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Abuse and trauma in childhood can have devastating, long lasting effects in our lives. So what are some of the symptoms of childhood trauma in adults, and what can we do to relieve them?
Childhood trauma has many physical, emotional and social consequences that can follow us into adulthood. In this article I will talk about 5 of those consequences, and some ways we can heal ourselves and move on with our lives in a healthier way.
Survivors of traumatic experiences often feel an overwhelming sense of isolation. We feel ‘different’ from others and marked by our experiences, as if other people can see we are ‘broken’. And we fear that, if they can’t see it at first, they will eventually. We often have a core abandonment wound and are so terrified to be abandoned again, we struggle to let anyone get close to us at all.
We find it incredibly difficult to trust others, having had our trust broken. We also find it difficult to trust ourselves and our judgement of others. If someone appears to like and want to get close to us, we automatically assume the worst- that they want to abuse us. If someone is controlling or abusive towards us, that feels more ‘normal’, which leads us to form abusive relationships that retraumatise us, and get into codependent situations- further exacerbating our isolation.
One major symptom of PTSD is avoidance, which is avoiding people, places and situations that might trigger us, and also avoiding emotions in general. We do this by dissociation, and by staying away from close relationships. We might feel more comfortable with shallow friendships/acquaintances or casual romantic partners, or simply avoid all relationships to try to stay safe. We might feel safer in this comfort zone, and our avoidance is reinforced by this false feeling of safety, making it more and more difficult to break out of.
As a result, we can become terribly lonely and scared of other people, even though our hurt inner child is crying out for love.
So how do we begin to come out of our isolation and connect with people?
It is possible to do a lot of healing work alone, and in fact it is healthy- but there is much healing to be found in genuine connections with others. A really good place to start is by finding online communities for survivors, where we can talk openly with others who have been through similar experiences. There are many such communities and I talk about this in more depth in my article ‘How to Heal Trauma (part two)“
Another good starting place is to develop a relationship with a therapist who we trust. Therapy can be expensive, but there are many charity organisations that offer free services for survivors. If you are in the UK, the best place to start is “The Survivor’s Trust” – an umbrella organisation that covers the UK and Ireland. They also have a free helpline- you can find out about it here.
Group therapy sessions can be a godsend, because they allow us to connect “in real life” with other survivors and this reduces the feeling of being “the only one”. By talking to others who have faced trauma we see that we are truly not alone- in fact there are many others just like us, and that is a real comfort.
As we heal, we will naturally begin to trust ourselves more, and we will slowly learn to extend that trust to others. The more emotionally healthy we are, the more emotionally healthy people we will attract into our lives. With time and effort, we can build a small circle of close friends, and find a romantic partner we can trust.
Shame is toxic. It is a “master emotion” in the sense that it permeates all other emotions. Survivors can be so shame-bound, that every emotion, every need we feel is tainted by shame. We can even be ashamed to feel happy. On a deep level, we believe we are “bad” and don’t deserve happiness. Shame also feeds into itself- we become ashamed of being ashamed. The sad thing is, our feelings of unworthiness and shame can cause us to behave in ways that can lead to even more shame- for example, a woman who feels like “damaged goods” might engage in risky or promiscuous sexual behaviour which she later feels ashamed about, making her feel even more unworthy- and the cycle continues.
When we were abused, our rights were violated. Our needs were disregarded. This leads us to wrongly believe our needs are not important, and this is partly why we feel ashamed to have them. We felt deeply ashamed at what was happening to us, and ashamed that we did not do anything to stop it, or perhaps did not tell anyone about it. We assumed that the adults were right, and that there must be something “bad” about us that caused them to hurt us. Survivors of sexual abuse often feel ashamed of their own sexual needs.
Shame causes us to self sabotage when things are going well for us. It affects our body image, our relationships, our education and career, and taints every single thought and feeling. Whereas guilt is based on what we have or have not done, shame is based on who we are. It causes us to hate ourselves and to push away those who are kind to us.
How do we heal toxic shame?
The good news is, shame can be healed. Here are a few excellent books on the topic:
Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw.
It Wasn’t Your Fault: Freeing Yourself from the Shame of Childhood Abuse with the Power of Self-Compassion by Beverley Engel
Unshame: healing trauma-based shame through psychotherapy by Carolyn Spring
Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame: A Relational/Neurobiological Approach by Patricia A. Deyoung
We heal shame with love and compassion. We need to build healthy compassion for ourselves to combat the feelings of shame. We need to connect with our hurt inner child and shower him or her with love and forgiveness. We need to develop coping mechanisms that are constructive and build confidence, such as regular exercise and meditation.
