Trauma and low self-worth are closely correlated, especially with regard to adverse experiences, including abuse. Traumatic experiences can disrupt how a person sees themselves and their ability to regulate their emotions, as well as affect the quality of their interpersonal relationships.
When a person’s sense of safety, predictability, and belonging are damaged, they may develop survival skills that help them cope in unpredictable or dangerous environments.
Yet, the same coping mechanisms that may help a person adapt to adverse conditions in one situation can become maladaptive and harmful to their emotional and psychological well-being throughout their life.
While there are many deficits that can occur from having experienced trauma, four of the most common ones are listed below.
Emotional and Psychological Dependency
Adults raised in neglectful or narcissistic environments were typically not taught their own value and worth. Instead, many were conditioned to seek out external validation from abusive caregivers, who reinforced that child’s sense of dependency on them rather than fostering their independence.
For example, a narcissistic caregiver may have played the role of martyr in shaming their child as being lazy to friends or family members. However, in reality, that child may have not been taught life skills or may have been abused for not living up to their caregiver’s unrealistic expectations of perfection.
Fast-forward into their adult life and that person may find themselves ill-equipped for “adulting,” and so they could struggle with a constant need for validation and approval, may be unable to make decisions for themselves, may be unaware of how to get a job, balance a checkbook, use a washing machine, or feel self-reliant – all of which can reinforce their dependency on others.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is often cited as developing in young adulthood due to chronic trauma experienced in childhood, especially emotional abuse and invalidation. Because negligent and emotionally abusive conditions in a person’s formative years can result in self-defeating attitudes and beliefs, as well as difficulty in regulating their emotions, it may create challenges in their sense of self-worth, and self-compassion.
Especially common are unstable and intense relationships in which they may find it difficult to be alone or to be without a partner, and can vacillate between idealizing and devaluing people in their life.
Similarly, they may experience an unstable sense of self-image in which they “change” who they are depending on who they are idealizing.
Additionally, some may engage in unpredictable, dangerous, or self-sabotaging behaviors, including reckless driving, and behavioral compulsions.
(i.e., exercising, binge eating, sex, gaming, or substance abuse)
as ways of self-numbing their emotional pain and deep fears of rejection and abandonment.
Because trauma can create emotional dysregulation, some may feel “stuck” in anger and unable to experience any feelings of joy or peace.
These feelings may prevent them from getting close to others and can reinforce feelings of loneliness. Others may find themselves in a series of unhealthy relationships, or engaging in a pattern of “chasing” a romantic partner to overcompensate for feelings of loneliness, which often leads to poor choices in partner selection.
Similarly, because many people with histories of trauma also battle identity issues, they may feel lost, misunderstood, or judged because of not knowing where they fit in, which can reinforce a sense of loneliness.
Those who have histories of attachment trauma may be most at risk for experiencing deep feelings of loneliness.
For example, if a person experienced parental abuse or neglect in their formative years, their caregivers’ refusal or inability to provide a secure base can affect their ability or desire to create healthy bonds with others.
This may negatively impact their ability to feel safe, wanted, and accepted for who they are.
Depression and Anxiety
Vacillating between anxiety and depression are common patterns for those with histories of trauma which often affects their self-worth. Social situations may cause fears associated with rejection or abandonment, which can trigger feelings of anxiety.
Yet, refusal to socialize because of fears of not being seen as good enough can trigger or exacerbate feelings of depression.
These can become cyclic and keep a person feeling “stuck” in a never-ending battle with their emotions.
Childhood trauma is correlated with increased risks for developing anxiety and depression, along with risks for emotional and behavioral problems in a person’s adult life, including risks to their neurological response system.
For example, chronic exposure to toxic and abusive environments in childhood may trigger an excessive release of stress hormones. This over-activation can trigger the body into a perpetual sense of fight-flight-freeze activation, which over time may increase risks of depression and anxiety.
Research suggests that a solid sense of self-esteem can help buffer the effects of early trauma, making it that much more important in helping build self-empowerment.
Because many adults have histories of traumatic experiences, it is necessary to become aware of how unprocessed trauma may be affecting your life, your choices, and your overall happiness.
Speaking to a trauma therapist who specializes in helping people set healthy goals is a key first step.