How Trauma Impacts Your Sense of Self: Part I

Woman sitting surrounded by question marksTrauma unequivocally impacts your relationship with yourself and challenges and changes how you think about yourself.

Before a traumatic life experience, it is common to believe in your ability to make good decisions, control your environment, and keep yourself safe. Trauma smashes these beliefs and leads to new ones, namely being unable to count on your judgment: if you once judged a situation, person, or behavior to be safe, and it proved to be traumatic, it is easy to believe that your actions cannot change or influence things, that you cannot control your fate, and that forces beyond your power dictate your safety.

These new beliefs can feel more accurate and convincing than the ones you held pretrauma, and thereby lead to a reduced sense of agency and safety—and a natural consequence of that is more frequent and intense feelings of vulnerability and fearfulness.

A common way to try and reduce or manage this increased sense of vulnerability and fearfulness is to increase your sense of responsibility and control. You might find yourself claiming responsibility for the traumatic occurrence, ignoring the fact that no traumatic event is caused by the person who experiences it. Or you may try and control all facets of your life: scheduling every minute of the day, micromanaging the lives of those around you, or establishing impossible standards of perfection.

Even though these efforts at increasing your sense of control are entirely understandable, they do not lead to the desired outcome and often cause you to try and control more elements of your life. Not only does a control agenda not deliver the safety and security you are trying to achieve, but such an approach exacts a high psychological cost. Excessive activities exhaust the human body, mind, and spirit and excessive expectations lead to harsh criticisms and even self-hatred.

The damage that trauma exacts upon your self-esteem also feeds into the harshness and self-hatred that frequently arises following a traumatic life event. It is common to believe that if you had been smarter, faster, fought harder, yelled louder, or simply been a better person, then the trauma would not have occurred. These inaccurate beliefs, though understandable, cause damage by creating a falsely logical conclusion that since the trauma did happen, you must have deserved or caused it—and if you did, then all the shame and self-hatred you feel is warranted.

These beliefs grate away your self-esteem and stoke harsh opinions of yourself to the point where the ensuing self-loathing can become unbearable and paralyzing, leading you to want to hide, disappear, perpetually apologize for your existence, or desperately prove that you are worthy.

You deserve and need to work on challenging these beliefs in order to reclaim the fact that you can make good decisions, that you do have some control over the vagaries of life, and that you are able to impact your safety in the world. Stay connected with the friends and loved ones in your life who are emotionally healthy so that you can hear and give credence to their thoughts regarding your abilities and capabilities. Finally, don’t forget to reach out to a professional and harness her or his training, compassion, and expertise to help you heal and grow through these trauma-induced beliefs.

© Copyright 2010 by Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD, therapist in Escondido, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • D.Bollinger

    May 6th, 2010 at 10:31 AM

    A trauma often leads to a person into believing that things are getting out of control and that they are not in charge.While this can be corrected up to a certain level by organizing things,as described above,it often requires much attention to be paid to see to it that you do not put yourself into a situation where there cannot be control from your side and you try but end up on the losing side!

  • Nathan McCullum

    May 6th, 2010 at 2:47 PM

    One basic thing that trauma victims need to be convinced about is that it is NOT their fault and that they could not have prevented if by doing something earlier.This will solve a major part of the problem because most trauma victims tend to think that the traumatic event could have been prevented if they had done something in particular.

  • joni t

    May 7th, 2010 at 2:38 AM

    I was in the bank one day when a masked gunman came in and robbed it. He pushed me to the floor and I hurt my back but thankfully I am alive. It has required sveeral years of therapy but I still have pain issues in my back but untold horrors of the ways that this experience has changed me as a person. I no longer feel safe going to many of the places that I used to freely go. No more shopping alone, or goign to the bank- I can’t handle those experiences. I used to think of myself as strong and I have tried to get back to a semblance of norml life but I feel so weak. This experience left me not knowing who I am anymore and unable to trust either myself or anyone else. That gunman took all of that away from me.

  • Jack

    May 7th, 2010 at 9:16 AM

    trauma can be really unsettling for any individual as it can change many things that the person has held as true for so long.it can shake his belief over something or even make him believe in something deeply.whatever happens,it is bound to change the person’s life forever.

  • Susanne M. Dillmann, Psy.D.

    Susanne M. Dillmann, Psy.D.

    December 4th, 2010 at 12:55 PM

    I am spending some of my morning reading comments on the last few months worth of articles (I promise to be a bit more timely with this in the future) and want to express my gratitude for the healing work each of you has done and is engaged in. As a psychologist, it is a great honor to bear witness to your healing journeys.

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