In the last article titled How Childhood Trauma Teaches Us to Dissociate, we looked at what dissociation is and how it relates to trauma, especially trauma that we experience in our formative years. If you haven’t yet, I highly recommended reading that article first as being familiar with it will help you get more value out of this article.
Dissociation and Self-Connection
Since a child is still developing and is dependent on their caregivers, they are unable to resolve their trauma as it’s a complex and complicated task that even most adults struggle with. Dissociation, then, becomes a common psychological defense mechanism that a child develops to create a less painful and terrifying world in their mind and where they are more able to manage their painful emotions.
Dissociation that stems from childhood trauma damages or even destroys a person’s ability to be in touch with their true feelings, needs, thoughts, and preferences. In other words, dissociation creates a lack of self-connection.
As I write in the book Human Development and Trauma:
“Such a child learns that it is unsafe and forbidden to show genuine emotions and share true thoughts. And so these are repressed, to the degree that the child automatically attempts to discard whatever their psyche registers as forbidden.”
Over time, the person learns to detach from their feelings or may feel what they actually don’t or shouldn’t feel (guilt, shame). They learn to forget their interests and to do what they actually wouldn’t do (what others want them to do). They learn to hide their true thoughts or think what others around them think. They learn to be who their caregivers, and later other people, want them to be.
They become what is sometimes referred to as false self or persona. This is an adaptation mechanism that is necessary to survive in a lacking and otherwise dangerous environment.
Many other problems stem from a lack of severe self-connection: skewed of self-esteem, self-blame and unjust responsibility, chronic shame, emptiness and lack of motivation, social anxiety, anger issues, and many others. We will briefly address a few more common ones here.
Low, skewed self-esteem
Lacking a healthy connection with one’s true emotions and not seeing yourself realistically warps a person’s self-esteem.
Eventually, you’ll develop the tendency to see yourself as lower than others, or to please everyone, or to never feel good enough, or to chronically seek validation, or to overcompensate and toxically compete and compulsively compare yourself to others.
In short, people with a skewed self-esteem either underestimate themselves (“I’m not good enough,” “I’m bad”), or overestimate themselves (“I know everything,” “Everyone’s stupid”). Whether it’s the former, the latter, or a combination of both, the person never feels at peace with themselves, which ends up creating many personal and interpersonal problems.
Chronic guilt and shame
Many children internalize their traumatizers’ words and actions and learn to blame themselves for their pain, rationalizing it as them being bad and therefore deserving to be hurt. These now internalized feelings are one of the most common problems adults struggle with.
Some always blame themselves for being mistreated and accept toxic and dysfunctional treatment in their adult relationships. Others have unrealistic standards for themselves and even sabotage themselves.
Many have a very harsh inner dialogue where they order themselves around (“I should do this”) or call themselves names (“I’m so dumb,” “I’m worthless,” “I can’t do anything right”).
Such people carry the guilt, responsibility, and shame that, in actuality, belongs to the people who traumatized them.
Repressed and projected anger
Anger is a natural and healthy response to being hurt by someone. Since children are usually forbidden from feeling anger towards their primary caregivers and other authority figures who mistreat them, they have to repress it.
However, this anger has to go somewhere, and it can be directed in only two ways: inward and outward.
When a person is disconnected from their anger towards their initial traumatizers, they tend to direct it inward and feel all kinds of unpleasant feelings related to it (self-loathing, shame, guilt, self-blame, self-attack, and many others). They have difficulties feeling and expressing anger even when it’s appropriate.
Or, this repressed anger can be expressed outwardly in a psychologically safer environment against other people: towards one’s spouse, children, coworkers, strangers, whole groups of people that is perceived as “enemies,” and so on. It’s called projected anger because, even though there may be some reason to feel angry, the anger the person feels as an adult in most of these situations is exaggerated and can be constituted as acting out one’s early, unresolved anger for their primary traumatizers.
Outwardly directed, projected anger results in harming others and continues the cycle of abuse. In contrast, inwardly directed anger results in self-destructive thinking and behavior.
Self-harm and poor self-care
Internalized anger that ends up becoming self-loathing manifests itself in poor self-care or even active self-harm. Some examples of it are the following:
- Eating problems
- Poor sleep and lack of rest
- Self-attacking thoughts and destructive behaviors
- Poor medical care
For people who don’t understand the root of their self-loathing, it is incredibly difficult to overcome it because they always end up finding reasons why they should hate themselves or why there’s no point in taking better care of themselves. They still believe that they deserve the treatment they received as children.
You can read more about it in a previous article titled A Brief Guide to Self-Harm and Unhealed Childhood Trauma.
Summary and Final Words
Childhood trauma is a complex and complicated thing that most people don’t really understand yet. However, the ignorance of or indifference to it doesn’t change the tragic effects of it. It doesn’t make it less real or serious.
When a child experiences trauma, they are unable to resolve it so, as a survival tactic, they dissociate and eventually learn to repress and hide their unwanted thoughts, feelings, and needs—self-erasure.
This lack of self-connection creates a myriad of emotional, psychological, social, and even physical problems that can haunt people long into their adulthood. Low, skewed self-esteem, toxic shame and guilt, anger issues, self-harm and poor self-care are only a few of them.
Some people are able to rebuild their connection with themselves, at least for the most part. Many aren’t even aware of the true cause of it, or live in denial that they even have these problems.
And while these issues can take years of consistent and systematic work to overcome, there is hope and it is possible to become a healthier, happier, and more resolved individual.
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.