How Trauma Impacts Your Sense of Self: Part II

Man holding question mark in front of his faceAs discussed in Part I of this series, surviving a traumatic event often results in negative and harsh altered beliefs about yourself. A traumatic event can also impact your sense of worth, meaning, and trust.

After a traumatic experience, you may believe that you are no longer worth anything: that you do not deserve things, do not have a right to have your needs met, or deserve to be happy or content. This erosion of your sense of worth and conviction that you deserve and have a right to things like safety and kindness  impacts real-life decisions you make. For example, if you no longer believe that you have a right to stand up for yourself, then you might not say anything when a boss inappropriately berates you. Learning how to reclaim your rights and increasing your conviction in your inherent worth are truly difficult steps in the healing process.  Reading the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights might help you begin this recalibration process.

Traumatic experiences also damage your sense of self by shattering the beliefs, morals, philosophies, and ethics that gave your life meaning. The beliefs that once made sense, like good things happening to good people and bad things happening to bad people, no longer fit with the real-world experiences you went through. Due to this disconnect between beliefs and experiences, you may feel that life is now bereft of any moral or ethical bearings, as if you have awoken in a counterfeit world.

This disconnect can also manifest itself as questioning your spiritual or religious beliefs. This can result in decisions that your beliefs are no longer accurate, or in a new or deeper sense of spirituality or religious devotion. While any of these reactions are painful to go through and difficult for friends and loved ones to understand, each of these reactions is an understandable and normal way to make sense of the trauma.

Intertwined with spiritual beliefs are the beliefs that each of us carry about the orderly nature of the world. Whether or not we acknowledge it, most of us function in the world presuming that there are cause-and-effect relationships at work, like “I am nice to the cashier at the grocery store and she bags my produce in a gentle manner.” Posttrauma, the orderliness of the world is called into question, because trauma is not part of any casual relationship that you, the victim, initiated or willingly participated in. The tarnishing or breaking of this belief can lead you to think that there is no order whatsoever in the world and that none of your actions make any sense. However, as your healing progresses, you will grow to a place where you can balance the truth in both of these tenants: sometimes the world is an orderly place, and sometimes there is no rhyme or reason.

A final aspect of self that is altered through a traumatic event is your sense of community. All of us are social creatures—even those of us who are on the shyer end—and some of our sense of self comes from the social relationships we have. Because a traumatic event distorts our belief that, on the whole, people are trustworthy, and because you may have experienced secondary wounding experiences (painful, possibly even traumatizing experiences following the trauma inflicted by people who are trying to help or who are in an official helping role—for example, a police officer blaming a woman for the sexual assault she experienced) you may find yourself questioning the trustworthiness of people in general, which in turn negatively impacts your ability to be in healthy and nourishing relationships.

A deeper discussion of how trauma interferes with healthy relationships will be the focus of the next few articles, but in the meantime know that you are not damaged, toxic, or beyond all hope. If you engage in the healing process and find your way to grow through the traumatic events of your past, you can and will reclaim the healthy and whole relationship with yourself that you have an inherent right to. Know that there are trained professionals who are ready and willing to help guide you through this process.

© 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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  • WG

    July 8th, 2010 at 2:46 AM

    Thanks so much for writing this series – the effect of trauma on sense of self is often overlooked or misunderstood.

    Looking forward to more in this series!

    WG

  • ashleigh

    July 8th, 2010 at 4:38 AM

    Why is it that when many of us face trauma in our lives, we shy away from looking for help? We become hesitant to ask others for the help that we may so desperately need and they do not want to just step in and help for fear of stepping on our toes, or thinking that maybe we just need this time to ourselves. We need to feel like we can speak up, and if we can’t, then we need to have the friends and family in our lives who will speak up and do for us even without us having to necessarily ask for that help. I know that many of us are not fortunate enough to have people like that in our lives, but hopefully there will be someone unexpected who will show up and will take it upon themselves to help get you through this crisis.

  • Barnie

    July 8th, 2010 at 7:01 AM

    Entering therapy is an essential and a very important thing after a person has been through a traumatic event . This is because it not only gets the person out of that traumatized and victimized state but can often save a person’s life because some people consider the option of suicide after they think that they are not worth anything in life.

  • Susanne M. Dillmann, Psy.D.

    Susanne M. Dillmann, Psy.D.

    December 4th, 2010 at 12:52 PM

    Hope the series of articles continues to be interesting and of help!

  • Emma

    April 22nd, 2014 at 12:46 PM

    I went through a bad trauma a few months back and have been struggling with panic attacks, depresson and ptsd since. I have not been sleeping very well so am tired a lot too. Now my work are looking at getting rid of me because they say my mood is affecting the rest of the team. My manager knows what happened and what I am going through but does not care. She said “we all have issues but we dont bring them to work” and “the man who attacked you is not here so its not like you are going to run into him”. I am so upset and angry at the insensitivity and lack of care or understanding. I work for the NHS (health service) which is supposed to be a caring place. I went to occupational health today but don’t think its going to make any difference. I wish I had some legal grounds to stop them from doing this to me.

  • Allison

    April 23rd, 2014 at 10:47 AM

    Emma: I was so sorry to read about your traumatic experience and subsequent problems at work. Unfortunately, some people don’t really understand the impact that such an experience can have on your whole life. I hope that you might find someone you can trust at work or that you might speak to your GP about what you are going through. The last thing you need is increased stress and worry about your job. In any case, there are many people out there who are highly skilled and educated about trauma and they will be able to help you through this difficult time. I would really encourage you to seek appropriate support.

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