Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes, whether physical abuse, childhood trauma, emotional trauma, going to war, workplace harassment, refugee camps, a traumatic accident, a natural disaster, or working as a first responder; trauma can affect individuals in all different ways. Trauma can negatively impact how you see the world, solve problems, your decision-making skills, and how you view yourself. You may live in a constant state of fear or anxiety, and you become so used to this that it becomes your baseline or “new normal.” New situations, locations, and people may be triggering for you, and you may even start to doubt yourself. Trauma damages your self-esteem and can lead to self-doubt, low self-worth, rocky relationships with others, isolation, and self-shame. Often, individuals may believe they are responsible for the trauma that occurred, which can leave individuals feeling guilty and cause intrusive thoughts and self-sabotaging behavior. Intrusive thoughts and low-self esteem from past trauma can lead individuals to develop negative coping skills such as misusing alcohol or drugs and self-harm behaviors.
A study in 2018 explored the relationship between trauma and self-esteem and found that individuals who experienced trauma and were diagnosed with PTSD experienced low-self esteem due to poor cognitive functioning. “As a result, it was found that the higher the tendency for PTSD, the lower the self-esteem. We believe that the onset of PTSD causes a decline in memory ability and attentional function, which interferes with one’s life and leads to self-denial, resulting in a decline in self-esteem among those with a high tendency for PTSD.”
Unwelcomed and distressing thoughts can occur in individuals who have experienced trauma and have developed posttraumatic stress disorder because of their trauma. Intrusive thoughts in the form of memories related to the trauma can come on suddenly, known as flashbacks. Flashbacks are specific symptoms related to PTSD. Flashbacks can bring worry, fear, and self-doubt. They can negatively affect your self-esteem.
Warning signs your past trauma is affecting your self-esteem
Never feeling good enough: You may be constantly comparing yourself to others or competing with others. These beliefs often stem from a history of being around someone who expects perfectionism or has very high standards. This can be a parent or a spouse who expects you to act and live a certain way, and when you don’t meet these standards, it can leave you feeling defeated and not good enough.
Self-sacrifice: You may find that you always put others before yourself, that you self-sacrifice. Although putting others before yourself sometimes is generous and selfless, doing this all the time can break you down and make you feel small. You may end up neglecting your wants and needs and telling yourself that you do not deserve to be treated a certain way which can result in low feelings of self-worth.
Lack of self-care: Individuals with low self-esteem often lack self-care because they were not taught how to self-soothe or practice self-care in their childhood. Additionally, they most likely were not properly cared for or loved in childhood by their caregivers, and their caregivers likely didn’t model self-care behaviors and take responsibility as caregivers.
Strong narcissistic traits: Individuals with low self-esteem often compensate by developing self-absorption, manipulation, attention-seeking, and compulsive lying. These narcissistic traits act as a defense mechanism to overcompensate feelings of pain and low self-worth. Narcissistic traits are difficult to break away from because these individuals often lack insight and self-awareness into their poor behavior and thought problems. Additionally, since some of these character traits can often be perceived as charming, they are often socially acceptable and even rewarded.
Social anxiety: Low-self esteem can create feelings of being overly sensitive to other people’s perceptions of them. They may question whether other people like them and spend too much time focusing on other people’s opinions about them. This can create anxiety, which can develop into the need for constant validation. Seeking validation and focusing on others’ opinions can make one anxious and psychologically dependent.
The importance of therapy
Self-esteem is not fixed; it can move along a continuum, and over time, it is possible to go from low-self esteem to healthy self-esteem. To adopt healthy self-esteem after experiencing trauma, you must first recognize that you have low self-esteem, which can be difficult for some individuals. A therapist can help you then focus on your past trauma and the triggers that cause unwanted intrusive thoughts that play into your low self-esteem. In other words, you may need to retrain your brain into how you process your thoughts, and this is best done through therapy. Finally, a therapist can help you work through intrusive thoughts and poor patterns of behavior and teach you healthy coping skills and exercises to help you work through any negative self-talk.