Losing Your Identity After Trauma

In a moment, you can lose everything. The stability of your world is rocked. You no longer trust what you see or believe. What was once solid and trustworthy now feels fragile and rotten. Nothing is safe, nothing is reliable, nothing makes sense.

Maybe you were a child when it happened. Maybe your parent died. Perhaps they emotionally abused or neglected you so badly or a caregiver broke your boundaries in such a way that for years after leaving home you struggle to trust anyone again—yourself included.

Or it could happen as an adult. Maybe someone you love dearly leaves you forever or your life partner dies. Perhaps some external force reshapes what feels like the natural order of things, like war or famine that devastates loved ones. A home invasion…

A profoundly traumatic event that nearly 35% of women face is sexual violence, usually by someone they know and/or trusted. The perpetrated betrayed. that trust in the worst possible way. It can take years or decades to get over such a deep psychiatric wound.

Even if there’s no event as obvious as these, trauma can still shatter your basic assumptions about yourself and the world—like Covid, climate collapse, or political unrest. Sometimes the worst is when it’s not evident because then you deal with secondary trauma. People question you. Victim blame. Don’t believe you. It’s enough to shatter who you are on the inside.

Trauma affects different people in different ways, sometimes forcing those closest to you to protect themselves by locking away their warmth and humanity. These walls of fear and mistrust are so thick and high, they cut off all feelings. Sometimes even love itself becomes an impossibility.

You Can Never Be Sure of Solid Ground Again

Your foundation is shattered, and you’re not sure if you will every find your footing. You can’t trust that what you see is real. You doubt your senses and perception. You fear people and things you love the most will abandon you in your pain.

You wonder if you’re hallucinating or being manipulated. You’re terrified someone you love is about to hurt you again. Your thoughts and emotions might feel foreign, like they’re being controlled by someone or something else.

Your basic sense of reality is being distorted by your trauma, and you can no longer even trust your memories of events, questioning if you misunderstood or if they even happened.

In the aftermath of trauma, it’s normal to feel like you’re standing on a quaking, crumbling foundation. You might feel like you’re waiting for the next shoe to drop, for the next fall. Always looking over your shoulder. Hypervigilant, scanning to see if something is about to topple over on top of you, or if at any moment the ground may open up and swallow you whole.

You Believe Everyone Will Harm You

I once read this (paraphrasing): When a stranger rapes you, you fear strangers. When someone you trust rapes you, you fear everyone.

It’s so true. Trauma shakes trust to the very core, especially if someone you trusted intentionally caused your trauma. Around 87% of sexual violence is perpetrated by someone the victim knows. After surviving such horror and betrayal, it’s easy to believe that no one is good or kind or safe. Everyone is suspect: a parent, an adult relative, a teacher, a coach, or a therapist. Or, like me, a decade after my last assault, I still avoid being alone in a room with a man—any man that’s not my partner. I’ve learned that a man can do whatever he wants…and no one will believe me. If I must be in a room alone with a man, I’ve already planned my escape (keep the door open if I can) and am constantly on high alert, waiting for the first sign of danger so I can bolt.

Trauma makes it very difficult to trust love or kindness. You now know that everyone is capable of hurting you—everyone is capable of abuse or neglect. Whether that’s a parent’s love, a romantic partner’s love, or a friend’s love. You can’t accept care or kindness from anyone without wondering what they want from you, without wondering if they’re just trying to hurt you more slowly this way.

You expect everyone to hurt you and you expect everyone to let you down. You expect people to use you, manipulate you, and/or abuse you. You expect people to abandon you, to let you down, to deceive you, to break your trust.

You Develop Strategies to Avoid Vulnerability

People living with PTSD often avoid emotional connections and relationships for a time. You keep new people at arm’s length and distance yourself from old friends. You become more and more isolated, choosing to surround yourself with silence and solitude. Perhaps your only social interactions are online, relatively safe behind a computer screen.

On the opposite side, you might stay in abusive relationship or remain dependent on people who abuse or neglect you because it’s safer than getting close to people who actually care about you enough to risk hurting you. Or simply because it’s familiar. It’s the evil you know, and it might be worse alone or with someone else.

It’s common with traumatized people to constantly try and control their environment and those around you in an attempt to make sure they can’t hurt you, but most violent acts are beyond the victim’s control, no matter what they do. This attempt at control often manifests in eating disorders, as people can control what they put in their bodies. Anorexia or Bulimia are common amongst survivors.

You Avoid Healthy Relationships

You become tense and hypervigilant, constantly on the lookout for signs of danger. You can’t trust that danger won’t come from friends, family, or people who are supposed to be care. You can’t trust that people won’t hurt you and betray you in the worst possible way — that they won’t sexually, physically, or emotionally abuse you. You’re vulnerable when you let people close where they can hurt you, so you don’t risk being vulnerable. You prefer to be with people who can’t hurt you, perhaps by seeking out shallow relationships or one-night stands, something that can feel empowering as you take control and regain your sexuality.

You Don’t Trust Yourself

You no longer trust yourself to know the difference between love and abuse. You’re not sure you can even recognize red flags, and you struggle not to blame yourself for the trauma you’ve endured. You can’t trust your own instincts. You don’t know what is and isn’t a dangerous situation.

This inability to trust yourself can also manifest in more subtle ways. Whether you’re making a decision, feeling an emotion, or remembering something that happened, you constantly second guess yourself. If you’re dissociating from the trauma, you may not even know if they’re real, if they’re yours, if they’re accurate, or if they’re being distorted by your trauma.

Rebuild You Identity

All of these things are very challenging, and you might begin to think they’re impossible.

I can tell you from experience, they’re not impossible, but they are very difficult. In order to step forward from trauma and grief, it’s essential that you face it and all the excruciating pain that comes with it. Once you’re able to face your pain and start to work through it, using your trauma recovery tools like Racial Acceptance and Wise Mind, you’ll be able to start making meaningful connections again.

Remember, the pain is not bottomless, and there is no such thing as too much help during this time.

Get tips and tools to manage PTSD delivered directly to your inbox! Also, get updates on the release of my forthcoming memoir One Reason to Live.

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