The Association Between Child Abuse, Trauma and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

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Many research studies have shown that individuals who have suffered childhood abuse, trauma and/or neglect are very considerably more likely to develop borderline personality disorder (BPD) as adults than those who were fortunate enough to have experienced a relatively stable childhood.

it is thought marilyn munroe suffered from BPD

It is thought Marilyn Monroe suffered from BPD




BPD sufferers experience a range of symptoms which are split into 9 categories. These are:

1) Extreme swings in emotions
2) Explosive anger
3) Intense fear of rejection/abandonment sometimes leading to frantic efforts to maintain a relationship
4) Impulsiveness
5) Self-harm
6) Unstable self-concept (not really knowing ‘who one is’)
7) Chronic feelings of ‘emptiness’ (often leading to excessive drinking/eating etc ‘to fill the vacuum’)
8) Dissociation ( a feeling of being ‘disconnected from reality’)
9) Intense and highly volatile relationships

For a diagnosis of BPD to be given, the individual needs to suffer from at least 5 of the above.

frequently rejected in childhood, BPD sufferers live in terror of abandoment

frequently rejected in childhood, BPD sufferers live in terror of abandonment

A person’s childhood experiences has an enormous effect on his/her mental health in adult life. How parents treat their children is, therefore, of paramount importance.

BPD is an even more likely outcome, if, as well as suffering trauma through invidious parenting, the individual also has a BIOLOGICAL VULNERABILITY.

In relation to an individual’s childhood, research suggests that the 3 major risk factors are:

– trauma/abuse
– damaging parenting styles
– early separation or loss (eg due to parental divorce or the death of the parent/s)

Of course, more than one of these can befall the child. Indeed, in my own case, I was unlucky enough to be affected by all three. And, given my mother was highly unstable, it is very likely I also inherited a biological/genetic vulnerability.




1) Dysfunctional and disorganized – this can occur when there is a high level of marital discord or conflict. It is important, here, to point out that even if parents attempt to hide their disharmony, children are still likely to be adversely affected as they tend to pick up on subtle signs of tension.

Chaotic environments can also impact very badly on children. Examples are:

– constant house moves
– parental alcoholism/illicit drug use
– parental mental illness and instability/verbal aggression


2) Emotional invalidation. Examples include:

– a parent telling their child they wish he/she could be more like his/her brother/sister/cousin etc.
– a parent telling the child he is ‘just like his father’ (meant disparagingly). This invalidates the child’s unique identity.
– telling a child s/he shouldn’t be upset/crying over something, therefore invalidating the child’s reaction and implying the child’s having such feelings is inappropriate.
– telling the child he/she is exaggerating about how bad something is. Again, this invalidates the child’s perception of how something is adversely affecting him/her.
– a parent telling a child to stop feeling sorry for him/herself and think about good things instead. Again, this invalidates the child’s sadness and encourages him/her to suppress emotions.

Invalidation of a child’s emotions, and undermining the authenticity of their feelings, can lead the child to start demonstrating his/her emotions in a very extreme way in order to gain the recognition he/she previously failed to elicit.


3) Child trauma and child abuse – people with BPD have very frequently been abused. However, not all children who are abused develop BPD due to having a biological/genetic RESILIENCE and/or having good emotional support and validation in other areas of their lives (eg at school or through a counselor).

Trauma inflicted by a family member has been shown by research to have a greater adverse impact on the child than abuse by a stranger. Also, as would be expected, the longer the traumatic situation lasts, the more likely it is that the child will develop BPD in adult life.


4) Separation and loss – here, the trauma is caused, in large part, due to the child’s bonding process development being disrupted. Children who suffer this are much more likely to become anxious and develop ATTACHMENT DISORDERS as adults which can disrupt adult relationships and cause the sufferer to have an intense fear of abandoment in adult life. They may, too, become very ‘clingy’, fearful of relationships, or a distressing mixture of the two.

This site examines possible therapeutic interventions for BPD and ways the BPD sufferer can help himself or herself to reduce BPD symptoms. It also discusses many other topics related to the experience and effects of childhood trauma (see CATEGORIES in sidebar).


