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Childhood Trauma and Self-Compassion

Jonathan Riley

“Shame is the lie someone told you about yourself.” – Anais Nin

If you were a victim of childhood abuse or neglect, you know about shame. It’s likely that you’ve been plagued by it your entire life without realising it. Even if you’ve heard the phrase “It’s not your fault,” chances are you still blame yourself for the abuse or neglect in some way. The pain of unresolved relational trauma from childhood often presents as self-critical thoughts, feeling intolerant of our mistakes, or engaging in self-harming behaviours. Self-compassion can help us transform our suffering when it comes to trauma recovery. Self-compassion is a way of showing ourselves the same kindness and compassion that we show others.

Psychologist Sigmund Freud famously proposed that events in our early childhood determine our personal development. Modern psychological theories also suggest that childhood experiences play an important role in shaping our lives. Childhood trauma can have an impact on every aspect of a person’s life, from self-esteem, self-confidence, and body image to the ability to relate to others, navigate intimate relationships, be a good parent, work effectively, learn new things, and care for oneself. Childhood Trauma is responsible for myriad personal problems, including self-criticism and self-blame, self-neglect, self-harm and self-destructive behaviours (such as the addiction to food, alcohol, sex, drugs and compulsive behaviour. Childhood trauma can result in symptoms such as perfectionism, the belief that you do not deserve good things, people-pleasing, co-dependent behaviour, a tendency to be critical of others, intense rage, and acting out against society.

Experiencing abuse or neglect as a child can have a significant impact on an adult’s quality of life. If you haven’t received sufficient help or the right kind of therapy to work through your trauma, you may still carry a deep burden of trauma. Author Alice Miller believes that what victims of childhood abuse need most is what she called a “compassionate witness” to validate their experiences and support them through their pain. When people practice self-compassion, they elicit the same positive emotions that occur in loving relationships between caring adults and young children. Even if you didn’t have a loving parent or caregiver as a child, you can now create a reparative experience that will help you find inner peace.

You might find it difficult to feel compassion for yourself at times. This happens because we internalise our childhood experiences with our family members. For example, if you grew up with a critical parent, this could become the voice of your own inner critic. Alternatively, if you were abandoned as a child, you may continue to ignore your own self-care needs as an adult. It is common for children to believe that they are to blame for the abuse or neglect. They blame themselves because it can be too frightening or inconceivable for a child to confront that they have a threatening parent or caregiver.

Author Brené Brown believes a deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all men, women, and children. As human beings, we are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and belong. If compassion is the ability to feel and connect with the suffering of another human being, self-compassion is the ability to feel and connect with one’s own suffering. Self-compassion is the act of extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering. If we are to be self-compassionate, we need to give ourselves the recognition, validation, and support we would offer a loved one who is suffering.

We need to have compassion for ourselves if we haven’t lived up to the ideals we wanted in life. Many of the problems we face today are a result of our upbringing. There is overwhelming evidence that the environmental conditions that children are exposed to during their early years can have long-term consequences. So, whatever your background, remember that it’s never too late to enhance your life with self-compassion, letting go of the long shadow cast by childhood adversities.

Sources

Engel , B. (n.d.). Healing the Shame of Childhood Abuse Through Self-Compassion. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-compassion-chronicles/201501/healing-the-shame-childhood-abuse-through-self-compassion.

Gaysina , D., & Thompson , E. J. (2020, June 11). Are your parents to blame for your psychological problems? The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/are-your-parents-to-blame-for-your-psychological-problems-81203.

Schwartz, A. (2020, April 6). Self-Compassion and Childhood Trauma Recovery. Arielle Schwartz, PhD. https://drarielleschwartz.com/self-compassion-and-childhood-trauma-recovery-dr-arielle-schwartz/#.YKjMV6gzaUl.