NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, March 1, 2018

How Developmental Trauma Affects How You Feel About Yourself

Psychological trauma, especially developmental trauma, usually has a negative impact on your perception of yourself.  This is one of the reasons why your beliefs about yourself are addressed in trauma therapy. For instance, in EMDR therapy, an important part of therapy is asking about your negative belief about yourself in relation to the traumatic memories that you and your psychotherapist are working on.

How Developmental Trauma Affects How You Feel About Yourself

It's not unusual for people who have experienced developmental trauma, which is childhood trauma, to have one of the following beliefs about themselves:
  • "I'm unlovable."
  • "I'm powerless."
  • "I'm no good."
  • "I'm a terrible person."
  • "I'm weak."
and so on.

Objectively, these same people might know that their beliefs about themselves are distorted but, at the same time, they still have these negative self perceptions, and trying to rationalize it away doesn't help them.

Clinical Vignette: How Psychological Trauma Affects Your Perception of Yourself
The following clinical vignette illustrates these points:

Cindy decided to start psychotherapy because she knew that her low self esteem was creating problems for her in her personal life as well as in her career.

Whenever she dated a man that she really liked, she worried that after he got to know her, he wouldn't like her and he would stop seeing her.  There wasn't anything in particular she dreaded that he would find out.  It was more a general feeling that she had about herself (see my article: Overcoming the Fear That People Wouldn't Like You If They Knew the "Real You").

As a marketing representative, she often had creative ideas about how to market the company's products, but she hesitated to talk to her manager about her ideas because she second guessed herself.  But when one of her colleagues came up with a similar idea and received praise from the manager, Cindy regretted that she didn't speak up when she had the idea.

When Cindy started therapy, she didn't know why she had such low self esteem but, as she talked to her psychotherapist about her family background, she began to see the connection between her low self esteem and her childhood history.

She told her psychotherapist that she was aware from a young age that her parents never wanted to have children and she was considered "a mistake."

Her parents provided for her basic needs, but they weren't loving and nurturing towards her.  She spent most of her time with her nanny or the housekeeper because her parents told her that they were too busy to spend time with her (see my article: What is Childhood Emotional Neglect? and What is the Connection Between Childhood Emotional Neglect and Problems Later On As An Adult?).

As an only child, Cindy often felt lonely.  She used to love going to her best friend's house because her friend's mother was kind and affectionate.  Her friend's mother would read stories to Cindy and her friend and play with them.

After Cindy moved out to go to college, she never moved back home again.  Instead, she and some of her college roommates got an apartment together in New York City and shared the rent.  She went home on holidays for the "obligatory family visits," but her relationship with her parents remained strained (see my article: How to Cope With Difficult Family Visits).

As Cindy and her psychotherapist talked about her memories of childhood, Cindy realized that ever since she could remember, she felt unlovable.

Even as a child, she felt that if she was a lovable child, her parents would care more about her.  She blamed herself for their emotional neglect, as young children often do.

At her psychotherapist's suggestion, Cindy chose a childhood memory to work on with EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) that was emblematic of her childhood experiences (see my articles: How EMDR Therapy Works: EMDR and the Brain and EMDR Therapy: When Talk Therapy Isn't Enough).

Cindy was five years old in this memory.  She remembered that it was a rainy day so she couldn't go outside, and she felt lonely and bored at home, so she told her mother that she felt "all alone" and "bored."

She hoped that her mother would spend time with her, read a story to her or just talk.  But her mother gave Cindy an annoyed look, "Cindy, can't you see that I'm busy reading?  Go to your room and find a book that you can read on your own, and don't bother me."

Cindy remembered going to her room, throwing herself on the bed and crying.  Her mother was in the next room and she probably heard Cindy crying, but she didn't come to Cindy's room to try to soothe her.  Instead, Cindy was left on her own to cry it out.

After Cindy and her psychotherapist completed the preparation phase EMDR therapy to work on this memory, as part of the EMDR protocol, Cindy's psychotherapist asked Cindy, "What's the negative belief you have about yourself?" in relation to this memory.

Cindy responded, "I'm unlovable" (see my article: Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

This was the first time that Cindy connected her feelings of being unlovable to how she was treated by her parents when she was a child.  Now, it made sense to her why she would feel this way about herself.

Cindy and her therapist continued to work on her feelings of being unlovable using EMDR therapy.  Many other similar memories came up as well as a deep sense of shame for feeling that she wasn't a lovable child.

How EMDR Therapy Can Help You to Overcome Developmental Trauma

After several months, Cindy and her therapist completed the EMDR therapy, and Cindy no longer felt unlovable.  Her self esteem improved so that she felt more confident when she went out on dates.  She also felt that she was a lovable person and she deserved to be loved.   At work, she was more assertive about making suggestions, and her manager recognized her work by promoting her.

Many people who experienced developmental trauma as children don't connect their poor sense of self and negative beliefs about themselves to their unresolved trauma.

EMDR therapy explores these feelings and beliefs directly so that clients can begin to make the connection and, eventually, work through them.

There is no quick fix for overcoming unresolved trauma.  Even though EMDR therapy tends to be more effective and tends to work faster than regular talk therapy, each person processes trauma in his or her individual way and in his or her own time.

Getting Help in Therapy
A negative belief or self perception is often linked to unresolved trauma.

If you have been struggling with feelings of low self worth, you could benefit from working with an experienced psychotherapist who has an expertise in helping clients overcome traumatic experiences (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

Rather than suffering on your own, you can work with a skilled psychotherapist who can help you to overcome your history of trauma so you can lead a more fulfilling life (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

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

As a trauma-informed psychotherapist, I work with individual adults and couples.  

I have helped many clients to overcome their traumatic experiences.

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

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.