David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Why Betrayal In Childhood May Increase Risk Of Being Revictimised As An Adult


Whilst much research has been conducted suggesting that those of us who were betrayed by parents/primary caregivers in our early life are more likely to mistrust others once we become adults, other research also shows that those of us who were betrayed in childhood are also more likely to be revictimised as adults.

It has been pointed out that these two findings would appear to contradict one another. After all, wouldn’t distrusting others actually make it less easy for others to be exploit and hurt us?

One school of thought suggests this apparent contradiction can be explained by the fact that the research suggesting early betrayal lowers our ability to trust is methodologically flawed and that, actually, the opposite is the case : the experience of early life betrayal increases the likelihood that we will trust others once we become adults.

This seems utterly paradoxical and counterintuitive. Why should being betrayed as a child increase our trust in others?

The psychologist, Zurbriggen, suggested that the experience of being betrayed in early childhood results in damage of a cognitive mechanism which, in turn, reduces our ability to judge how trustworthy other people are, leading to an over-willingness to trust others thus leaving us vulnerable to revictimisation.


In essence, then, Zurbriggen and other researchers (eg Marx et all, 2002) are of the view that early trauma makes us less able to detect untrustworthiness of others and the risk and threat they might pose.

Another researcher, Chu (1992), explains our increased likelihood of being revictimized as adults if we were betrayed in childhood by theorizing that we fail to learn from our original, childhood betrayal because our memory of it becomes fragmented and, as a defense mechanism, as adults, we dissociate from emotions that would otherwise suggest a person is a threat to us (click here to read my article about dissociation).

In summary, then, theorists such as those mentioned above believe that if we experienced a high level of betrayal in childhood, in our adulthood we will :

– have clouded judgment when it comes to trying to decide if others are likely to exploit, cheat or harm us due to damage done to our ability to cognitively process the relevant information

– be less able to detect an intimate parner’s infidelity

– be naively trusting of those who pose a threat to us

– be more likely to stay in a relationship in which we have been revictimised/betrayed by our partner.


The ideas expressed above clearly contrast with the more mainstream view that, if we are betrayed during childhood, we will become deeply untrusting of others as adults.

Therefore, much further research is called for in this area.


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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Why Gifted Children May Be Mistakenly Believed To Have A Diagnosable Condition


In the previous article I looked at how certain characteristics of gifted children can be misinterpreted as signs of a diagnosable condition ; this can sometimes lead them to being misdiagnosed as having, for example:

– Asperger’s syndrome

– Oppositional defiance disorder

– Bipolar disorder



– Obsessive compulsive disorder

– Narcissistic personality disorder


In this article, I want to look in greater detail at these characteristics by providing examples of some behaviours of some gifted children, certain constellations of which might lead them to being referred to psychiatric services and, possibly, following such a referral, being given a mistaken psychiatric label :

– high intelligence but low common sense

– high sensitivity

– intense emotional outbursts

– displays of extreme frustration when obstacles stand in the way of the child obtaining his/her goals

– very disorganized

– easily distracted

– difficulties relating to peers, prefers to be alone or with adults

– very sensitive to noise and to bright light

– does not need very much sleep

– prone to very intense and vivid dreams

– prone to nightmares / night terrors

– self-absorbed

– self-obsessed

– poor social skills

– always asking questions

– often lost in daydreams

– prone to defiance / challenging and arguing against rules and authority

– antisocial attitude

– prone to outbursts of intense anger

– obsession with the concept of ‘fairness’

– early preoccupation with ethical/moral/philosophical/existential/metaphysical concerns

NB. Of course, despite the possibility of mistaken diagnoses being given to gifted children, it is important to keep in mind that some gifted children do have diagnosable conditions such as those mentioned at the start of this article.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Gifted Children: Characteristics And Potential Problems.


What Is Meant By ‘Gifted’?

According to the National Association For Gifted Children, a gifted child is one who is in the top 3 – 5% of children of his/her age in one of the following areas:

1) General intellectual ability

2) Specific academic aptitude

3) Creative thinking

4) Visual / performance arts

5) Leadership ability

Of course, greatly more has been written about child giftedness and the above represents an oversimplification, but it is beyond the scope of this article to go into extensive detail on this.


