The Enemy Within. Self-maltreatment In Trauma Survivors.


Who is that part of you that does things against your own intentions? How come you intend to do one thing and later find yourself doing the opposite? Do you often wonder how or why you act a certain way, failing to understand your intentions?
These questions may be just common for anyone, as we are all complex human beings and we are very often ambivalent and puzzled about our decision making. However, for childhood trauma survivors the fight within is often particularly strong and overpowering, making them question themselves constantly. Questioning and self-doubt are residues of trauma. In a way, childhood traumas seldom leave us entirely, and we rather tend to carry them with us, making them a significant part of who we are. How do these traumas follow and affect us throughout our lives and why do they “stick” so strongly to us, almost leaving us “stained” for life?
As we become adults, we (fortunately or unfortunately that’s how our psychology works) internalize our parents. The way our parents treated or mistreated us becomes a part of ourselves, and later on in life we begin treating ourselves in very similar ways. For adults, who never processed their traumatic childhoods it may remain a mystery and an unexplored territory, but these questions come up often. Why do I “treat” myself in a certain way? Am I being abusive or neglectful to myself?

How can one be abusive or neglectful to one self, and what does it look like?

When we are little, our parents decide almost everything for us, and there’s not much we can do to change that. When we become adults, we have the authority over our lives and technically should be able to have control over it. However, more often than not, a bad parent who we had in the past, becomes a part of us and before we even know it, we are treating ourselves in the same manner that we were treated in our childhoods.

Self-neglect, self-abuse or self-sabotage are common among childhood trauma survivors and can present a massive barrier to getting help or simply living well.

As I work with childhood trauma survivors I encounter people who self-neglect all the time and some even struggle to understand the concept of self-care.

I thought it may be beneficial to write about some examples of self-maltreatment and poor self-relating in general. Some people may recognize themselves in this post and this may become a beginning of a change. The examples I listed in this post are by no means an exhaustive list or precise description of how self-maltreatment occurs. It will inevitably vary individually, just like stories of our traumatic childhoods differ and vary.

If you suffered from abuse or neglect in childhood, you may recognize yourself in some of these scenarios. If you do, you may be sadly continuing the legacy of your parents, and instead of treating yourself with love, kindness and compassion, continue the destructive pattern. It is not surprising considering that this way of relating to one self is often the only example and other ways (eg. kindness and compassion) are simply hard to fathom. Turning things around and starting to change the way you self-relate is a challenge, but identifying the issue is always the first step. To do that, we need to look precisely at how your parents treated you.

If You Were Verbally Abused

Verbally abusive parents are those who judge. They yell harsh words, readily dispensing them at their kids, rarely thinking of the impacts. Verbal abuse is often minimized and not recognized as childhood trauma, or if any, not as a severe one. It’s consequences are severe and prolonged nevertheless.
Picture a father who tells his daughter she is be “stupid” when she gets a low mark at school. Picture a mother who says her daughter is “ugly”, regularly, just out of sheer frustration. When children hear this over and over again, they believe it and later won’t even question it.
Consequently when the child grows up she will habitually criticize herself for many things. She will get easily frustrated and will call herself “stupid” in many instances. She may believe that she is not beautiful enough and not worthy of a loving relationship. Her internal enemy ( i.e. internalized abusive parent) will continue to deliver the message to her unconscious mind again and again, calling her stupid and ugly. Perhaps you can imagine the long-lasting effects of this. It is sad and difficult to live with a self-critical mindset and it inevitably poses massive barriers on your way to any success, peace and self-fulfillment.

If You Experienced Neglect

People who suffer from neglect in childhood are not only starved for attention. Aside from emotional neglect, I would like to point out the scarcity they often have to adjust to. Neglected children are rarely showered with gifts and material possessions. Neglect may range from being poor and struggling with finding food or clothing (for those unlucky children who were born in families with drug/alcohol abuse) to coming from a wealthy family where children are not indulged with “excessive” clothes or toys. Neglectful parents view their children as not worthy of attention, gifts and other luxuries and they provide scarce resources. When people grow up in the atmosphere of scarcity they will also struggle to spend on themselves. Whether it is money or holidays or clothing or services, spending becomes a battle as they simply do not feel worth fighting.  Their attitude towards self is quite punitive. Such adults may be excessively frugal or simply neglectful by not allowing extra luxuries for themselves or hardly taking any time off work. Needless to day, that self-neglect creates additional stress and compromises wellbeing.

If You Experienced Physical Abuse

People who suffer from physical abuse in childhood are often not sure whether they “deserved” what happened to them. They are often unsure whether children should be physically punished at all. This happens for a reason.

Physical abuse is a strong violation of power of an adult over child and a serious  damage to the child’s self-esteem and boundaries.

The more frequently a child is hit, the further her/his self-esteem is destroyed and eventually the child no longer knows what value he or she has.

Rarely physical abuse happens on its own, verbal abuse and neglect often complete the picture. By physical abuse I do not mean a rare smack on the bottom (and by no means I would justify a smack), but I do refer to repeated beatings, whether aiming at punishment, a sadistic satisfaction of the parent, or both. Internalizing a violent and destructive parent often creates an “internal enemy” within us, leaving us with a strong sense of self-hatred. This internal enemy comes out unexpectedly and can ruin our relationships or mess up our lives significantly. The extreme version of the enemy within us is alcoholism or drug abuse, which is often based in self-destructive desire to crush one self and ensure we won’t live a good life. The mild version of having an internal enemy if self-sabotage, leading us to a maddening cycle of trying and failing.

Cultivate A Nurturing Parent Within You

Many childhood trauma survivors live with self-neglect and “get by”, not only because that’s what they are used to growing up, but also because they honestly feel they aren’t worth any better.

Ask yourself what would you do differently if you were your own best friend. Would you work less hours, find time for a hobby, spend more resources on holidays and self-care activities? Would you be less critical of yourself and find compassion and understanding towards your actions?

Being your own friend is extremely difficult for childhood trauma survivors, many of whom do not believe that they deserve better.

Life may have been hard for you from the beginning, when you were shown neglect and abuse, learning that the world is a harsh place. Even thinking of and asking more from life may fill you with guilt, making you feel as if you ask too much.

Remind yourself that the best way to heal from trauma is to stop its repetitive patterns. Remind yourself that you are an adult now and can make your own life choices. Start with self-compassion and care for yourself. And remember that kindness is not a luxury, but it is a normal and ordinary way of treating yourself.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s