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A Trauma Survivor’s Battle With Self-Confidence

The grooves to be aware of in trauma survival


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Peter Middleton

3 years ago | 9 min read

Photo by Luemen Rutkowski on Unsplash

Often, surviving adverse childhood experiences (ACE) can engrain certain behaviours in your subconscious beliefs.

This article will explore those, alongside the challenges that might bring to having self-confidence in a fast-paced and chaotic world.

Many experiential grooves are cut in the brain and body from ACE, to keep you safe. That’s great, because if you’ve been through those experiences, and you’re here reading this, then it worked. You’re safe, and you made it to adulthood.

Many people want to go back in history and change the past, without full awareness and compassion for how vulnerable and helpless a child can be. It’s easy to forget.

Sometimes, the body’s mechanism of freeze or fawn kicks in because it’s necessary. The key is to heal and reconcile these experiences — easier said than done.

It’s important to understand the body’s wisdom. Freeze is a nervous system response to an extreme threat where the body numbs out and shuts down most sensory information.

Fawn is a learned behaviour, and it’s essentially people-pleasing as a survival tactic.

As lifelong students, we all navigate these stretch points in our lives.

Self-confidence comes from being with trust in one’s abilities, qualities, and judgements. More on self-confidence here. Let’s look at the extremes of trauma that keep us from this trust.

Traumatic memory

Traumatic memory gets shamed. It’s confusing and non-specific, it’s changeable, it takes patience, faith and dedication for the truth to unfold.

There’s such a weighted narrative around insanity. The lynchpins of this narrative are:

  • Being sure about what you’re thoughts mean.
  • Being able to control your thoughts (which is a fantasy).
  • Being able to explain your thoughts to others clearly and directly.

In reality, and especially with trauma, thoughts come and go like a stream of consciousness.

Working with a therapist will help you to navigate these thoughts non-judgementally and empathetically. You can make sense of what they’re trying to communicate to you and what to let go of.

Self-confidence relies on trust in your judgements.

Insanity

The consequences of experiencing trauma get labels, “crazy behaviour”. The person is “crazy” and has to deal with this becoming part of their identity.

Healing from trauma includes things that society has shamed into a space of insanity. The nervous system shakes when it heals. Bodily functions that are stronger like musky body odour. Having to navigate things that cause social anxiety, like a weak bladder or having traumatic ticks in their muscles.

Let’s understand that you’re not insane because you’re healing from trauma. Healing from trauma is a very embodied thing to do, it’s not just a rational thing based in the sane, it’s an integrated process where the mind also needs to surrender to the body’s innate abilities.

Self confidence relies on trusting the body’s ability.

Numbing

Numbing is not talked about enough. It’s a common emotional state related to the often-overlooked third state — freeze, of the infamous fight/flight/freeze system.

Numbing can come about in extremely anxious social dynamics or amongst high levels of volatility or aggression — both micro and macro. It can involve many different aspects like dissociation or blank thoughts. Essentially it’s not being connected to your process fully. You are not aware of your body.

It is a response to sustained threat. It pertains to social hierarchy and power structure. Many people like to dismiss those things as not applicable, yet we are all submitted to a constant evaluation of this in regards to safety. Subconsciously, we’re all on the lookout for safety in our environment in every second.

For children in a family system, this is especially present. They are dependent on their caregivers, often going against them means a loss of respect or sustenance. In ACE scenarios, this translates into the sense that disagreement leads to death.

These goto mind-states affect the adult mind until healed.

It may show up in not bringing your needs forward in a social environment, people-pleasing consistently instead of saying no, or being happy with whatever is given to you, even when you have a choice.

Self-confidence involves being present to your preferences.

Narcissism

Living in chronic fear will promote a narcissistic tendency. Going through ACE can promote an obsession with keeping yourself safe or comparing every situation to the trauma, even when it’s not relevant anymore.

Self-confidence involves knowing your value in relation to others.

Imposter syndrome

Dr Ramani talks about this here.

It’s natural for a child to be grandiose: I will be president, a CEO, the prime minister. It’s appropriate in childhood. A healthy child who is secure in their family will shed the grandiosity. However, children who go through ACE tend to hang onto it.

When talking about their dreams, the child who goes through ACE has most likely heard:

“Who do you think you are?!”

This grandiosity is likely underpinned by imposter syndrome, a state of identity that subconsciously tells you that you’re not good enough. The four aspects of imposter syndrome are:

  • We got where we are by fooling people.
  • Fear of being exposed as a fraud.
  • Inability to attribute your achievements to internal qualities.
  • Who am I to achieve this?

People can achieve despite this syndrome, by super-achieving (something that western society celebrates), yet it can’t be fixed by surface-level behavioural changes, it’s an identity crisis.

ACE survivors often have shame, either from what they did to survive or keeping the secret of what happened to them from their loved ones.

Hiding something means hiding an aspect of who you are. Promoting imposter syndrome at a fundamental level.

It’s also magnified in anyone who has a marginalised status in society, due to belonging. Society is so adamant that to fit in you must belong to a rigid set of constructs.

Those who have them are privileged, those that don’t are often criticised or patronised, continually developing imposter syndrome.