What Kind Of Characteristics Might Gifted Children Have?

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It is useful to provide a list of the main characteristics that researchers (eg Webb 1993, 2007) have typically found gifted children to possess. These are as follows:

– high level of interest in, and curiosity about, a large range of topics / a seemingly insatiable thirst for knowledge and understanding / always asking questions

– idiosyncratic and creative sense of humour

– experiences/displays intense feelings and emotions

– studies things that interest him/her with tenacity and persistence / long attention span

– can absorb and retain large amounts of information / good memory

– early and superior understanding regarding nuances, subtleties and complexities of language (eg facility to make clever puns, understanding of subtext, implication, insinuation and the drawing of inferences)

– can form unusually complex sentences

– highly sensitive

– good at divergent thinking / putting things together in a creative and original manner

– good autodidacts eg often largely teach themselves to read and write prior to going to primary school

– good at devising complex games

– invent imaginary playmates

– many, diverse and wide-ranging interests

– likes experimenting / takes original approach to things

Unfortunately, in both the areas of education and psychology, research into gifted children is, relative to other areas of study within these disciplines, quite limited so firm conclusions about problems faced by gifted children are yet to be drawn; however, there are definite indications that many gifted children are misunderstood and that the causes of many of their behavioural characteristics are being misinterpreted.

What Kinds Of Problems Might Gifted Children Experience?

One early researcher (Hollinghurst), working in the 1940s,  as a result of studying gifted children, drew attention to the fact that many of these young people were at risk of developing a sense of deep alienation and frustration due to the fact, for example, that others are unable to see the world as they did (although, it should be acknowledged, most teenagers feel this to some degree ; in the gifted child, however, due, often, to his/her acute sensitivity and perceptiveness, this quality may be particularly pronounced).

However, the findings of more up to date research are mixed. It suggests that gifted children can fare well if their giftedness is recognised and they are therefore given a suitable environment which nurtures and supports their unusual talents. If, on the other hand, such an enriched and appropriate environment is not provided, the child is more likely to face problems.

Of especial concern is that some clinicians have put forward the view that gifted children, due to the unusual characteristics they display that relate to their giftedness, are having such characteristics misinterpreted as signs of a psychiatric condition. Such mistakenly diagnosed conditions, they state, include:

– Asperger’s syndrome

– Obsessive – compulsive disorder



– Oppositional defiance disorder

– Bipolar disorder

My next article will explain why such misdiagnoses might occur.

Finally, it should be noted that some research also suggests that some gifted children may be more likely to suffer (correctly diagnosed) anorexia and depression (especially existential depression).

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).


Indirect Abuse: Effects On Children Of Witnessing Domestic Violence.


Domestic violence often involves a man physically abusing a woman on repeated occasions (although it can, of course, involve a woman assaulting a man or a partner assaulting a same-sex partner in the case of gay relationships). In this article, however, to save complications, I’ll use the conventional example of a man who attacks a woman.

If the man and the woman are parents/step – parents to children who live in the same house, the psychological harm done to these children can be very severe.

Indeed, although the children may themselves not be physically abused, the fact that they witness the abuse (a study by Hughes (1992) showed that in 90% of cases the child is in the same room, or next room to the room, in which the violence is taking place, meaning, of course, they see and/or hear it happening) the experience can have an equally damaging mental effect on them as would occur were they to suffer direct abuse.


In fact, experts now regard children forced to witness direct violence between parents as having emotional abuse inflicted upon them.

Because, however, research into the effects on children of witnessing domestic violence is relatively recent, the damage being done to young people in this manner has gone largely undetected in the past, leading some researchers to refer to these children as ‘hidden’ or ‘unacknowledged’ victims of abuse.

Specific psychological effects upon the child of witnessing domestic abuse:

Children who regularly witness this kind of domestic violence in the home are made to feel powerless, afraid and, often, terrified. They are forced into the alarming realisation that:

a) those who are supposed to be strong and protect them are highly vulnerable and unable to protect themselves (implying they may not be able to protect their children either).

b) those who are supposed to protect them are capable of violently turning against those that they are supposed to care for and love.

