If we have experienced childhood trauma to a significant degree, we may irrationally blame ourselves for it which, in turn, may well seriously, negatively, distort our self-perception; in other words, adversely affect our view of ourselves.
Our ENVIRONMENT has a large influence on how our personalities develop. For example, children brought up in a loving, and secure environment are much more likely to become relatively content and self-confident adults.
On the other hand, a child who has suffered abuse and neglect may develop into an adult lacking self-confidence and prone to anxiety, depression and other serious difficulties.
Also, if a child has had an unstable parent or carer who has been unpredictable and has given mixed messages, they may develop into an adult who is fearful of abandonment. As a result, he/she may:
1. cling to close relationships
2. avoid close relationships
and, quite often:
a painful combination of the two.
This can make maintaining close relationships very problematic.
Children are ‘programmed’ to learn from adults (for evolutionary reasons), so if the adult carer has been abusive and critical, the child may well grow up FALSELY BELIEVING that he/she is inadequate, stupid, unlovable and worthless. Also, trusting others may become very difficult as the individual’s experience during childhood was to be severely let down BY THE VERY PERSON/S WHO WERE SUPPOSED TO CARE FOR THEM AND PROTECT THEM.
The more stresses and traumas a child has, the more likely it is that he/she will develop into a pessimistic, anxious, depressed adult who believes things are hopeless and cannot improve.
It should be pointed out, though, that if a child suffers abuse but also has significant positive support in other areas of his/her life during childhood, this can make the individual more RESILIENT to the harmful effects of the trauma.
It is also important to note that if a person has suffered trauma and as a result has a negative view of themselves, the future and the world in general (sometimes referred to as the ‘depressive cognitive triad’), IT IS POSSIBLE TO CHANGE THIS PESSIMISTIC OUTLOOK.
DEVELOPMENT OF BELIEF SYSTEMS IN CHILDHOOD:
We develop our most fundamental belief systems in childhood. If a child is brought up with love, affection and security s/he tends to build up positive beliefs. For example:
– people should not treat me badly
– I am a decent and likeable person
– I have rights
– I deserve respect
However, negative belief systems often develop in children who have been abused. For example:
– people cannot be trusted
– I am vulnerable
– I am worthless
– everyone is out to get me
– I am intrinsically unlovable
These negative beliefs often feel very real, but most of the time, they are very inaccurate. JUST BECAUSE WE FEEL OUR BELIEFS ARE TRUE, IT IN NO WAY LOGICALLY FOLLOWS THAT THEY ARE.
In effect, then, childhood abuse can cause us to become PREJUDICED AGAINST OURSELVES – we see ourselves through a kind of distorting, black filter.
Negative, prejudiced self-beliefs are dangerous as they may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example:
– someone who thinks s/he will always fail may, as a result, not try to achieve anything and therefore not succeed in the way s/he had the potential to do (if only s/he had believed in her/himself).
– someone who thinks s/he is unlovable (when in reality this is untrue) may never attempt to form close relationships thus remaining unnecessarily lonely and isolated.
In summary, childhood EXPERIENCES form OUR FUNDAMENTAL BELIEF SYSTEMS. This, in turn, affects:
– our mood
– our behaviour
– our relationships
This negative belief system can become deeply entrenched. It is therefore necessary to ‘re-program’ our belief systems, and I shall be examining how this might be achieved in later articles.
Eleven Types Of ‘Self’ That May Develop After Trauma :
In his book, The Posttraumatic Self, the psychotherapist John Wilson describes eleven types of ‘selves’ (or, what Wilson refers to, more technically, as ‘typologies of personality that form unique configurations of self-processes’) that may develop in the individual following severely traumatic experiences.
These eleven ‘selves’ can be seen as existing on a continuum such that the first (THE INERT SELF) represents those individuals most severely psychologically damaged by their traumatic experiences. At the other end of the spectrum, the eleventh (THE INTEGRATED-TRANSCENDENT SELF), represents those individuals who have proved the most resilient in the face of their traumatic experiences and can be said to have ‘transcended’ them.
