If we have suffered severe and protracted childhood trauma, especially if it has resulted in complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or a similar condition such as borderline personality disorder, we may find, as adults, that we frequently experience feelings of alienation and emotional disconnectedness from other people – we may find we have lost our fellow-feeling, our empathy, concern, and compassion for others, as well as our ability to relate to them in any meaningful way.
This can make us feel that we have become cold and callous, leading to feelings of self-hatred, self-disgust, and profound loneliness and isolation.
As a result, we may become reclusive and pathologically avoidant of social interaction.
Why might this happen?
A leading theory is that it is due to unconscious memories of trauma. In effect, we may have become psychologically trapped at the time of our trauma, feeling and reacting as if the traumatic situation we were once in is going on in the present.
Therefore, we continue to feel extremely unsafe and perpetually under threat, distortedly perceive situations and people, and behave accordingly (e.g. constant hypervigilance, fear and suspicion of others, and pre-emptive hostility).
The problem is an inability to distinguish between our past world (in which we felt in constant danger) and our present (relatively safe) world. So we are, essentially, trapped in a kind of psychological time-warp.
Because of this, when events occur that remind us of our original trauma (even if such reminders are very subtle and operating on an unconscious level, we are in danger of suffering from flashbacks).
We are likely, too, due to our fear and suspicion of others, frequently to get into conflicts with people when we are forced to temporarily, socially integrate (psychologists sometimes refer to this phenomenon as having a disorganized attachment style).
Our sense of isolation and alienation may be further accentuated by our knowledge that others are incapable of understanding the depth of our former, and current, suffering; mere language cannot convey its intensity. As a result, these others may treat us with intolerance, disdain, and in an inappropriately morally judgmental manner. This can lead to deep feelings of frustration, resentment, anger, and rage.
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.