Both of the above combine to make the child feel highly unsafe, vulnerable and insecure.

When indirect abuse turns into direct abuse:

Worse still, when domestic violence occurs in the house, it is possible for children to become directly involved in it.

For instance, their pity for their mother may compel them to intervene in order to try to protect her from the father.

Alternatively, a parent may encourage an impressionable and frightened child to join in the violence against the victim.

Furthermore, studies have revealed that approximately 70% of children who live in households in which the father physically abuses the mother are themselves physically abused by him – thus making this large group of children both indirect and direct victims of abuse.

The infographic below shows other possible effects of domestic violence on cchildren:



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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Fifteen Ways To Overcome Anxiety


I have written extensively on this site about how a traumatic childhood can greatly increase our chances of suffering from anxiety as adults (along, of course, with many other conditions – click here for infographics relating to this). I myself suffered from excruciatingly painful and paralysing anxiety for many years, at one stage leading to an extremely serious suicide attempt which left me in a coma in intensive care for five days (I have written about this elsewhere on the site) so I know just how agonisingly tortuous severe clinical anxiety can be.

Below, therefore, I have listed fifteen things that experts in treating and researching anxiety suggest we can do in order to alleviate our suffering :

1) Slow down breathing rate and breathe more deeply. This may sound too easy and simplistic to be effective; however, because of the physiological effect of anxiety, it can actually be very effective indeed.

In my own case, during my periods of high anxiety I realised that I had been constantly hyperventilating (this refers to breathing that is shallow and rapid) like a panting, water-deprived dog locked in an overheated car at the height of summer, to exaggerate only mildly.

Indeed, people, embarrassingly for me, would comment on my breathing (including almost complete strangers) and ask if I was OK ( I wasn’t). My only recourse was to say I had astmha and I might be having a mild attack (I don’t have astmha). This could lead to awkward questions about why I wasn’t reaching with alacrity for my inhaler to which I would respond that I must have left it at home ( I hadn’t, I don’t own one).

Slowing down the breathing and breathing more deeply corrects oxygen and CO2 levels in the blood, and, therefore, reaching the brain, which our hyperventilating disrupted. It is this that underpins its beneficial effect.

I have listed this advice at number one as, if I had to give just one, simple tip on how reduce the adverse effect of how anxiety makes us feel, this would be it.

2) Remind yourself anxiety attacks can’t hurt you – it is true that feeling very anxious can be extremely unpleasant. For instance, someone in the grip of a fully fledged panic attack may believe s/he is about to die or to go completely insane. Needless to say, this never happens.

The physiological aspects of anxiety are also unpleasant, such as a racing heart, trembling and sweating. However, learning controlled breathing (referred to above) can significantly reduce these sensations, as can mindfulness (click here to read my article on this) and hypnotherapy.

3) Whenever possible, try not to avoid doing the things you want to do but that your anxiety prevents you from doing – such avoidance, whilst comforting in the short-term, perpetuates the anxiety and, over time, tends to augment it.

images (2)

Above – sometimes others may not realise how disabling anxiety can be.

4) Remember everyone feels anxiety – we need to experience some anxiety as a species to survive as it prevents us from taking unnecessary risks or putting ourselves in obviously life- threatening situations. In other words, an appropriate anxiety response is adaptive and beneficial to us.

It is only when our anxiety response becomes over- zealous, so to speak, that it becomes maladaptive (eg when it prevents us from doing things that would benefit us).

5) Try not to overestimate threat and danger. Also, try not to underestimate your ability to cope if the worst were to happen.

Typically, anxious people tend to fall into the trap of doing both these things. Try, instead, to appraise matters calmly, objectively and realistically.

Remember, too, that the anxiety of anticipating something bad happening is often worse than it actually happening.

In summary, anxious people frequently make the following 3 errors:

a) they overestimate the probability of a feared event happening

b) they overestimate how bad it would be, should the feared event occur

c) they underestimate their ability to come cope with the feared event happening, were it to.

