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 he sees (rather than what others see) that make the individual who s/he is. 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
- 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
- our financial situation
- our perception of our social status
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 (for example, ‘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’.
CONFUSED IDENTITY IN ADULTHOOD AS A RESULT OF CHILDHOOD TRAUMA:
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 (for example, 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).
Individuals suffering from identity disturbance may :
- have an unstable self-image that frequently oscillates between two extremes and an inconsistent view of self over time
- become obsessed with their appearance, even to the extent that they develop conditions such as body dysmorphic disorder and anorexia nervosa.
- lose touch with reality (dissociation)
- experience feelings of derealization and/or depersonalization
- attempt to develop an unrealistic, idealized self (e.g. trying to adopt the image of a famous movie star) only to feel empty and deficient when this inevitably fails
- act as ‘social chameleons‘ (find that, because of their weak and uncertain sense of their own identity, they mimic the behaviours, values and attitudes of those they happen to be associating with at any given time
- live by inconsistent standards and principals
- have an inconsistent view of the world and their place in it
IDENTITY PROBLEMS AND BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER (BPD):
Identity problems in adulthood are often a symptom of BPD. BPD frequently occurs as a result of childhood trauma.
In the case of IDENTITY DISTURBANCE ASSOCIATED WITH BPD, some psychologists break identity disorder associated with BPD into four categories; these are as follows :
- ROLE ABSORPTION
- PAINFUL INCOHERENCE
- LACK OF COMMITMENT
Let’s look at each of these four categories in a little more detail :
1. ROLE ABSORPTION :
This involves individuals with an intrinsically weak sense of their own identity desperately attempting to create one by defining themselves through a particular role or cause. This may involve adopting a different name and radically altering their world view, values and belief system. Such individuals are vulnerable to being lured into cults whereby they may completely subjugate any sense of their own identity and, instead, overlay it with the identity into which the cult leader inculcates and indoctrinates them. Such individuals are obviously at high risk of being exploited by unscrupulous others.
2. PAINFUL INCOHERENCE :
Those who fall into this category constantly experience a distressing sense of emptiness.
3. INCONSISTENCY :
Individuals in this category are prone to changing their values, attitudes and opinions according to the people they happen to be associating with at any given time and, because of this, are sometimes referred to as ‘social chameleons’, as referred to above.
4. LACK OF COMMITMENT :
Lack of commitment can manifest itself in relation to many important areas of life including education (e.g. frequently changing courses but never completing any); career (frequently changing jobs); geographic location (frequently moving home); relationships (e.g. inability to maintain relationships with friends/partners/spouses); interests/hobbies.
DEVELOPING A MORE CONSISTENT AND STRONGER SENSE OF ONE’S IDENTITY:
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. Priorities in life which people choose to concentrate on, and, which, therefore, contribute to making up their identities include:
- academic interests
- creativity (for example, painting, writing, acting)
- choice of entertainment (for example, musical taste, taste in film, cinema, theatre, favourite kinds of books etc.)
- material possessions
- spirituality, religion, atheism, agnosticism
- charity work (for example, 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 or a novel.
- because my mental health is important to me I will seek out appropriate counselling and complete the sessions 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 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).