How sexual harassment is a form of betrayal

If you’ve been sexually harassed at work, you’ve been betrayed in at least two ways:

  1. Canada has decided it is not okay to sexually harass people. When someone harassed you, they broke that agreement.
  2. Canada has decided employers are responsible for providing their employees with a safe workplace where they won’t get harassed. By not doing that, your employer broke that agreement.

Here are some other agreements we’ve made as a society in Canada that sometimes get broken when it comes to harassment. Some we all agree with, and others are more fragile.

  • We’ve agreed that sexual contact with other people is only okay if everybody involved wants it and agrees to it.
  • We’ve agreed it’s not okay to treat someone differently at work just because of their gender.
  • An employer is supposed to have protections against sexual harassment in the workplace. When somebody is harassed at work, their employer is supposed to take the problem seriously and try to fix it.
  • When someone tells us they’ve been harassed, we are supposed to believe them, unless there’s some reason not to.
  • When someone is harassed, the problem is the person doing the harassment, not the person who told us about it.
  • When someone is victimized, we don’t judge or blame them.
  • When people seek help from public service institutions like the police or the health care system, those institutions have a responsibility to try to help.
  • When people seek justice from the legal system, they should get it.
  • Everybody deserves fairness and equal treatment.

How being betrayed makes us feel

When people or institutions betray us by breaking the agreements we’ve made, here are some ways we may find ourselves feeling.

  • I can’t believe this is happening.
  • This is so confusing. Why are people acting this way?
  • I can’t believe nobody is helping me.
  • I feel so let down.
  • I feel like I’ve been so naive.
  • How could I have been so stupid?
  • I thought I could count on them, but I can’t.
  • How can people be so awful?
  • I knew I couldn’t trust them.
  • I knew nobody would help me.
  • This is not a surprise to me at all. This is exactly what I expected.
  • What a bunch of lies they’ve told me.
  • This sucks.

We’re going to help you sort through those feelings.

If you feel surprised, weird, confused, or unsure

This kind of reaction is common, and it happens when the situation feels complicated.

It may happen if the person who harassed you has done things in the past to help you, is respected in your community, or is kind to other people.

It may happen if the person is very powerful, or if you are (or have been) dependent on them.

It may happen if the people around you look up to the harasser, or value or respect them, or are afraid of them or dependent on them.

In those circumstances, it can be harder for you to acknowledge the truth of what happened. Because, if you did, you might feel like you need to confront the person, which might not be safe or okay. You might lose the support of people who are important to you. You might cause upset and division inside a group you care about.

In those circumstances, it may be easier, or it may feel necessary, to pretend you weren’t betrayed at all.

When we ignore or downplay a betrayal we’ve experienced, this is called betrayal blindness.

We experience betrayal blindness because we need it. It was—or is—necessary for us to deny the truth of what happened to us so that we could feel safe.

If you’re starting to become aware that you’ve been betrayed, that may be because the evidence of your betrayal has become overwhelming and undeniable. Or it may mean that you have reached a place in your life where now you can feel safe enough to acknowledge what really happened.

You might find yourself cycling in and out of acceptance. You might find things easy to accept on some days, and then on a different day you may find yourself downplaying or denying what happened.

That just means you are still figuring things out. Please know that this is common, and try to be patient with yourself.

If you feel angry, let down, or disappointed

These feelings can help you make sense of what happened. They are a signal telling you who you trusted and who let you down.

Depending on what happened to you, you might feel let down by many people or groups:

  • the person who harassed you
  • your boss
  • other senior people at your work
  • HR
  • your co-workers
  • your family or friends
  • your professional community
  • the police
  • health care professionals
  • the legal system
  • your community
  • your entire nation

The more people or groups that betrayed you, the more let down you may feel. If you’ve been betrayed by entire institutions or systems, that can leave you feeling very alone and vulnerable. It can shake your ideas about the world you live in and make you rethink things you used to believe.

As you grapple with this, you may find yourself feeling like your eyes have been opened. You may feel like, until now, you have been childish, naïve, and overly trusting. You may feel like you are growing up. You may feel a sense of grief and loss.

If you don’t feel surprised

What if your trust was broken long ago? We’re supposed to live in a society that is fair and just. What if that was never true for us?