6) Worry driven by anxiety can become obsessive, circular and essentially futile. This is wasted time, not to mention utterly exhausting and debilitating. Instead, try to spend time focusing on your worry in a constructive way by writing out a plan which includes possible solutions, or, if this is not possible, ways of coping/increasing your resilience.

images (1)

Above – an illustration of how we can become caught up in a cycle of anxiety.

7) Behavioural modelling – try to think of someone who copes very well in stressful situations and think of useful ways in which you could model yourself on them (we all learn by such modelling – as children, our parents/primary caregivers provide our primary models (which, of course, is not always a good thing).

8) Reduce unnecessary, self-inflicted pressure – some forms of childhood trauma lead to ‘perfectionism’, the feeling we must get everything absolutely right and putting unnecessary pressure on ourselves constantly using words like should, must and ought in our internal monologues. Sometimes it is necessary to cultivate a more relaxed attitude, particularly given the fact that we are unlikely anyway to perform at our best if we exert superfluous pressure on ourselves.

9) Accept that there is always going to be uncertainty in life and an element of risk in everything we do. Therefore, we need to realise that having total control over our lives is something it is utterly futile to attempt to achieve.

10) Experiment – if there are things you want to do but have been prevented, up until now, from doing them due to high anxiety, experiment with at least trying to start doing them, if you think it might be at all possible, and see if you can, in fact, contrary to your initial expectations, tolerate any anxiety this induces. Remember, your anxiety does not have to stop you – you can do these things despite the anxiety they cause.

Also, remember, many people believe that if they start to do something that makes them feel anxious, the level of anxiety will just keep going up, and up, and up… this is not the case: it will plateau and then start to reduce. Remember to keep your breathing steady and under control (see tip number one, above).

11) Consider therapy – various forms of therapy can be effective in helping us to tackle anxiety, including cognitive behavioural therapy, hypnotherapy and mindfulness training.

12) Support systems – having support from friends and family is always benficial. Sometimes we are afraid to ask for help, but can often be pleasantly surprised when we do.

13) Diversions – diverting our thoughts from our worries can be very helpful. Ways to do this include taking up a new hobby, interest, sport or course of education. If your anxiety has stopped you from doing something that you used to enjoy in the past, consider taking whatever it was up again.

14) Try to take at least one step each day to help you to overcome your anxiety, however tiny the step may seem. Small steps eventually add up to create big changes, and you may build up momentum more quickly than you thought.

15) Look after your physical health.


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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).


Is PTSD Being Misdiagnosed As ADHD?


In the USA, about one in every nine children are diagnosed with ADHD; this equates to a total of 6.4 million American youths.

But should many of these young peoples’ primary diagnosis really be one of PTSD, not ADHD?

Many experts think so. In fact, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may be being misdiagnosed as Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in up to a million children per year in the USA.

The psychologist, Brown, an expert in the field, has drawn attention to the fact that many children who have been diagnosed with ADHD have symptoms which one would expect to find in people suffering from PTSD such as : difficulty controlling behaviour/impulsivity, severe mood fluctuations, hyper vigilance and dissociation ( or ‘zoning out’. – click here to read my article about dissociation).


The confusion may arise when such symptoms are mistaken for those of ADHD. For example:

– difficulty controlling behaviour/mood fluctuations may be seen as wilful disruptiveness

– hyper vigilance may be seen as distractability

– dissociation may be seen as deliberate inattention/lack of focus (indeed, I suffered from this when I was eight. I didn’t respond to my name in class, so lost and caught up was I in my own internal distressed thoughts, leading to my teachers actually suspecting that I was going deaf. I was taken for an ear test but there was nothing whatsoever wrong with my hearing – let this serve as a salutary lesson to teachers as to how a child’s distress may manifest itself in unexpected ways and be completely misinterpreted).

Brown’s suspicions that, often, children diagnosed with ADHD should, in fact, have been diagnosed with PTSD were heightened further by the observation that standard ADHD treatment simply did not work for many children.

