How to remedy a poor sense of self

poor sense of self
Photo by Nijwam Swargiary on Unsplash

One of the tragic outcomes of childhood trauma is a poor sense of self. When no one helps you understand yourself, that self has difficulty developing.

When no one encourages you to explore your wants and needs you have no idea what those are. That’s why if you grew up with abuse or neglect you might feel empty inside.

You feel as though you’re always playing a part. That might be the people pleaser who denies your needs for the sake of others.

You feel as though you're always playing a part. Like the people pleaser who denies your needs for the sake of others. Click To Tweet

The real you (the self) is in there somewhere. But you’ve been playing the role for so long you’re not sure who that is.

Why a poor sense of self arises

Often the real self gets obscured as a result of one defining moment. For example, mine happened when my mother smacked me across the face as I tried to get her attention while she talked on the phone.

I was three at the time. So, in many ways I had been disconnected from my authentic self since age three.

I learned to stay quiet and small to avoid attracting attention. I turned down opportunities that would increase my visibility. I took on the persona of a shy person.

But that little girl who jumped around and demanded attention was not shy. That façade formed in response to her newfound fear that attention meant danger and pain.

At that young age, the threat of a parent rejecting or abandoning you is life-threatening. So, to stay safe, I changed myself to fit into what my mother, and later other people, needed.

To recover from my poor sense of self I’d need to go back to before age 3 and get reacquainted. I’d have to reconnect with the me who knew she deserved someone’s time and attention and would self-advocate to get it.

poor sense of self

Sometimes the incident occurs much later in life. Regardless of the age, a poor sense of self usually arises as a protective mechanism after trauma.

To prevent that debilitating pain and disappointment, we send the true self packing. And a false self takes its place.

To prevent debilitating pain and disappointment, we send the true self packing. And a false self takes its place. Click To Tweet

It’s not the same as being phony, though it can look like that. Truth is, you might have no access to your true self because it got abandoned at the time of the tragedy (however small the incident may seem).

Reframing how we view “self-saboteurs”

In its place, you patched together a personality made up of inauthentic parts. These are designed to keep you safe and alive. They protect you from feeling the pain you felt at that time.

Most of us are mean to our protective parts. We never thank the procrastinator who protects us from disappointment or visibility, for example.

We invalidate and shame her which only seems to make her hang on more. But mindful self-compassion can help us reframe our scorn into loving kindness.

Instead of pushing away procrastination and feeling mad at her for ruining your life, you can embrace her. It sounds counter-intuitive, but putting your proverbial arms around this aspect of you can help dissipate it.

It’s about letting her know that you’re no longer that helpless child who needed protection. You’re grown up now and can handle the pain of rejection or the “danger” of visibility.

The work of Richard Schwartz who developed Internal Family Systems or “parts work” shows that kindness toward our self-saboteurs can help us disarm them. When we reassure them they no longer have to stand guard, our true self is free to emerge.

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  1. Gillian Brant

    I am not sure how to do this Laura. This is me in a nutshell and I do remember the exact moment my self worth was taken from me. I was 4 years old and have never lost this fear of the unknown. I think bad things will happen long before I think of good things if ever. It may be a simple door knock or phone call, but the fear of something bad happening to me is front and foremost. I need to get rid of this.
    Thank you for sending this Laura.

    • You’re welcome, Gillian, and thank you for sharing. It is a process and I believe that acknowledging where the fear originated is the first step.

  2. Greg

    I can definitely relate to not having access to my self. I was almost 7 when my trauma occurred and nobody had a clue what I had just been through. The dysfunction was blinding and I was neglected to the point where I started acting out a couple of years later and I still find myself easily triggered into acting out. I have become completely isolated with the exception of my work life. I fear having friends and have been labeled a loner for most of my life.