Childhood Trauma: Identity Problems and How to Tackle Them.,


One outcome of childhood trauma can frequently be that the person who has suffered it is prone to develop IDENTITY PROBLEMS.

A person’s identity represents their attempt to pin down the essential elements s/he sees (rather than what others see) that make the individual who s/he are. One’s identity develops over time.

Our identity can be helpful to our psychological health (if we see ourselves in largely positive terms) or unhelpful to it (if we see ourselves in largely negative terms). People, especially if suffering from depression, lacking in confidence etc, extremely often view themselves FAR MORE NEGATIVELY THAN WOULD BE OBJECTIVELY WARRANTED; whereas many others (not suffering from mental illness, in many cases) may see themselves in far too glowing terms (this ‘over self-congratulatory’ view adopted by many is thought to have developed to confer evolutionary advantages on those who have it – appearing confident to potential mates, for example – provided, I suppose, it is not absurdly exaggerated).

Aspects of our lives which can affect our identities include:

– our values
– our physical appearance
– our mental/physical health
– our education
– our achievements (or lack, thereof)
– our work (Freud attributed especial importance to this, as he did to sexual fulfilment, the thwarting of which, he proposed, could lead to extreme neurosis)
– our relationships
– our age (please, don’t remind me)
– our financial situation
– our perception of our social status (or lack, again, thereof)

The identity which emerges from such factors is strongly related to our self-esteem and self-confidence.


This begins very early in our lives. Ages 4 years to 6 years are thought to be a critical time; TRAUMA during this period is LINKED to the DEVELOPMENT OF IDENTITY PROBLEMS IN LATER LIFE. From the ages of about 6 years to 12 years, the child normally develops the skills necessary to MANAGE EMOTIONS, a skill strongly linked to identity (eg ‘cool’ versus ‘volatile’); indeed, if TRAUMA INTERFERES WITH THIS PROCESS AN EXTREMELY TEMPESTUOUS ADOLESCENCE CAN FOLLOW).

In ‘normal’ development, adolescents may experiment with various identities and this process gradually leads to the stage in which there is a sense of the identity becoming crystallized. Again, however, individuals affected by trauma will often find this period exceptionally stressful and find that NO CLEAR SENSE OF THEIR OWN IDENTITY EMERGES – THEIR SENSE OF THEIR OWN IDENTITY CAN BE CONFUSED AND THEY MAY FEEL THAT THEY ‘DON’T KNOW WHO THEY REALLY ARE’.


By adulthood, then, those who have experienced childhood trauma will often find that their identity is UNSTABLE and FRAGILE – this will often mean that their attitudes, values and sense of who they are are all prone to wildly fluctuation; these changes are frequently dramatic (eg oscillating between feeling deep love and deep hatred towards the same person; or, sometimes, perhaps, feeling exceptionally important only to shift without warning or obvious trigger into a feeling of despair, self-loathing and worthlessness).


Identity problems in adulthood are often a symptom of BPD. BPD frequently occurs as a result of childhood trauma and much more about the condition can be discovered in the by clicking here to read my article about it.


How can people with identity problems make their sense of identity stronger? One possible place to start this process, which needs to be gradually worked on over time, is for the individual suffering from the crisis in identity to consider the things which are of most importance to him/her in life; identities are largely formed based on these considerations. Prorities in life which people choose to concentrate on, and, which, therefore, contribute to making up their identities include:

– friendships/relationships/family
– academic interests
– career
– creativity (eg painting, writing, acting)
– hobbies
– choice of entertainment (eg musical taste, taste in film/cinema/theatre, favourite kinds of books etc)
– material possessions
– spirituality/religion/atheism/agnosticism
– charity work (eg for homeless, rehabilitation of ex-prisoners, environment, hospice, Amnesty International)
– physical appearance
– financial situation

This is not, of course, an exhaustive list and there may well be other areas that can be added, depending on preferences.

A starting point might be to pick out 3 or 4 areas of interest (this, in itself, reflects identity, and, therefore, can be seen as providing foundational pieces of the jig-saw yet to emerge, as it were) and to concentrate on these at first (other elements can be added later; merely starting the process may lead to other ideas emerging at a later time).

For each of the factors selected, it can then prove of use to set some goals relating to how these areas may be incorporated, or, more fully incorporated, into one’s life (these goals need to be quite specific and achievable; there is little point starting with such challenging goals that they may prove impossible to meet and thus damage morale).

Here are some examples:

– because academic achievement is important to me, I will enrol in a night-school class (investigate and specify appropriate course) and complete the course
– because family and/or friends are important to me I will attend an anger management course
– because creativity is important to me I will set aside two hours a week to write poetry/novel
– because my mental health is important to me I will seek out appropriate counselling and complete the sessios recommended (provided the therapy proves of potential value, of course)

The more the individual is able to incorporate and develop areas such as those listed above, which reflect his/her true values, interests and priorities, the more AUTHENTIC and REWARDING the person’s life is likely to be; the more, too, will the individual’s true and stable sense of self continue to evolve.



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

David Hosier MSc

David Hosier MSc

Psychologist and writer. Founder of at
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of Survivor of severe childhood trauma.
David Hosier MSc

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