Perhaps, then, Brown hypothesised, these children were, in facf, ‘acting out’ (what psychologists refer to as ‘externalizing’) their distress caused by living in a dysfunctional family (the children in the study came from low income families and were known to live in environments in which high levels of stress and violence were prevalent).

In order to examine the issue further, Brown set up a study looking at the overlap between the symptoms of ADHD and the effects of traumatic stress on children caused by maltreatment and abuse.

The study was based on a survey of 65,000 children in the USA and the results showed that those who had been diagnosed with ADHD also had a significantly higher than average chance of coming from a background of divorce, poverty, violence and/or families who misused drugs and alcohol.

Indeed, those who had experienced the great stress of 4 or more ADVERSE CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES (ACEs) – click here for more information about these – were 3 times more likely to have been diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed medication for it than those who had not experienced any.


The psychologist, Szymanski, derived similar results from a study of 63 children who had been treated by a psychiatric hospital. On average, the children had suffered 3 ACEs yet only 8 per cent had been diagnosed with PTSD whilst 33 per cent had been diagnosed with ADHD.


The above studies suggest many children could be being mistakenly diagnosed with ADHD whereas, in fact, their primary diagnosis ought to be one of PTSD. Some estimates suggest that up to one million children per year could be being misdiagnosed in this way.

Implications for treatment:

If children are being treated for ADHD when they should, in fact, be being treated for PTSD, their treatment may be inappropriate.

Indeed, one treatment for ADHD is the prescription of stimulants. However, this could worsen symptoms of agitation (agitation is a symptom of PTSD). NB Any changes in medication should only be made on the advice of a properly qualified professional who is familiar with the specific case under consideration.

Furthermore, treatment for ADHD does not deal sufficiently with the emotional and psychological distress that the child with PTSD suffers.

Why might misdiagnoses be happening?

One reason that has been suggested is that the companies producing the drugs for ADHD use advertising campaigns which, in effect, encourage the diagnosis of ADHD and its treatment, thus increasing their profits.

A second suggestion is that the assessment of children by clinicians is not extensive or thorough enough due to time and financial restrictions. A fifteen minute or half hour appointment is not enough to evaluateevaluate, fully, a child’s mental state and factors related to his/her home life which may be damaging it.


David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

How Our Childhoods Can Make Us Feel Worthless And Inadequate.


Everyone is born with the potential to develop a high sense of self-worth and value as a person. Clearly, however, we do not all manage to attain such a positive view of ourselves. Why should this be?

Mainly, we derive our sense of self-worth from how we are treated and responded to by others as we grow up; in particular, of course, by our parents/primary caregivers. In other words, the beliefs we form about our own particular value as an individual, which underlie our self-image, are, in the main, learned during our childhood from our environmental experiences, as opposed to being innate (inborn).

Three main ways in which we can be made, as children, to feel inadequate and worthless are through:





Let’s look at each of these in turn:

Shame – As children we can be made to feel shame when we are criticised directly as a person, rather than corrected constructively for specific aspects of our behaviour. For instance, comments such as:

you are a bad person

you are a complete and utter moron

you are not wanted in this family; we’d all be better off without you

– you are ugly – no wonder you’ve never had a boy/girlfriend; just looking at you turns my stomach

can be extremely destructive to the child’s delicate and fragile, incipient self-concept.

Indeed, there is a very significant difference, taking the first example, between being told one is a bad person and being told on this particular occasion one has behaved badly. The former is far more likely to lead to the idea of being bad becoming absorbed, as if by osmosis, into the child’s core self-belief system, especially if s/he is told this repeatedly and frequently.

The second, third and fourth examples are self-evidently egregious verbal attacks, but, as we are all aware, some parents do talk to their children in this way – and worse.

My own mother, for example, regularly threatened to throw me out of the house (she carried out this threat when I was thirteen, as I’ve written about elsewhere on this site). She would also berate and torment me about not having a girlfriend, sniggering that I must be gay, greatly encouraged by my older brother. Not pleasant.

