Betrayal Trauma Blindness and Ethical Counselling Practice

By Dr Barbara Louw

Presented at CPSC conference on 11 May 2019

The South African community is reeling in the face of the unethical practices committed by pastors. Although the media has more than enough material to report on, numerous victims still fell prey whilst other community members and professionals turned a blind eye.

The reality is that for there to be betrayal, there would have to be trust first. Trust is a well-founded belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.

Most relationships are built on trust. In this context trust can also be defined as confidence, belief, faith and freedom from suspicion or doubt. When a relationship built on mutual trust and respect that implies a certain level of openness to risk and thus vulnerability. This vulnerability makes betrayal possible.

Betrayal doesn’t real occur between strangers with no affiliations. Betrayal can take place in the inner circle of a marriage, a close relationship, workplace and faith community. The saddest thing about betrayal is that it never comes from your enemies. In Mathew 7:15 we find the warning: “ … Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

The phrase "betrayal trauma" can be used to refer to a kind of trauma independent of the normal reaction to a trauma. Betrayal trauma occurs when the people or institutions on which a person depends for survival, significantly violates that person’s trust or well-being (Freyd 2008).

Counselling is building up the body of Christ. This principle is the opposite of betrayal. Betrayal leaves people wounded and hurt. This wounding makes the word ’trauma’ appropriate in this discussion.

Betrayal Trauma Theory predicts that the degree to which a negative event represents a betrayal by a trusted, needed other, will influence the way in which those events are processed and remembered. Such betrayal events diminishes the professional standing of an entire vocation.

The reality is that betrayal is not a new phenomenon, because in Acts 20:28-30 Luke already warns: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them”.

Betrayal trauma in the Church, as an institution, committed by trusted people, such as familial rape, childhood abuse perpetrated by a caregiver and domestic violence, are especially toxic. These practices injured people in the care the Church.

When we think about the damage and harm cause by betrayal trauma, it is important to acknowledge the impact of trauma on the victim. The brain appears to remember and process betrayal trauma differently than other traumas. Likely the impact on the heart and soul is different as well. A victim is dependent upon a perpetrator for survival and sustenance, the foundation of their very existence is at stake”.

“Everything they believe about themselves, other people and the world can be unreliable, distorted and harmful, like a carnival fun-house mirror. Except there is no walking away, no easy escape and no validation that the images are warped.” (The Conversation).

Posttraumatic reactions are seriously deep-seated, because the victim has no defence. These institutional betrayals lay an extra thick, sticky coating of shame, disgust, alienation and loss.

The people around the victim enforce that trauma, by no reinforcing victim-blaming, guilt, doubt and underlying fear.

The most important question in the conference discussion was how to recognize the wolf in sheep’s clothing? There were general consensus that they rarely demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23); they are lacking love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control. These toxic leaders are the distinct minority of Christian leaders, but they do harm to the cause of Christ disproportionate to their numbers. Sadly, they can get away with their behaviour for years because they often have a charismatic and charming personality.

This presentation emphasized the enhancement of ethical counselling practices at grass roots level, protecting trusting clients and re-emphasizing the trustworthiness of the pastoral vocation. By understanding the damage caused by such vocational betrayals, be it intentional or unintentional, the counsellors will be in a more empowered position to assist clients who suffer from betrayal trauma.

Link to download the presentation.

Dr Barbara Louw
CEO of Inter Trauma Nexus
Board Member of CPSC and ACRP