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Thursday, April 12, 2018

How Psychotherapy Can Help You to Overcome Trauma and Develop a More Accurate Sense of Self

Does it seem like your perception of yourself is off?  Does it seem that logically, you know your sense of self should be higher but, on an emotional level, you're not feeling it?  This is a problem that many people experience.  In this article, I'm focusing on how psychotherapy can help you to overcome the disconnect between what you know and how you feel about yourself (see my article: How Developmental Trauma Affects How You Feel About Yourself).

How Psychotherapy Can Help You to Overcome Trauma and Develop a More Accurate Sense of Self

How Self Perception Develops
Your self perception develops in early infancy and it's based on interactions between you and your primary caregiver (a mother, in most cases).

An infant looks at his mother's face to discover who he is.  If the mother is attuned to the baby most of the time, the baby forms a positive perception of himself.  But if the mother is distracted, depressed or angry most of the time, the baby will often form a negative perception of himself, unless there are other adults who interact positively with the baby enough to offset the negative effects from the mother.

How Early Experiences Affect Self Perception As An Adult
Throughout life people continue to scan other people's faces to discover how these people are reacting towards them.  As children develop into adults, they have a greater ability to develop their own sense of self that is separate from how others perceive them.

But if there was significant early childhood neglect or abuse, it can be challenging to have a positive self perception.  Even when a person might know, on an intellectual level, that she is a "good person" who is kind, honest, intelligent and empathetic towards others, she might not feel it.  The disconnect between what a person knows objectively and what she feels can be disturbing.

The problem is that, as an infant, this person internalized a negative sense of self from the primary caregiver.  Adults have defense mechanisms that can serve to protect them against these negative reactions, but infants don't have strong defense mechanisms.  If something in their environment is bothering them, they can't fight or flee.  If protesting by crying doesn't work, their only recourse is to dissociate.

Later on, as an adult, it can be confusing when someone can't understand the difference in what he thinks vs. what he feels.  He might not know that, when he was an infant, his mother was too depressed, anxious, neglectful or abusive to reflect back love and nurturance to him.

Under these circumstances, it usually doesn't matter how many people might praise him as an adult.  He will probably still feel like he is "not good enough" or "unlovable" (see my article: Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

Fictional Clinical Vignette
The following fictional clinical vignette illustrates how psychotherapy can help a client to overcome traumatic early experiences so he can develop a more accurate self perception:

Ed
From the time Ed was a young child, he had a poor sense of self.  No matter how many "A's" he got in school, no matter how much his teachers and others praised him, Ed felt unworthy.

Ed's poor sense of self interfered with his making friends and socializing with others.  Fortunately, throughout his life other people saw positive qualities in Ed, liked him, and gravitated towards him.  But Ed had difficulty feeling like a worthwhile individual--no matter how many people befriended him or what he accomplished in his life.

When Ed was in his mid-30s, he won a prestigious award in his field and he attended an awards ceremony where he was honored.  As he listened to the speakers praise him, he was grateful for their kind words, but he felt empty inside because, despite the award and the recognition, he had a poor sense of self.

During the award ceremony, Ed felt an urge to flee.  He knew objectively that he worked hard and his achievements merited the award, but he still felt like a fraud and an impostor, which confused him.

He also felt ashamed because he felt that if the people who were honoring him knew him deep down, they wouldn't think he was a worthy person (see my article: Overcoming the Feeling That People Wouldn't Like You if They Really Knew You and Overcoming Impostor Syndrome).

Shortly after that, Ed realized that, in reality, he had a very good life and he had everything to look forward to but, despite this, he was miserable because of his low sense of self.  He knew he needed to get help in therapy.  So, he contacted a psychotherapist who specialized in his presenting problem and began attending therapy sessions.

After Ed talked about his presenting problem of having a low sense of self, he discussed his family history with his psychotherapist.  He told her that his brother, Jack, who was older by 12 years, told Ed that their mother was significant depressed after Ed was born.

As a result, Ed was raised primarily by a nanny who was known to be efficient but not warm or loving.  Jack also told Ed that their father was often away on business trips and that Ed was usually left alone in his crib for hours at a time.

As his psychotherapist listened to Ed's account of his early childhood history, she realized that it appeared that he was emotionally neglected a child.  As a result, as an infant, Ed didn't get the necessary mirroring and nurturing necessary for an infant's healthy emotional and psychological development.

His psychotherapist provided Ed with psychoeducation, based on mother-infant research, about the importance of early mirroring and nurturing and the negative consequences to emotional and psychological development when they are missing.

Ed had never made these connections before.  While he was glad to know the possible origin of his low sense of self, he also felt discouraged.  He told his therapist that, while it was helpful to have this information, he didn't know what to do with it to change how he felt about himself.

His psychotherapist explained that before experiential therapy, including trauma therapy, was developed, all that psychotherapists could offer clients was insight into their problems.  But since trauma therapy was developed, these problems could now be worked through.

She also provided Ed with information about EMDR therapy, a trauma therapy, which was well researched. She explained that EMDR therapy was developed more than 30 years ago by a psychologist named Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. (see my articles: How EMDR Therapy Works: EMDR and the Brain and Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR Therapy, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

His psychotherapist recommended that they use EMDR therapy to help Ed to overcome his low sense of self, and Ed agreed.

Over the next several sessions, after the initial period of preparation to do EMDR, Ed provided his psychotherapist with 10 memories that he had about himself from all different times in his life where he felt he was unworthy.

After Ed and his therapist went over the memories, Ed chose a memory to work on using EMDR therapy that still had an emotional charge for him.  Over time, as they processed this memory with EMDR, his psychotherapist asked Ed to think back to the earliest memory that he had where he had the same emotional/physical experiences as he did with the memory that they were working on.

Ed was surprised that he remembered an early memory of being about three years old when he tried to get his mother's attention.  He remembered calling his mother, who was in the room with him, but she didn't respond.  Then, he remembered crying and getting louder and louder, but his mother still didn't respond.  She just sat there.  Eventually, the nanny came, but when she discovered that Ed wasn't hungry and he wasn't in need of anything else that was physical, she put him back in his crib and left.

How Psychotherapy Can Help You to Overcome Trauma and Develop a More Accurate Sense of Self

After several months of processing similar memories, Ed began to actually feel like he was a worthy individual.  His self perception became a lot more positive and objectively accurate.  He was able to take in others' praise because he felt deserving.  He was also able to interact more easily with others and form closer bonds with friends.

Conclusion
Individuals, who experience early trauma of either neglect or abuse, often develop a negative sense of self because they have internalized these experiences at a young age.

This usually results in a disconnect between what these individuals think and what they feel.  Regardless of what someone might think on an objective level, and all evidence to the contrary, s/he will most likely feel a low sense of self, which can be confusing.

The fictional vignette which was provided above is a simplified version of how trauma therapy can help clients in therapy to overcome early trauma that creates a negative sense of self.

Each client is unique in terms of how s/he responds to trauma therapy, like EMDR, and how long it takes to overcome early trauma.

Getting Help in Therapy
Early trauma often has a negative impact on an individual's sense of self, and this affect can be very difficult to overcome alone.

Trauma therapy, like EMDR, was developed to help individuals in therapy to overcome the impact of traumatic experiences (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy and Why Experiential Therapy is More Effective to Overcome Trauma Than Talk Therapy Alone).

If you're struggling on your own, you can get help from a licensed mental health professional who is trained as a trauma therapist (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Once you have overcome your traumatic experiences, you can live a more fulfilling life free of your traumatic history.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients to overcome trauma experiences.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.
















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