‘I’m Still Not Good Enough’: When Trauma’s Old Ghosts Resurface

Puddle of water on ground reflects blue clouded sky and person with hands in pockets looking down into puddleYou have explored your childhood emotional trauma, you have explored your triggers, and you have learned to reframe negative thoughts. You understand how your past experiences affect your behaviors, thoughts, and feelings today. You participate in mindfulness training regularly and engage in self-care continually. In other words, you have advanced quite far on your therapeutic journey to overcome previous difficulties. You have never felt better about yourself and you are proud of the insight into yourself that you have gained.

And then your new boyfriend breaks up with you and—BAM!—you’re suddenly having difficulty all over again. You worry about what you look like. You worry about fumbling over your words. You worry someone will see you trip on your shoelace. Your thoughts are a flurry. Confusion begins to seep in.

You worked so hard to overcome your childhood issues. You worked hard to reframe negative thoughts. You worked to learn good breathing techniques and implement them in difficult situations. But now you are face to face with the person you had long forgotten about. You look in the mirror and the person looking back at you says, “I’m still not good enough.”

What happened?

Changing beliefs about oneself and improving self-esteem is difficult work. It can take months and even years to uncover, and reframe, cognitive distortions. Yes, you explored your childhood to learn the origins of negative thoughts. Yes, you learned to identify triggers and how to reframe irrational thoughts. Yes, your journey is on a new and healthy path and you feel wonderful each day. Whether it be good or bad, however, you are never without all of the events in your life that make up your history—and from time to time, history may pay us all a visit in ways we did not anticipate. We can become triggered.

A funeral can remind us of the long-ago passing of a loved one. The smell of cut grass can remind us of childhood days we miss. A song can bring about painful memories of abuse or trauma. A broken relationship may bring about buried feelings of abandonment. A new person in our lives may unexpectedly leave us feeling unsure of ourselves. We may suddenly become upset, anxious, or even depressed when events surface that bring about old memories and negative beliefs. We may feel we are reverting to old behaviors, thoughts, and feelings we had previously processed and moved away from, which can leave us feeling like we have somehow lost ourselves in the present.

We are never without our previous selves, no matter how much we may want to leave them behind. They may even visit us from time to time. From the words of a fellow therapist, when they return, say, “Hi, old friend. I know who you are. I know how you feel. Here’s how I can help.”

What to Do When You Feel Triggered

Healing is a process that has ebbs and flows. When you feel triggered, take the time to understand what triggered you and how you are reacting to the situation. What are you feeling? How is your body reacting? Do you have a “knot” in your stomach? Are you feeling panicked? Have you felt this way before? If so, when? Remember that when you feel triggered and old feelings and thoughts come rushing back, these moments will pass.

Review your previous therapeutic work. Revisit old ghosts and explore how they may be affecting you now. Explore previous feelings and how your current situation may leave you feeling the same way. Are there any similarities? Explore previous negative thoughts. Are you feeling less than? Do you feel unlovable? What in your history caused these thoughts? How is your current situation highlighting them again?

Review coping skills: reframing negative thoughts, deep breathing, mindfulness training, exercise, and other forms of self-care. We are never without our previous selves, no matter how much we may want to leave them behind. They may even visit us from time to time. From the words of a fellow therapist, when they return, say, “Hi, old friend. I know who you are. I know how you feel. Here’s how I can help.” Accepting yourself, past and present and all the flaws, is key to continued healing. Embrace who you are now … and who you once were, then.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Denise Olesky, MA, NCC, LPC, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

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.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Thad

    April 17th, 2017 at 8:54 AM

    It is hard to turn off those voices of shame and blame when you have been listening to them your whole life. That takes a whole lot of work to shut those up.

  • Macy

    April 18th, 2017 at 10:44 AM

    The one thing to remember is that all of the stuff that make you who you are, the good and the bad, they are part of the fabric of you. These are the things that have made this person yes, but that does not mean that these are only the things that have to define this person. You are so much more than the things that have happened to you in the past. You are also the strong girl who got through that pain and who has learned to overcome it. Those too are the things that make up your fabric, and those are actually the more important things. Think about defining yourself by the things that have made you strong..

  • Scott

    April 25th, 2017 at 10:58 AM

    As much progress as I have made with my therapist to piece together my past to help me understand how it affects my present, I still struggle with triggers. Right now a trigger is work-related and I feel like a failure. But it definitely helps to recognize this is exactly the feeling I’ve been through before, and I can “reframe” how I think about it to be less destructive, and probably more accurate. Perhaps my work was good – actually excellent – and it’s quite possible my boss has some control issues. It’s not all on me.
    This is a very helpful piece. Thanks so much for writing it.

  • JB

    May 31st, 2017 at 10:27 AM

    Scott, I agree with your comments. Re framing our thoughts is hard work but must be done.

  • June

    April 25th, 2017 at 3:05 PM

    Interesting piece, thankyou. It caused me to reflect that also less thinking is good, very good! and to spend time trying to quieten all the thinking and knowing and worrying of what is and what isn’t and why. I find I don’t really wish or need to know all my triggers and all my traumas and to have a complete understanding of whats going on with my self, its exhausting doing all that and I’m not sure its real anyway – so enough already! get on with life, get out there with people and life and live it – less navel gazing into the past, more being here now, being grateful for what ever we do have and doing the best we can with it :)

  • Patricia E

    April 25th, 2017 at 5:04 PM

    Very good article.

  • Kevin

    April 25th, 2017 at 9:47 PM

    This narrative was helpful to me, tnhank you. I been expeeriencing these trigger from being a teenager and no insight to why I felt how I felt. I think that I have had a very lucky life compared to other people I know and read about, 4 fabulous children and a successful business. But boy when those triggers get pulled all that just crumbles. This is my third year of weekly one on one therapy and I’m still trying to cope with the train wreck effect when I’m triggered. But I have learned that it’s not me, mostly, it’s others and now I have begun to recognise and be able to name some behaviour it is helpful. I’m on my journey and I will be continuing with the hope that I can fully embrace my train wreck emotions and give them a very soft landing in the future.
    I always had a lack of trust that long term therapy harboured a conflict of interest. Now I realise that for me it is the only way and needs to be long term for me. I have seen improvements and begun to learn about who I am and why I am. If you have not started your journey yet find a therapist you can build a relationship with, begin to build the trust
    and start the process of learning to love yourself. 😊

  • Kevin

    May 31st, 2017 at 3:28 PM

    A very poignant piece for me tonight and thank you, the timing was precise….. my therapist must have some influence on these email posts?……… or is my paranoia morphing into something a little less serious 🤣
    Having a challenging time and wishing I had adhered to my reading, my learning. It’s a strange antipathy…… all I wish for is less 😊

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