July 28, 2021 - The Stoic Gym Blog
Tag(s): Stoic Self-help ||

How to Deal with Betrayal

Chuck Chakrapani

[This is the tenth article in the series Stoic Strategies for Daily Living. In this series, I will explore Stoic solutions to our everyday problems. The emphasis is not just on solutions, but also on how to apply them to our daily lives. Chuck Chakrapani]

That sinking feeling

For many of us, a sense of betrayal is one of the worst emotions we can experience. Almost by definition, the person who betrayed us is someone close to us, someone we trusted. It could be a friend, spouse, a close business colleague, or someone near and dear to us. When they betray us, we get this sinking feeling: the firm ground we stood on confidently has turned into quicksand. We get angry, upset, or even depressed. How could someone who we trusted so much so deliberately let us down? We aim to take revenge on the person who offended us this way, no matter the cost. We will show them. By now, we know this is not the Stoic way. But what is?

1. First, examine the impression

The first thing to know is that “x has betrayed me” is what the Stoics called an ‘impression’, something that appears to be so to us. But is this true? Our first job when feeling betrayed is to examine the impression. The spouse who decides to leave you may not be betraying you. You might have ignored her or been indifferent to her for years and not treated her well. She might just be leaving because of your betrayal. The friend you thought betrayed you by refusing to help you may have his own more serious problems to cope with. Your business associate who refused to lie to the boss for you to save your job may not have betrayed you but did what he thought was the right thing to do. So, whenever you think someone has betrayed you, examine it to see if it is really true. See it from the other person’s perspective. In many cases, you will see that the person, for the most part, is not motivated to betray you but to do what is right for them or for everyone in general. When you see this, you will see that there is no betrayal. Even if there is, it may not have been as serious as you might have imagined at first. There might be many mitigating factors leading up to the other person’s actions.

2. Even if it was a betrayal it is not shameful

Even when someone truly betrays us, it says nothing about us. It is not shameful for us and we don’t need to be disturbed. It is external to us like the ocean waves or the sunrise. No one can truly betray us any more than the sun, moon, wind, and the waves can. They do what they do, conforming to their nature. Nothing diminishes us, nothing can stop us from leading the life that is under our control. The only betrayal that should matter to us is the one that comes from us. Others’ betrayal is their business. If you are disturbed by other people’s betrayal, you may want to think about this:

How is it that unskilled and untrained souls confuse the skilled and trained?

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations5.32 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Meditations, Book 5.32)

If we, with our understanding of Stoic principles, cannot see that betrayals are nothing to us, why should we expect the other person with no training at all see the harm in them? Betrayals are not harmful to us but only to the perpetrator.

3. What a person does depends on their character

By the way we are born and by the way we grow up, we develop certain character traits. People who betray us may not have set out to betray us but may have acted in a way “that seemed right to them” (Epictetus). Even if we say that the other person’s character is flawed:

What else could they do — with their character?

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 12.16 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Meditations, Book 12.16)

After all,

…expecting a bad person not to harm others is like expecting a fig tree not to produce fig juice, babies not to cry, horses never to neigh, and the other inevitable things not happen

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 12.16 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Meditations, Book 12.16)

4. Everything is eventually up to us

As long as we appoint someone else to be the source of our happiness, we will always be at their mercy. But yet we know that, eventually, our happiness can come only from us. It is natural to be upset if someone betrays us. But if we continue to feel betrayed and if we let it overcome us, we may want to think about this:

When you blame others for your negative feelings, you are being ignorant. When you blame yourself for your negative feelings, you are making progress. You are being wise when you stop blaming yourself or others… — Epictetus, Enchiridion, 5 (Chuck Chakrapani, The Good Life Handbook, Ch. 5)

What if you are upset after all this? Our favorite emperor has some advice on that:

If you’re still angry, then get to work on that.

– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 12.16 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Meditations, Book 12.16)