[Self-compassion is] “being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgemental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s experience is part of the common human experience”Kristin neff- self compassion
We can practise self-compassion by tending to our needs and expressing them to others. We can heal shame by finding our voice and speaking our truth. We can sit with and honour our feelings.
We can reach for that inner child, take them in our arms and tell them it is going to be okay, because we are on their side now. Tell them that nothing was their fault, that they are not bad or dirty or worthless. Tell them they are beautiful, pure, worthy. We can write a letter to that child we were, and pour our hearts out. We can be that caring adult we always yearned for in our lives.
We carry so many layers of shame, and they must be peeled back slowly. It will take time, effort and a lot of love, but it is possible to be free of it.
3. Attachment Issues
Childhood trauma usually results in an insecure attachment style. According to attachment theory, pioneered in 1958 by psychologist John Bowlby, there are distinct styles of attachment and they develop in early childhood as a response to our caregivers’ styles. Attachment is defined as a stable bond that grows over time. A securely attached individual can form healthy relationships where they trust and can easily be intimate with their partner, and there is space for both people to grow.
Types of insecure attachment:
Anxious attachment refers to people who find relationships very stressful because they are always worried about being abandoned or betrayed by people in their lives. They tend to cling and appear needy, overthink small interactions and often exhibit obsessive behaviours such as stalking partners or checking their phones. Anxious attachment is often caused by overbearing parents, or parents who give love inconsistently. Abuse can also cause anxious attachment, lowering the child’s self esteem to the point where they believe they can trust others but not themselves.
Dismissive Avoidant attachment refers to people who are very uncomfortable with intimacy because they feel smothered by it. As soon as a partner or friend gets too close for comfort the dismissive avoidant will sabotage the relationship by acting out- for example ignoring their partner, disappearing for long periods of time, or cheating. Deep down the dismissive avoidant wants to be loved as much as anyone else, but they may not even know this as they are expert in denying their feelings. Often, they will use drugs or alcohol or other unhealthy habits to push their feelings away. Dismissive avoidance is often caused by parents who were critical or absent- the child learns that love cannot be relied upon and they should value their independence above anything else. It can also be caused by abuse- the child in this case decides that to be safe they must trust only themselves and not give anyone the chance to love them so they will not be hurt or abandoned.
Fearful Avoidant attachment (also called disorganised attachment) is a blend of anxious and dismissive attachment. If you are fearful avoidant, you long for intimacy but feel smothered when you get it, so run away or act out in ways that will sabotage the relationship. Unlike the classic avoidant, once they gain space, the anxious feelings return and they try desperately to get the intimacy back, only to feel smothered again. Fearful avoidance is caused by inconsistent parenting and abuse- the abused child in this case learns that caregivers are not to be trusted, but also that they cannot trust themselves.
At the core of each of these styles, there is a wound of abandonment. The anxiously attached individual craves intimacy and fears abandonment (but secretly fears intimacy). The avoidant individual fears intimacy and expects abandonment (but secretly craves intimacy). The fearful avoidant both craves and fears intimacy.
Ways to overcome attachment issues:
With time and effort, people can move towards a secure attachment style. The best way to begin is to take this test to see where you stand currently- the test will show you your attachment style towards your mother, father, friends and romantic interests, as they can vary wildly. You can save your details so that you can take the test periodically to see how your attachment style changes over time, which is a great way to measure progress.
There are many good resources out there to help overcome insecure attachment. I can recommend the Reddit community Attachment Theory, the Jeb Kinnison forum and site, and the wonderful Thais Gibson on YouTube. Here is an example of one of her videos on attachment:
Insecurely attached people often attract each other, and can result in toxic relationship cycles such as the “Anxious-Avoidant Dance“. These unhealthy cycles create nothing but pain and can keep people locked in situations that do nothing but re-traumatise them.
As we start to move towards a secure attachment style we will find ourselves beginning to attract more securely attached partners, which will in turn heal us more.
Our early childhood experiences mould our brains, because they adapt to their environment. A child who has been abused or neglected by trusted adults simply learns not to trust. Often they learn not to trust themselves or others, leaving them locked in a lonely, isolated existence. As adults, people who were traumatised as children often gravitate towards abusive relationships because of the attachment issues discussed above- further entrenching the belief that no-one can be trusted not to hurt them. Another reason they might be attracted to untrustworthy people is because, if you grow up trusting no-one, it is difficult if not impossible to judge a trustworthy person from someone you genuinely cannot trust.