In ‘Ditching Imposter Syndrome’, Clare Josa writes that ditching imposter syndrome is knowing your story fully. All the masks that you learned to survive, all the levels of blocks and fears.

Josa talks about “Taming your inner critic” and becoming the leader you were born to be. Intuition is the leading voice that we all have access to, yet it’s subtle. It can be drowned out easily, shamed into silence.

It’s important to know which masks keep me safe and which keep me from prosperity.

The more authentic and coherent I become, the more aligned to my soul’s vision I get, the less I feel like an imposter. The truth will set you free. At the very least, tell it to yourself.

Self confidence involves trust in one’s abilities, qualities, and judgements.

Legacies of trauma

You’re hyper-vigilant, gaslighting, less trusting, talking yourself down, in need of constant reassurance. These are all legacies of having experienced trauma, an abusive relationship, or another adverse childhood experience.

All of this remains in the psyche, yet, Viktor Frankl says:
“What is to give light must endure burning.”

People who get burned in life end up with an incredible capacity for empathy, support and healing for others.

Suppose you can start to honour and celebrate those traits in yourself. In that case, you can begin to expand your capacity for self-confidence through innate characteristics that come through your life experience.

I still have to work on this daily by the way, so we’re clear.

Survivors that have done a lot of inner healing work are always the most interesting people. Their capacity for joy is immense.

Self-confidence involves trusting your abilities and qualities.

Gaslighting

Gaslighting is a massive subject, so I definitely won’t do it justice here. However, it’s so integral to the mindset of a trauma survivor that I need to highlight it.

Trauma survivors continue gaslighting behaviour on themselves long after the trauma event.

This article talks about how gaslighting can look, they state:

“In a family dynamic, the most likely direction for gaslighting to take place is from parent to child. Unfortunately, children are especially vulnerable to this form of manipulation because their worldview is largely influenced by what their parents say and do.”

Gaslighting is a harmful form of emotional abuse. Directed at a person’s sense of self-confidence, gradually chipping away at it until they are left questioning whether what they experience, think, and feel is real or some fantasy their mind has made up.

Each of us only has a certain amount of energy, often, children that are gaslighted get depleted and have to give in to an internalised shame that it’s their fault that their caregivers aren’t satisfied with them. They think they’re a bad person.

Self-confidence involves trust in your abilities and judgements.

Self-doubt

It’s a central theme of imposter syndrome. It is reinforced by abusive relationships, gaslighting and minimisation.

Children who don’t get seen and validated. Children that are consistently devalued, mocked and minimised end up with internalised self-doubt. They can’t make up their minds because they never had a reference to healthy beahviour.

They end up repeating the abuse patterns in their childhood unless they happen to meet a secure person who understands healthy relationship patterns. The whole thing is left down to luck, whilst the rest of the people end up either dead, consistently abused or in prison.

Self-confidence involves trust in your abilities, qualities and judgements.

Elitism

Adults who come from ACE can get aligned to elitist narratives. They don’t have to find their own identity. They can externalise their self-worth onto an already established identity.

They are vulnerable to strong narratives of security because of the lack of security in their childhood. This can drive them to seek comfort from robust, aggressive or violent behaviour.

Self-confidence involves trust in your abilities, not those of someone else.

Insecurity

We live in an extremely insecure world. From the book, Lost Connections:

“The Italian philosopher Paolo Virno says we have moved from having a ‘proletariat”’— a solid block of manual workers with jobs — to a ‘precariat’, a shifting mass of chronically insecure people who don’t know whether they will have any work next week and may never have a stable job.” ~ Lost Connections ~ Johann Hari ~ p.141

Hari talks about this subject concerning depression. He argues that this insecurity is related to depression because it’s a disconnection from a secure future.

To have self-confidence, you need to know who you are and where you’re going in life. It would help if you had purpose and direction. Ideally, that needs to be directed towards serving community and wellbeing.

Integrating thoughts

This article isn’t a complete list. If anything, it’s the things that I’ve noticed from my ACE experiences. It’s a useful marker to understand, an expanding of awareness. Awareness breeds choice because building awareness allows you to have options in responding to each situation.

It’s essential to work with a professional if you went through ACE or suspect that you might have. I have been taking psychodynamics for two years now, it’s changed my life, amongst somatic work, life coaching, reiki and regular exercise.

It’s been possible because I dedicated myself to it. I didn’t know how it would work out. I just knew that I needed a change.

Going through ACE doesn’t have to be a life sentence, it is difficult to navigate and can lead you into some deeply human, empathetic and compassionate circles of people.

If you make it through the inner healing journey, it’s guaranteed that you’ll start to contribute beauty and light in the world, from your extensive knowledge of what is possible in the realms of human experience.

It’s worth healing just for the fact that you’ll start to become an asset to the community, rather than a burden. It’s O.K. to ask for help, but in my opinion, life should be balanced between giving and receiving.

I hope this article gave you some expansion in your awareness of ACE and the types of states that can get in the way of self-confidence and action for trauma survivors.

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Created by

Peter Middleton

Peter is a creative coach working to unblock people's authentic creative essence and expression. Using transformational life coaching, meditation and embodiment techniques. He is passionate about mental health, trauma informed practice, spirituality and how to create sustainable cultures that empower in equity.


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