Something about silence makes me sick
‘Cause silence can be violent
Sorta like a slit wrist
– Rage Against The Machine
I first encountered the concept of Betrayal Trauma from psychologist Jennifer Freyd. Dr. Freyd (no, not Freud!) stands in my eyes as one of the bravest researchers of all time. In 1998 she published a book based on her “Betrayal Trauma Theory” titled, Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse. In it you will find evidence for why an attachment focus on psychotherapy is essential for clinicians, clients, and researchers. According to BTT we humans prize bonding over any other innate instinct. To the point that we will endure physical and emotional harm at the hands of loved ones in order to stay bonded. We desperately don’t want to be left behind.
There is a lot we would miss if we didn’t understand that as a result of betrayal many signs and symptoms of distress are naturally hidden. I once developed and managed a short term mental health program for adolescents in regular educational settings who were having acute mental health issues but were not identified by the standard educational and psychiatric systems to warrant getting help. In educating school districts about the program I expected that many of these students, falling through the cracks, would not outwardly exhibit signs and symptoms professionals were used to seeing. No one seemed to know what I was talking about!
One of the best examples of what I’m talking about can be found by watching singer songwriter, Julia Nunes, video of “Don’t Feel”. You can see her to the right here nonchalantly responding to a plate being broken over her head. She has entered a frozen protective state reserved for only the most lethal threats. But what’s so lethal about a breakup? About bonds being broken?
Well maybe Lethal Weapon star Mel Gibson can help with this? I have not come across an artistic expression of the phenomenal experience of betrayal trauma so exquisite than his portrayal of William Wallace in Braveheart. You have to watch the whole scene to appreciate how our life force and connection to those who are beloved are truly enmeshed. After being drawn into the Scottish rebellion when his new wife is murdered by an English governor, Braveheart comes alive to help free his brethren and on the way to freedom is let down by the one he is fighting for, almost putting the brakes on everything for good.
We mammals were given a diaphram, terrestrial lungs, and a 4 chambered heart for a reason. To pump some oxygen into life. After we evolved from lizards (who don’t have those things but know how to freeze well) we learned to fight, run, away and eventually talk out our problems. All of that requires lots of oxygen. In fact, it was oxygen that gave birth to the current expanded volume of the cerebral cortex. It’s the cortical activity of our brain that allows us to empathize and imagine what our life is like and how other’s lives may be going.
Our brain assesses how things are going and those major organs also have neural nets that tell us from a visceral point of view how things are out there. All of that information can be used to regulate the heart and lungs and back and forth. On and on. To live is to let ourselves be moved by our insides. Pump it up!
Well sometimes we need to deflate things a little. So that’s where freeze comes in. Braveheart had spent months of time and energy galvanizing the Scots and giving his talents to the cause. He even convinced Robert the Bruce to get the wealthy noblemen together to set a boundary with the King Longshanks. With victory in sight after setting a cunning trap for the English, Braveheart sees the Scottish nobles begin to pull out from his ranks and go home. Bought out by the king. With half an arrow stuck in his check he mounts a horse, enraged, full of life he heads straight for the king. Unbeknownst to him, “The Bruce” is there with the king and is sent to ward off Braveheart. As they tumble to the ground and Braveheart removes The Bruce’s helmet to give the final blow, he sees who it is. He is quickly deflated and hence the image above of him.
Steven Porges is another hard working researcher of behavioral neuroscience that has paved the way to understanding our psychophysiological life. His “Polyvagal Theory” has filled out the science of stress by including the freeze response of the fight, flight, freeze triad. More important perhaps it makes a compelling case for social engagement as the optimal evolutionary advance to dealing with threats.
Yes, we have a choice that lizards and non-primate mammals do not. We can sense safety. Our eyes, ears, voices, and faces were linked with our brain, heart, and lungs to helps us regulate how things feel inside in order to sense and feel that it’s ok to talk it out. Skills that we lose when trapped in fight, flight, or freeze states.
Like the classic “Etch a Sketch”, our autonomic nervous system (sympathetic & parasympathetic) has two settings. The hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal axis (gas) and the vagus nerve (brakes). Out of the antagonistic interplay of the two comes the capacity for social engagement. Like making curvy lines from horizontal and vertical strokes competing for direction, mother nature gave us social engagement by mixing fight,flight, and freeze.
For years scientists studies the sympathetic, fight or flight response alone. So, clinicians were good at dealing with stress in terms of the psychophysiological signs of being anxious or angry. However, many of the kids I was looking out for were caught in freeze states. No one would ever see what had happened or was happening to them on the outside.
