Trauma Series 4: Loss of Self

Self worth.  Those words have a lot of layers, because on the one side is a person who understands that they are valuable and enough and no less important than anyone else regardless of beauty, success, power, etc….and on the other hand is a person who believes that they are worthy of it all, entitled to whatever it is they want, better than others.  It’s easy to fall on the side of not loving yourself or on the side of self adoration (which is more properly referred to as narcissism).  But finding your way into the middle is somehow much harder.

I think it is unsettlingly easy to hate yourself.  It doesn’t take much to start picking yourself apart (and also others).  Often when we nag or criticize those around us, we are shaming them for whatever it is we personally feel shame about, so pay close attention to what you find bothersome about other people.  It might just be the very thing you don’t like about yourself.  

For me, rebuilding my self worth also meant changing how I would look at others.  It used to be that I believed my worth came from my clothing and how attractive I was.  Because my clothes were typically thrifted and I found myself hideous, I believed that my self worth was at a zero on a 1-10 scale.  So, when I was out, if I saw a particularly attractive person, I instantly felt deflated and knew that that person was way more important than me; worth being loved and seen and adored.  And my own self esteem would plummet even more (hard to believe it could continue to get lower).  

Self esteem isn’t something that just happens to you; it’s created and cultivated and nurtured and just as a plant, it needs proper, daily care.  Loving yourself can come and go as easily as the wind, and placing your own needs and self esteem on the back burner will, with time, be extremely damaging. 

While I was growing up, I had heard the words Self and Esteem at school, but the concept was really hard for me to grasp.  I think we were given a lot of the why’s when it came to loving and respecting ourselves, but not a lot of how’s.  

I knew I should cultivate my self esteem because it would make me happier, help me to make and keep friends, bring me peace, give me energy, etc…but I didn’t really understand how to actually feel that way or what practices I could incorporate in my life when things seemed to be going wrong.  A lot of my lack in self esteem I honestly believe came from feeling and being emotionally neglected.  I didn’t have someone explaining to me what self care looked like or what to do when I felt sad or how to even talk to someone about what I was feeling.  And with a lack of knowledge came a devastating disconnect between me and myself.  

When we face trauma, any sort of trauma, we are having an extremely distressing or disturbing experience. Trauma affects the way that we are able to think and express ourselves and it deeply affects how we feel about ourselves as we try to navigate through a scary and disorienting situation.

In an article called How Trauma Affects Your Sense of Self: Part 1 by Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD, she writes, “It is common to believe that if you had been smarter, faster, fought harder, yelled louder, or simply been a better person, then the trauma would not have occurred. These inaccurate beliefs, though understandable, cause damage by creating a falsely logical conclusion that since the trauma did happen, you must have deserved or caused it—and if you did, then all the shame and self-hatred you feel is warranted.

These beliefs grate away your self-esteem and stoke harsh opinions of yourself to the point where the ensuing self-loathing can become unbearable and paralyzing, leading you to want to hide, disappear, perpetually apologize for your existence, or desperately prove that you are worthy.”

And that’s exactly what was happening to me.  I believed the I was either making up my feelings (crazy, right?) and making things into a bigger deal than they actually were OR that I was responsible for feeling so miserable and out of control because I was a bad person and truly deserved to be punished.  During my days at home, I said some really horrible things to my family, hating them more than I thought possible, and further pushing me to believe that I deserved to no longer exist.  

So what are some ways to step out of this loss of self and improve your self esteem?  Here are some of my top tips:

1. Stop hating yourself.  I know that is blunt and straight forward, but it’s the first step.  You aren’t going to just suddenly stop hating yourself because you decide to stop, but at least give yourself enough grace to say that you will try to stop hating yourself enough to start healing.  

2. Turn off the negative thoughts.  Again, this takes practice but shutting down the negative thoughts really makes a difference.  When you start to say something unkind about yourself, turn it into some positive words instead, refusing to think the negatives.

3.  Do something nice for yourself.  Maybe you take an extra long shower and use a favorite lotion afterwards or maybe you take yourself on a vacation or a coffee date or buy an outfit you have never let yourself have because you didn’t feel good enough to wear it.  But start by making kind advances towards yourself.

4. Surround yourself with people who not only know the changes you are trying to make in your life but are supportive and willing to actively help you achieve your goals of self love.  If anyone tries to keep you from growing your self esteem, you need to quickly leave that relationship because a healthy relationship will never try to keep you from growing, improving, and strengthening yourself.

5. Don’t forget that everyone struggles, that everyone has bad days, that everyone experiences distress.  You aren’t alone in your struggles.  You aren’t a freak.  You aren’t abnormal.  And everyone makes mistakes, even if they pretend like they don’t.  

6. Celebrate ALL of the wins, even if they are small.  Did you go a few hours without putting yourself down? Awesome.  Celebrate!!  Did you go out with friends and have a great time??  CELEBRATE!!  Did you wear an outfit that you thought you couldn’t wear and then had a great time while in it?  Girl, celebrate that stuff because small wins over time become huge successes and 

It’s not normal to hate yourself so don’t let it become normal for you.  Seek the appropriate help; let someone know you are struggling.  You don’t have to be ashamed for feeling sad or broken or whatever it is you are feeling because, for the most part, we have all been there.  You are absolutely not alone.  

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