If we do come to see ourselves as bad, intrinsically and deeply morally flawed individuals, this can, tragically, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We can, in a sense,  become who we have been told we are, and, to put it colloquially, start to ‘live up to our reputation’.

It can become a case of : ‘Well, if that’s what you think of me, that’s what I’ll give you…’

Unfortunately, this inevitably leads to everybody losing.

Criticism – This is especially harmful if it is delivered in a contemptuous and sneering way, is continuous, inexorable and relentless and involves verbal abuse. The cumulative effect of this kind of insidious style of criticism is, in essence, to teach the child, at a subconscious level, that s/he is inadequate and ‘not up to the mark.’

Some children who have experienced this kind of upbringing become adults who are desperate to prove themselves (and, again, on a subconscious level, to prove themselves to their parents).

They may, therefore, become workaholics, obsessively trying to progress in their careers in order to obtain power, wealth and admiration. However, because they are unaware of their unconscious motivation, they are trying to satiate the wrong need and so the task is impossible and their lives are spent on a futile treadmill that leads nowhere.


Observation and Modelling – Children learn much of their behavioural traits by observing the behaviour of their parents/primary caregivers and modelling (largely subconsciously) their own behaviour on it. If, then, the parents/primary caregivers have low self-esteem and low confidence it is likely that these characteristics will be mirrored by how the child behaves and views him/herself.



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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Intellectualization as a Defence Mechanism Following Childhood Trauma


Intellectualization is a psychological defence mechanism which serves as an escape route from interacting on an emotional level with others, and the outside world in general, into the refuge of ‘the life of the mind’. People who employ this defence mechanism, then, prefer to ‘live in their heads’, finding participating overly in the harsh and unforgiving reality of the outside world somewhat distasteful and, therefore, best, as far as feasible, avoided.

Research shows that people who rely upon this defence mechanism tend to have had disrupted early relationships with their primary carer, especially the mother. Indeed, the psychologist, Winnicott, stated that a compulsive need to gain knowledge could be regarded as a kind of self-mothering – knowledge standing in as a substitute for the mother’s love/care/attention/interest (of which the individual was deprived).

Intellectualization can also be viewed as a type of dissociation, leading the individual to suppress/repress his/her emotions. This can be problematic as it is usually necessary to feel, and process, emotions connected to one’s childhood trauma in order to fully resolve one’s psychological difficulties that have arisen as a result of it. (Click here to read my article about childhood trauma and its link with dissociation).

The early traumatic experience of not forming a secure attachment to their primary caregiver disrupts affected individuals’ ability to self-sooth in response to stress and this inability can persist into adulthood.

As a result, such persons’ sympathetic nervous systems can become ‘stuck’ in a permanent and highly debilitating state of overarousal (I, myself, suffered from this for many years – it can be quite agonising).

Alongside this tormenting state of hyperarousal can often exist an unrelenting and merciless sense of profound dread (even though one is often unable to pinpoint why this should be so

The overarousal will inevitably manifest itself somatically and physiologically ( ie in the body) leading the individual with the need to dissociate, and disconnect, from his/her body and escape into a ‘life of the mind.’ Interacting with others also leads to extreme psychological discomfort.


Therefore, those who suffer in this way will often choose careers involving solitary academic work, computer programming etc which minimises the need to mix with other people. Or they may become philosophers, possibly becoming great thinkers.

These individuals also tend to be exquisitely vulnerable to the effects of further stress in their lives and can feel like a frightened child forced to masquerade as a functional adult.

They tend, furthermore, to have a weak and hazy sense of their own identity and, as a result, their work can become very important to them as a way of bolstering this poorly formed sense of  who they are.

Most distressingly, too, such people often suffer from a deep inner conflict involving, on the one hand, being very frightened of interacting with others, yet, on the other, feeling a profound need to do so. So, they find themselves in the no-win situation of needing intimacy but being unable to tolerate it due to the level of psychological discomfort which it affords them.

As a result, those affected in such a way tend to feel utterly ‘empty’. They will usually be aware that their compulsion to follow intellectual activities does not solve this problem, yet be too scared to change their focus in life.

My next post will examine possible ways to resolve this condition.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).