” Some speak the sounds
But speak in silent voices
Like radio is silent
Though it fills the air with noises
Its transmissions bring submission
As ya mold to the unreal
And mad boy grips the microphone
Wit’ a fistful of steel
Yeah…and mad mad boy grips the microphone
Wit’ a fistful of steel”
– Rage Against The Machine
There is something inherently exciting about really living. Feeling our blood pump and heart and lungs pound. Like when we were excited about our caregivers giving us that toy we loved or that food we were starving for. When we achieve simple or fantastic goals in life with the help of others, it fills us with energy to go on. When we are supported to live we stay in a neurophysiological state that allows us to sense signs of safety. That is,we can sense and feel that we can connect and communicate with others about what we need and our plan for meeting our needs. To freeze is to submit as if we are in the clutches of imminent death. It means it’s too dangerous to talk it out. Even too dangerous to fight or run away.
I think recovering from betrayal that occurs in the context of a loving relationship involves understanding the context of having a contract broken in the midst of wholeheartedly pursuing life. Like the look on Braveheart’s face above, my clients report a feeling not unlike an evisceration. This might make more sense knowing about the psychophysiological world of the autonomic nervous system. Could the description of what it feels like to be betrayed be an expression of real disconnection between the brain and the heart, lungs, and diaphram? As if our lungs, heart, and diaphram were ripped out? Left with the lizard response? A literal removal of the human way of pursuing life.
If so, could this be an expression of just how central to human existence collaboration with others is? In the final scene of Braveheart, the life hasn’t completely left our hero. Lying on the hangman’s block William Wallace has just literally been eviscerated, he has yelled out his final word, “FREEDOM”, and as the executioner’s axe falls sees his wife’s image projected into the crowd of bystanders. There it is, love, freedom, life. Even in the clutches of our most frozen states our connection to those who love us can rise up.
Sometimes those loved ones are close, like family and friends or distant, like people out of history that have been where we once stood “in the fell clutch of circumstance”. They get the blood flowing again. Not all of the solutions are in the brain proper. Culture holds the stories of rebellion, redemption, and peace. It’s like human memory is scaffolded out into the artifacts of the world of culture. We don’t have to accept that we are reduced to lizard like ways of doing life in wake of betrayal.
” It’s time to flow like the fluid in ya veins
If ya will it, I will spill it
And ya out just as quick as ya came
Not a silent one
But a defiant one
Never a normal one
‘Cause I’m the bastard son
With the visions of the move
Vocals not to soothe
But to ignite and put in flight
My sense of militance
Groovin’, playin’ this game called survival
The status, the elite, the enemy, the rival
The silent sheep slippin’, riffin’, trippin’
Give ya a glimpse of the reality I’m grippin’
Steppin’ into the jam and I’m slammin’ like Shaquille
Mad boy grips the microphone
Wit’ a fistful of steel
Yeah…and mad boy grips the microphone
Wit’ a fistful of steel”
– Rage Against The Machine
To thaw out requires some energy. Take a listen to Rage Against the Machine sometime if you need a jolt. Sometimes we need to safely visit the fight or flight state on the way back to social engagement. It would help if those around us could see the need for this progression and understood how to help. The bystanders in the crowd watching Braveheart’s torture eventually cried out, “Mercy!”. But they had to see a man have his insides torn out to shock them out of submission.
Most of us are not leading a revolution against Imperial Occupation. We are just recovering from the reverberations of it. Is this why even in modern times among all of those bystanders there is just one Braveheart? What if there were a crowd of Bravehearts? What if we didn’t wait for the execution to say something? If we relied on our evolutionary history and used social engagement could we prevent more unwanted occupations by personal and public despots and foster more collaboration?
Living life in freedom and love isn’t merely about keeping the despots out of power. Their crazy abuse of power is easy to spot and respond to. Besides, it is usually too late to avoid most of the damage they have done once they get to power. So how do we intervene? Sometimes I think intervening sooner requires dealing with the ubiquitous frozen bystander responses of everyday life that may slowly allow despotism to creep up on us. To get a handle on this we have to confront the fact that betrayal trauma comes from someone close. Someone beloved. Even amongst the powerful.
When George Washington discovered the briefs that Benedict Arnold had put in the hands of a courier headed for the British, he had entertained no previous notion that the odd things happening around him were part of being deceived because he implicitly trusted Arnold. When he saw the direct evidence of Arnold’s betrayal, according to biographer Ron Chernow, he exclaimed:
“Arnold has betrayed us! Whom can we trust now!”