Lack of trust can also lead to behaviour that sabotages relationships and causes the feared abandonment to happen- reinforcing the false belief that abandonment is inevitable.
Signs of trust issues in adults
- You expect to be betrayed or abandoned by everyone you get close to, even with no evidence of deception.
- You hold back from telling people your deepest thoughts and feelings.
- You check up on partners- going through their phone for example.
- You place trust in people who are not trustworthy.
- You do not fully commit- always keeping one foot out of the relationship because you believe it will not last anyway.
- You feel lonely and isolated- you cannot let anyone get close to you in case they hurt you.
- You overthink every interaction and catastrophise constantly.
- You always interpret people’s behaviour negatively- always thinking people are angry or disappointed in you, for example.
Ways to overcome trust issues
One of the best ways to work on trust issues is to establish a trusting relationship with a therapist as a base from which you can explore your other relationships. A good therapist is a neutral, responsible presence. They can be relied on to keep appointments (as much as possible) and to give you enough notice of times they cannot. Over time this consistency will build and allow a traumatised person to experience what it is to trust.
We also need to work on trusting ourselves as a priority. Practise self-care- aim to be your own best friend. Aim to be someone you can fully rely on. This will help you to realise that there are trustworthy people in the world- you are one, after all!
Your trust issues developed as a self-protective mechanism. To overcome them you must realise that they are actually self-sabotaging. Think deeply about who and how you trust, about your previous relationships, about times you misconstrued situations and times you trusted people who were clearly not worthy of it. As survivors we usually have finely-tuned body language and empathic skills, but often ignore our own intuition about people. Think about times you ignored red flags only to get hurt. Make a commitment to yourself to trust your intuition in future. Trusting others begins with trusting your own intuition about people.
Realise that people earn trust- it is not a given. In healthy relationships trust is built over time.
Books on trust issues:
Daring to Trust: Opening ourselves to Love and Intimacy – David Richo
Beyond Boundaries: Learning to Trust Again in Relationships – Dr. John Townsend
Safe People: How to Find Relationships that are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren’t – Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend
Overcoming trust issues is a long and painful process with many setbacks- after all, people are only human, and sometimes you will be betrayed- it is a part of life. As you heal and grow, you will learn new ways to deal with these painful feelings, and as your core wound of abandonment heals, you will find that betrayals no longer trigger you in the same way.
5. Low Self Esteem
Childhood trauma has devastating effects on self esteem. Survivors often feel unworthy, damaged and less than other people. We may subconsciously believe we are incompetent because we could not stop the abuse or were not believed when we told someone. We often struggle with massive guilt and shame, which lowers self esteem more, and often gravitate towards abusive relationships, which can lower it still more.
Signs of Low Self Esteem:
- You are shy and timid.
- You struggle to assert yourself, establish boundaries with people and say no.
- You seek the approval of others.
- You do not trust your own opinion and refrain from giving it.
- You try to impress everyone- even people you do not like.
- You do not take criticism well- even constructive criticism.
- You are indecisive.
- You do not believe people when they compliment you.
- You are very hard on yourself.
- You cannot leave the house without makeup/grooming.
- You feel depressed and anxious most of the time.
These are just a few of the many painful symptoms of having low self esteem. As we go through the healing process, we find our self esteem naturally increases. We learn that we are not victims but survivors, and that in itself is a source of pride. We work on eliminating shame and guilt. We build healthier relationships. We learn about self-care and put it into practise.
More ways to increase self esteem:
- Take up a new hobby or sport.
- Learn to silence the inner critic.
- Be creative- express yourself through art, music, writing, cooking or any other artform you like.
- Find your purpose- what are you passionate about? What can you bring to the world that nobody else can?
- Learn to assert yourself- ask for what you need, say no when you want to, offer your opinion.
- Surround yourself with people who are positive and appreciate you for who you are.
- Practise self-care- learn to recognise your needs, wants and wishes and how to fulfil them for yourself.
Building self esteem is a journey, and a gradual process. Small daily actions of self-care, creativity, assertiveness and so on build to a feeling of pride. As we work with our shadow self and release shame we start to see our intrinsic value. As we challenge ourselves to step out of our comfort zone and grow, our self esteem grows alongside us.