  • If we’re Indigenous and/or racialized, we may have seen or experienced discrimination since we were very young.
  • If we’re 2SLGBTQIA+, we may have been harassed or abused because of it, including when we were a child or a teenager.
  • Maybe we watched our mother struggle with sexism or harassment.
  • Maybe we have seen—or personally experienced—other forms of harassment or abuse or violence, at work, in school, or in our community or family.

And maybe in those situations, the people who were supposed to fix the problem didn’t.

If we lost trust long ago, it’s hard to feel a sense of betrayal today. Instead, when people let us down, we may just feel numb or cynical. We may just feel confirmed in what we already know—that the system is broken, things are unfair, and there is no justice.

If this is true for you, you may find it very hard to trust other people. You may have decided you can only trust people like you. Or you may feel like you can’t trust anybody at all.

What to do about these feelings

It’s important to be able to tell our stories of betrayal, because telling them can help us make sense of what happened and understand it better.

This is a process. It doesn’t happen right away or all at once.

It can help to tell your story just to yourself. Just writing it down can help. It can help to make art out of it, like a song or a drawing.

You may find yourself wanting to tell other people. That may feel risky because, if they react the wrong way, that could confuse you and muddy things up.

When you’re thinking about who is safe to tell, here are some questions you might ask yourself.

  • Can I be honest and real with this person?
  • After I talk with this person, do I usually feel better or worse?
  • Does this person seem to really understand me?
  • Does being with this person usually make me feel stronger and more confident?
  • Has my relationship with this person helped me to grow as a person?

If you tell your story to someone and their reaction starts to make you feel worse about yourself, or less clear about what happened, it may make sense to stop. It may not be possible for that person, right now, to listen in a way that’s helpful for you.

Know that your story may change over time, and that doesn’t mean it’s not true. It just means you are still figuring it out.

Look for opportunities to rebuild trust. Not necessarily with the people who hurt you, but perhaps with others. Pay attention to ways in which people can earn your trust. This will look different for each person. Give yourself time to reflect and decide what you need to feel safe again.

Allow yourself to change your expectations without going to all-or-nothing thinking. Notice when you are using words like “always,” “never,” “everyone,” or “no one.” Often these words show up when we are seeing the world from the extremes. If you find yourself thinking, “Nobody cares about me” or “Everyone is dangerous,” remember that there are exceptions to those statements.

Give yourself time to see the world in a new light. Often when we experience significant betrayal, it can change our overall perspective on the world. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can take time for you to adjust to this change in perspective.

Know that this is hard work, and be patient with yourself.

While you’re doing this work, it can help to do other things that bring beauty and joy into your life. Music and other forms of art can help, as well as religion, spirituality, and being in the outdoors. Baking or cooking helps some people, swimming helps others. Caring for pets can help, and so can meals with friends.

Welcome to the new you

Betrayal has reshaped your world.

You have been let down, and you have suffered losses.

Maybe that led you to want to withdraw from other people and to reject the idea of depending on anyone. Maybe it feels hard, or even impossible, to trust.

But betrayal is not just loss. Coming to terms with betrayal can inspire you to rethink how you see the world, and can help you find your way to new values, new beliefs, new behaviours, and new loyalties.

You may want to consider these statements.

  • I want to be able to be honest and real.
  • I want to feel uplifted.
  • I want to feel close.
  • I want to be understood.
  • I want to be able to share my deepest feelings and thoughts.
  • I want to feel capable of positive change.
  • I want to grow in important ways.
  • I want to feel a sense of belonging.
  • I want to be supported.
  • If something is bothering me, I want to be asked about it.
  • I want to be free to be myself.
  • I want to not feel like I need to hide parts of myself.
  • I want to be seen and appreciated.
  • I want to be curious about what comes next.
  • I want to be inspired.

Several of these things can come from yourself and self-reflection. Some rely on our connection and trust with others. This trust can take time to establish and is worth pursuing.

Betrayal brings with it a profound new awareness.

You may feel shaken and sobered by what you have learned.

But betrayal, despite how awful it can be, may open up for you new possibilities for intimacy and growth. For safety, loyalty, freedom, and inspiration.

You may still be figuring out how to get there, and that’s okay. You’re on your way.