Trauma & Self-Esteem: Are We Ever the Same Again?
Updated: Apr 15, 2020
We can pretty much count on our sense of self-worth being shaken from time to time, but then what? Here we reflect on the impact of trauma on self-esteem, and what it means for us moving forward.
When I was in 8th grade, I recall one of our classroom’s teaching assistants providing a visual demonstration of the effects of insults on self-esteem, probably as a well-intentioned way to curb the bullying taking place at the time. For this demonstration, he took a piece of paper with self-drawn artwork on it, explaining that the picture represented healthy self-esteem. He then proceeded to tear the picture to shreds as a metaphor for what bullying did to said self-esteem.
That metaphor still holds up for me today, up until what he did next: He taped the pieces back together into their original form, and held up the now tenuously held-together picture as an example of how even after a person heals, once their self-esteem has been damaged it would never be the same again. They would never be the same again. “So, think about that the next time you decide to tease your classmates!” I’ll return to why his conclusion to that demonstration doesn’t quite resonate with me in a moment. First, let’s discuss the impact of trauma on self-esteem.
Psychological trauma is broadly defined as an emotional response to a disturbing event, such as an accident, natural disaster, or various types of abuse (bullying, for example, can take on the forms of physical, verbal, or social abuse). Longer term reactions to these events can vary in type and intensity, and can include symptoms such as flashbacks, panic attacks, social withdrawal, and self-isolation. What about self-esteem? That can get impacted in a variety of ways.
Some individuals may internalize the insults or degradation directed towards them by an abuser, even to the point where they come to believe that they’ve somehow done something to “deserve” that treatment. Some may ruminate over a devastating accident and wonder if they’re being “punished,” while others begin to view themselves as “failures” or somehow “less” as a result of their experiences and the emotional scars they’ve walked away with. However the damaged self-esteem may show up, it’s a pretty common response to the traumas we accumulate across our lifetime. And no, we’re not the same after we pick up the pieces… but should we even try to be?
This is where, many years of reflection later, I take issue with the implicit message in the conclusion of that class demonstration. It’s the implication that any traumas we take on will irreparably damage us, and that if we don’t return to exactly the way we’d been before, we’re somehow less. That our emotional scars weaken us and take away from who we were before, without any consideration to who we are about to become.
I eventually learned and accepted that trauma and pain are inevitable realities we encounter as we move through life. Something is going to damage that picture whether our classmates tease us or not. And then something else. And so on. So, what happens to the ripped up pieces of our self-esteem after each injury? Do we desperately try to recreate what was, or do we repurpose those pieces into an entirely new picture? I employ an approach to therapy that embraces the latter. From where I’m standing, we integrate those experiences into a revised perspective and grow from them. We are different after adversity, but I would argue that the changes we undergo ultimately fortify us.
Growth and learning are lifelong processes, and they often originate from a place of discomfort, and even pain. Adversity changes who we are and how we view ourselves and others, and it changes how we interact with the world. Sometimes we choose responses that only serve to cause ourselves more pain, such as shielding ourselves from others as a way to avoid “getting hurt again.” However, we’re also capable of transforming our experiences into a vehicle for positive change, such as choosing to raise awareness of these issues or to support someone else through their own challenges.
I’m not suggesting we actively seek out adversity; rather, I’m suggesting that the inevitable presence of it sparks changes within us that we can eventually embrace as a natural and continuous process of personal growth. When we’re knocked down, we rebuild, but we don’t just tape up the tattered pieces of what we used to be and hope for the best. If a wooden house is destroyed by the elements, maybe the builder will use brick next time. If we’ve recently ended a toxic relationship, we may take more notice of any red flags that appear in future relationships. We don’t know what we don’t know until we learn it, and once we do, the picture is forever changed.
A damaged sense of self-worth may never resemble what it once was, but each time it happens, we rebuild and re-arrange the pieces into something new – something that can be held together by much stronger bonds than before.
If you’re looking for a supportive space in which to draw meaning from hardships and embrace the self-transformation they spark, book a free consultation to see how therapy can help you along your path!