I list all eleven of the types of ‘selves’ below :
- Inert Self
- Empty Self
- Fragmented Self
- Imbalanced Self
- Over-controlled Self
- Anomic Self
- Conventional Self
- Grandiose Self
- Cohesive Self
- Accelerated Self
- Integrated-Transcendent Self
There follows a brief outline of each of these eleven types :
1) THE INERT SELF :
Wilson describes those individuals who develop an ‘inert self’ in response to trauma as ‘broken in spirit’, ‘autistically withdrawn’ and devoid of all motivation (‘even the motivation to be safe’); they are emotionally numb and facially expressionless. They may, too, experience catenoid states, brief episodes of psychosis or paranoid states.
2) THE EMPTY SELF :
Individuals displaying the ’empty self’ are passive and devoid of energy. They have also lost interest in activities which they previously (before their traumatic experiences) found to be engaging and have become withdrawn, socially isolated (having lost social confidence and social skills) and insecure. They also suffer from anhedonia (the inability to experience pleasure), are anxious, fearful and have lost trust in the world. Suicidal ideation is also a prominent feature of this group of individuals.
3) THE FRAGMENTED SELF :
Individuals in this category suffer from identity defusion (confusion about their identity and about ‘who they are’ – in other words, they have lost a coherent and solid sense of self). They also feel as if their personalities have become fragmented (click here to read my previously published article about the ‘fragmented personality’).
Furthermore, they experience problems with relationships (including intense emotional responses towards others which fluctuate dramatically), are likely to function erratically in the workplace, may experience dissociative states and develop traits similar to those suffering from a dependent personality disorder.
4) THE IMBALANCED SELF :
Those who respond to trauma by displaying an imbalanced self suffer from extreme emotional lability similar to that experienced by individuals who have developed emotional instability disorder.
They are also afraid of being left alone and have a constant need for reassurance, to be looked after and cared for.
Furthermore, they suffer from chronic anxiety and their relationships with others are highly dysfunctional; if they perceive themselves to be abandoned by others, even briefly, they are prone to becoming severely agitated and/or angry.
5) THE OVER-CONTROLLED SELF :
Such individuals have difficulty expressing their emotions and have a fear of losing control. They display traits similar to those displayed by individuals suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
They are highly driven, disciplined, routine-orientated and ‘overactive’ – this ‘over-activity’ unconsciously serves to exert a sense of control over inner, deep-seated feelings of anxiety. In other words, their frantic attempts to impose control over their external world represents an unconscious overcompensation for an anxiety-provoking sense of loss of control over their internal world.
It has also been suggested (e.g. Horowitz, 1999, cited in Wilson) that their intense overactivity is an unconscious defence mechanism which serves to ‘block-out’ / prevent conscious attention being directed towards traumatic memories.
6) THE ANOMIC SELF :
These individuals experience life as empty and meaningless, are mistrustful of society in general and feel alienated and disconnected from it; indeed, often they may be seen as ‘loners’. They rebel against authority and lead an unconventional lifestyle. Also, because of the trauma they have suffered, they are wary of forming close emotional bonds with others. Furthermore, they may suffer from antisocial personality traits.
7) THE CONVENTIONAL SELF :
In contrast to individuals displaying an ‘anomic self’ (see above), these individuals have adjusted to, and reintegrated with, society following their traumatic experiences. By connecting with others, they help themselves redevelop a feeling of being safe; in relation to this, they have a strong need to gain the approval of others and to be liked and respected by them; this powerful desire drives them to be highly conventional and conformist (Wilson, 1980).
8) THE GRANDIOSE SELF :
These individuals strive to achieve and succeed in the desperate attempt to gain recognition from others in ordered to restore their shattered self-esteem (caused by their traumatic experiences).
Their grandiosity can be seen as a defence mechanism serving to ward off and protect from inner feelings of vulnerability, similar to the function it serves in those who have a narcissistic personality disorder.
9) THE COHESIVE SELF :
Such individuals have proved resilient in the face of their traumatic experiences and may be described by others as having ‘bounced back.’ In contrast with the ‘anomic type’ (see above), these individuals are prosocial and concerned with questions relating to ethics and justice.
