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Development Of Self-Worth And Its Relationship To Trauma


The journey of recovery from trauma is facilitated by our understanding of how our feelings of self-worth (or self-worthlessness) developed and how our experience of trauma affected this development.

Early Childhood :

Our incipient self-concept first begins to develop around the age of 18 months (coinciding with the initial stages of our language development). Around about the age of 3 – 4 years, the newly formed self-concept is (assuming no maltreatment or abuse has occurred) essentially wholly positive.

Middle Childhood :

However, by middle childhood the self-concept becomes more complicated and, due to various influences, starts to change; important reasons for this change include the following:

  • the child begins to compare him/herself to others (such as school friends, siblings, etc) both positively and negatively

  • the child develops the capacity to feel emotions such as pride, shame, and inadequacy

  • the child is able to imagine/fantasize about an ‘ideal self’ and compare him/herself (unfavorably) to this

Adolescence :

During adolescence, the young person undertakes the difficult task of trying to integrate different aspects of him/herself into a cohesive sense of self (self-concept). This is made especially problematic as adolescence is frequently a period in which young people experiment with different personas, thus adding to their confusion about ‘who they really are.

The psychologist, Harter, proposes that a person’s ‘overall’ self-concept (which she termed ‘THE GLOBAL SELF-WORTH‘) is made up of two parts, these being :



Let’s look at each of these in turn :

  • ASSETS :

These include intelligence/academic ability, sports/athletic ability, physical appearance, popularity/likeability, one’s reflections upon one’s own behavior/personal conduct


These significant others include parents, primary carers, teachers, sports coaches, peers, siblings, wider family members, and authority figures. Self-concept is especially dependent upon the approval/disapproval of others during the period of adolescence.


One’s self-concept can therefore fluctuate according to which particular assets one is focused on and the nature of one’s relationships with significant others. However, by adulthood one’s sense of global self-worth tends to be relatively stable (assuming reasonable mental health) as compared to during adolescence.


Relevant to the fact that our sense of self-worth is variable is Harter’s proposal that our self-worth can also be divided up into baseline self-worth and barometric self-worth.

Baseline self-worth is closely tied to global self-worth, Harter states, and this is relatively stable in comparison to barometric self-worth which fluctuates according to who we’re with (and what opinion we perceive them to have of us) and what we’re doing (eg we might feel competent at work, thus raising our barometric level of self-worth, but this level may dramatically plummet when we get home to spend the evening with our cold and rejecting spouse/partner); like the reading on a barometer, this level of self-worth changes according to the temporary and inconstant personal conditions within which we find ourselves.


Our self-worth derives from our self-concept and as a result of a traumatic childhood we often tend to focus upon global self-worth and view this as very low (indeed, sadly, many people who have suffered significant childhood trauma erroneously see themselves as essentially ‘worthless.’ In relation to this, you may wish to read my article: ‘How The Child’s View Their ‘Badness’ Is Perpetuatedor, alternatively, my article entitled: Childhood Trauma: Destroyer Of  Self-Esteem.



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