself, expressing your needs, and living your life more authentically and freely.
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