10) THE ACCELERATED SELF :
Those displaying the ‘accelerated self’ type have become highly individualistic as a result of having overcome their traumatic experiences. Wilson also describes them as being ‘tough, resolute, resilient, morally principled, altruistic and self-directed [who have] ‘transformed traumatic impact into prosocial humanitarian modes of functioning’.
Wilson refers to such people as displaying an ‘ACCELERATED’ self as they have, as a result of their profound, traumatic experiences, had their psychosocial development ‘speeded up.’ This has led them to consider ‘critical life-stage issues’ earlier than would usually have been the case.
11) THE INTEGRATED-TRANSCENDENT SELF :
Such individuals have optimally overcome their traumatic experiences and, therefore, can be described as having ‘transcended’ them to achieve a ‘structurally [integrated] self, the components [of which] reflect optimal functioning.’ Indeed, they can be seen as having achieved what Maslow describes as ‘SELF-ACTUALIZATION.’
These individuals embrace growth and challenges, have achieved ‘spiritual transcendence’, gained profound wisdom and have the ‘capacity to have peak experiences of the numinous.’ Wilson also describes such individuals as altruistic and able to ‘live in the present with consciousness attuned to a higher awareness of reality and cosmic order.’
Repairing Our Self-Image :
Those of us who suffered childhood trauma caused by our parents/primary carer are very likely to have received extremely negative messages about ourselves from these people – these messages may have been stated directly or implied and intimated.
Indeed, many of us were made to feel unwanted, worthless and utterly unlovable during the crucial stage of our development when we were forming our self-image.
In other words, we INTERNALIZED these messages which, in turn, may have led to us living all our adult life believing these messages to be true and also as being an accurate reflection of the essence of who we are. This process can gradually erode, by a kind of drip-drip effect, and, eventually, destroy our self-esteem.
REPETITION COMPULSION :
Furthermore, if we had a bad relationship with our parents/primary carer when we were young, we may have found that we have, since, experienced a pattern of forming similarly poor relationships with others during our adult lives. For example, perhaps we have been unconsciously drawn to form relationships with others who are likely to abuse us. In essence, this can be due to what is referred to by psychologists as a REPETITION COMPULSION (an unconscious attempt to master our adverse childhood relationship experiences), leaving us extremely vulnerable to revictimization.
Naturally, this lowers our view of ourselves even further as it just serves to REINFORCE our belief that we are ‘worthless and unlovable’.
A FORM OF ‘BRAINWASHING’ :
In effect, we were programmed and ‘brainwashed’, when we were young, into a forming a FUNDAMENTAL (yet FALSE) BELIEF that we are ‘intrinsically bad’ people.
Coming to realize and understand this entirely is A VITAL STEP TOWARDS COMING TO VIEW OURSELVES IN A MUCH MORE POSITIVE, AND, INDEED, COMPASSIONATE, WAY.
An effective therapy (this has been backed up by many research studies) that can help us to do this is COGNITIVE BEHAVIOURAL THERAPY (CBT).
It is also possible that having been imbued with the belief that we are inherently bad. This is likely to have caused us to internalize this view, coupled with pent up rage about having been ill-treated in childhood, may have led us to make some significant mistakes in life.
However, we can lower the probability that we will repeat such mistakes by thinking about how we would like to change, in line with our now more positive view of ourselves (assuming we have worked at this). We can then devise strategies as to how this goal may best be achieved.
It is also to point out that if we were conditioned to think ill of ourselves as children we may have found that, as adults, we have overly focused on our bad points whilst remaining oblivious to our more positive points.
Ways to help ourselves feel better about ourselves also include :
– cutting off contact with people who make us feel bad about ourselves
– associating more with people who make us feel good about ourselves
– taking up activities which make use of, and develop our strengths
John P. Wilson. The Posttraumatic Self: Restoring Meaning and Wholeness to Personality. Routledge, 11 Dec 2007
David Hosier BSc; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).