NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, July 2, 2022

How a Negative Personal Narrative Develops From Unresolved Trauma and How Trauma Therapy Can Help

In my prior article, Changing the Negative Stories You Tell Yourself About Who You Are, I began a discussion about changing your negative personal narrative (see my article: You Can't Change Your Past, But You Can Change the Way Past Trauma Affects You in the Present).

In that article, I gave a brief description of how early experiences can affect your personal narrative and some self help tips on what you can do to become aware and challenge the stories you are telling yourself.  

Negative Personal Narratives Can Develop From Unresolved Trauma

In the current article, I'm delving deeper into the impact of unresolved trauma, which I mentioned towards the end of first article, and how trauma therapy can help (see my article:  What is a Trauma Therapist?).

Clinical Vignette: A Negative Personal Narrative Develops From Unresolved Trauma and How Trauma Therapy Helped
The following clinical vignette, which is a composite of many different cases with all identifying information removed to protect confidentiality, illustrates how trauma therapy can help clients to change their personal narrative from negative to positive:

When Joe, who was his early 40s, sought help in trauma therapy, he told his therapist he wanted to learn to accept he wasn't going to be in a relationship because he was unlovable and women weren't interested in him.

At that point, he believed he had to reconcile himself to a destiny of being alone, which was overwhelming for him.  But he believed that if he didn't accept what he perceived as the hopelessness of his situation, he would feel chronically dissatisfied for the rest of his life.  

Although he wanted more than anything to have a romantic partner, he told his therapist he believed it would be better to accept being alone and focus on other areas of his life.  

According to Joe, he tried working on making changes in his prior therapies so that he could get into a relationship, but no matter how much he tried, nothing worked.  As a result, he believed he had to accept that women found him fundamentally flawed and he was destined to be alone.

He believed if he learned to accept the inevitability of his being single for the rest of his life, he would be much better off than pining for something that wasn't possible.  He was adamant that he felt he wasted too much time in prior therapies trying to change himself to no avail.

As his therapist got to know Joe, she could see no objective reason why he wasn't in a relationship, which he said he really wanted.  From her perspective, she saw an intelligent, kind, handsome man who was repeatedly telling himself that he wasn't lovable or good enough to be with anyone.

Although she was aware that Joe's personal narrative was distorted, she also knew that it would be pointless to tell him this so early in his therapy because it would only increase his resistance to it.  She knew it would be much more helpful for Joe to discover this for himself through their work together.

His family background included a highly critical mother and a father who was more of an absence than a presence because he spent most of his time at work.  Even when he was at home, Joe's father, who was emotionally distant, did nothing to mitigate the damage of the mother's relentless criticism of Joe and Joe's much older siblings.

When his older siblings were old enough to leave the house, they moved out on their own to get away from their parental home--leaving Joe to endure his mother's criticism and chronic dissatisfaction with Joe, his father and her own life.  

As a result, Joe was a shy, self conscious child who mostly played by himself at home. His  mother didn't want his friends to come to their house because she feared they would upset the house.  Nor did she allow Joe to visit his friends or to play outside in the park or at the school playground.

Although Joe's teachers attempted to talk to his mother about his social isolation and the need to socialize with other children, their words fell on deaf ears.  His mother believed that Joe just needed to behave himself and do his chores, and she didn't see any value in his making friends.

Consequently, as a child, Joe didn't learn to socialize with boys and girls, and he didn't develop the necessary social skills to form friendships or relationships.  Combined with his mother's criticism that he would never amount to anything, Joe's lack of social engagement had a devastating impact on him.

By the time he was in high school, Joe carried so much shame that he shied away from girls who showed an interest in him because he knew his mother was old fashioned and wouldn't approve.  And the only friendships he made while he was at an out of state college were his dorm mates, who made an extra effort to get to know him.

If he met a young woman he was attracted to who was outgoing and who asked him out, Joe would go, but he was lacking self confidence even with women who were obviously very interested in him.

After college and law school, Joe began a lucrative career as a corporate attorney and got his own apartment in Manhattan where he tended to isolate even though he wanted to have friends and date women.

By the time he was in his late 20s, Joe began therapy to deal with his social isolation and loneliness.  But, as previously mentioned, despite having tried many different therapy modalities, Joe had no success in therapy and he remained alone.

His current therapist told Joe about EMDR therapy to resolve childhood trauma, which he was able to acknowledge.  

As long as his therapist didn't relate his childhood trauma to his current circumstances, Joe was willing to work through his crippling self esteem issues stemming from a childhood of emotional neglect and emotional abuse (see my article: How EMDR Therapy Works: EMDR Therapy and the Brain).

Part of the EMDR therapy protocol is asking the client for the negative belief they have about themselves as it relates to their traumatic memories.  

In Joe's case, his negative belief was "I'm unlovable and I'm not good enough" (see my articles:  Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable and Are Your Core Negative Beliefs Keeping You Stuck?).

Over time, as often occurs in EMDR therapy, Joe began to make emotional connections between his traumatic childhood experiences and his current life circumstances on his own (see my article: EMDR Therapy Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

In the past, he resisted making these connections whenever his prior therapists mentioned them, so he was surprised he was making them on his own and how intuitively these connections resonated with him despite his long history of resisting them.

As he became more open to the trauma therapy process, Joe gradually allowed himself to grieve his childhood losses and he felt a weight had been lifted from him.  

As he worked through his traumatic history, Joe began to feel more optimistic about the possibility of a relationship in his future.  As a result, even though he didn't have a lot of dating experience, he was more open to dating.  

At first, whenever a woman he was dating rejected him, Joe reverted to his negative narrative about himself: "I'm unlovable" and "No one will want me."  

But, over time, Joe learned that, just like anyone else, there would be some people who would be interested in him and some who weren't.  

Working in therapy on these issues, Joe learned not to personalize these rejections (see my article: It's Not Always You - How to Stop Personalizing Rejection While Dating).

How Trauma Therapy Helps to Develop a Positive Personal Narrative

As he continued to work through his issues in therapy and open himself to dating women, Joe's personal narrative about himself changed.  Rather than seeing himself as unlovable and not good enough, he developed a positive personal narrative where he believed he deserved love and a happier life.

Over time, Joe developed genuine self confidence and he began a relationship with a woman he met through a colleague.

Personal narratives are based on your history.  

If you were fortunate enough to have had a good enough childhood where you felt loved and encouraged in your life, all other things being equal, you probably will have a positive personal narrative.

On the other hand, if you grew up in a family where you were ridiculed and you internalized a negative perspective about yourself, your personal narrative will probably be negative.  Like most things, there are exceptions.

Trauma therapy, like EMDR, helps you overcome the traumatic memories that can have a lasting impact on you in adulthood if they are untreated in trauma therapy.  

Once you have worked through these issues, you can live your life without the impact of early trauma.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you are impacted by unresolved trauma, you could benefit from working with a trauma therapist, who can help you overcome your traumatic history.

Once you have worked through your trauma, you can live free from your history and change the negative stories you tell yourself.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I am a trauma therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

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.