Learning to Love Yourself After Trauma

I have not lost track of my resolution to write more about self-love this year.  It is such a big topic it has turned into a series (with no end in sight yet). Stay tuned for a very special guest blogger post, one survivor turned thriver’s story of how she got to the place of self-love. You can also check out the previous posts in the series here:

Resolving Resolutions: How Will You Begin the New Year?

Shame and Self-Blame After Trauma

Overcoming Negative Self-Talk

What’s Love Got To Do With It? Self-Love and Healing

I’ve already covered why learning to love yourself is an important part of healing after trauma, so how do you go about it? How do you love yourself when you have been abused and betrayed? Children learn to love by being loved. What happens when your parents/caretakers

do not love you?

express love for you in ways that are destructive?

love you conditionally; only if you are/behave in ways they approve of?

love you but do not prevent others from harming you?

People in your life treated you in ways that were not loving. This includes not loving you in a way that put your needs first. As a result you learned to feel unlovable. Continuing with that belief keeps you stuck in that trauma cycle. You need to learn to give to yourself what you did not receive early on. Connection with others helps, maybe especially a therapist because that is where you can understand and work through the relationship issues from the past. The goal of connecting with others now is not to just stop there; you need to learn to internalize their positive view of you. Ultimately, no other person’s care or love can substitute for loving yourself. Until you get there something will continue to feel like it is missing.

Not knowing how to love yourself can set up a pattern of looking for others to fill that love hole, creating unfair expectations and disappointment. Those with dissociative identity disorder (DID or DDNOS) may have small child parts that look for parenting from others. It will be important to learn how to take care of and parent these parts of yourself. Looking outside of you for others to serve this function may result in difficult dynamics in your personal relationships. At worst it can set you up for further victimization.

If you’re a survivor of childhood abuse or come from a dysfunctional family, you may still be waiting for a parent to give you the love and acceptance you never got as a child. But the kind of love you need (or needed as a child) probably isn’t going to come from a parent who abused you or who looked the other way while you were being abused. But it can come from yourself.

Loving yourself, just like loving someone else, isn’t so much a feeling as a choice and series of actions based on that choice. You can decide to learn to love yourself and begin to act accordingly even before you feel very loving. In the 12 step world this is called “fake it til you make it”. This slogan refers to the idea that you can act as if something is true, in this case that you already love yourself, as a way to get there. This is not the same thing as being false or fake to look acceptable in the eyes of others. Too many survivors (or anyone who learned to put others’ needs ahead of their own) have had to live with this kind of false self. Working on loving yourself requires tolerating this dichotomy: you are aware that you do not yet love yourself and that you are choosing to behave as if you do anyway.

If you have a dissociative disorder, like DID or DDNOS, loving yourself means loving the others inside. And loving them means loving yourself. All of you together are you. Even if you are a long way from really getting that you are all part of one person, love directed to any part of yourself benefits all. Faith Allen at Blooming Lotus has a fantastic post (and entire Blog with many examples of self-love and compassion after trauma!) with some practical advice regarding loving other parts of you:

I send lots of internal positive energy toward alter parts. I will say things like, “I love you. You are safe. I’m sorry,” repeatedly in my head because these are the messages I most needed to hear as a child.

The following are some ideas of how to learn to love yourself. This is of course just a starting point. Take what works for you and build on it.Think of it as practice, as building your loving yourself muscles.

  • Counter your negative self-talk with positive facts. Focus on what’s good about you. If you can’t generate your own ideas consider the input of trusted others. This can be as simple as “I knit well” or “I am good with animals”.
  • Work with positive mantras or affirmations. Say it even if you do not feel it. Identify some of your core self hating messages and counter them.  For example, if a recurring belief for you is “I am unlovable” then make your affirmation something like “I am lovable and capable of loving”. Get the idea?
  • Learn to soothe and comfort yourself.  Develop a list of behaviors that you use to reduce distress or to just plain treat yourself. Keep a list so you can see it and use daily or as needed. Some examples could be: buy yourself flowers, have a special kind of tea in a cup you love, take a hot bath, go for a walk in nature, wear your favorite or most comfortable clothes. Your list will vary and be as individualized as you! Stuck? Work on it in therapy or with a trusted support person. Ask friends what they do to soothe or treat themselves.
  • Keep a daily list of 3 things you like about you.
  • Praise yourself for what you accomplish, little or big.  Add it to your daily list described above.
  • Love your body. Feed it what it wants. Give it physical activity it enjoys. Get enough sleep.
  • Focus on love, compassion, care in general. Is there someone you feel these things for? A child? A family of choice member? A pet? Reflect on how you  experience and demonstrate love to others. Practice doing the same with yourself!

I’d like to end with a quote I love from Pema Chodron:

Compassionate action has to start with ourselves. It is unconditional compassion for ourselves that leads naturally to unconditional compassion for others. If we are willing to stand fully in our own shoes and never give up on ourselves, then we will be able to put ourselves in the shoes of others and never give up on them.

Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

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22 Responses to Learning to Love Yourself After Trauma

  1. Jeanette says:

    The timing of this couldn’t have been better, there is so much here I can identify with!

    One thing in particular I was dealing with today is a tendency I have of accepting labels of disrespect as if it somehow my destiny to be stuck with them. I realized (with the gentle help of my therapist) that I don’t have a respectful view of myself and therefore don’t allow myself to feel the offense when I am disrespected by others. I have to learn to love myself by respecting myself and expecting that same level of respect from those around me.

    I can also relate to the need to show love to parts of me that never knew love. It is a struggle when going through the process, to identify those feelings of resentment toward parts that were abused and try to reverse this. To learn to have compassion for the abused selves/self and caring for these parts as they should have been cared for. Very difficult/painful to get in touch with all of this, but very necessary for healing to take place.

    Thanks for another great post!

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  6. What a smart and helpful post! Thanks for all of these insights and ideas. I finally got this post included in THE BLOG CARNIVAL AGAINST CHILD ABUSE that I just published. Thanks for participating and thanks for agreeing to host the carnival next month. You’re going to be a great host and I’m looking forward to it!

  7. What a great post on how to learn to love yourself. To me, the bottom line in starting to heal lies in loving yourself. Building your self-esteem comes from loving yourself. Thanks for sharing this post.

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  13. Nadia says:

    I just wanted to say thank you for sharing this.. it was something I needed to hear. Many times, I have been the victim but blocking out that I have also been on the other side of it. Meaning… I didn’t truly understand how to love because I wasn’t loved as a child and when I was, the love came from many different ppl who weren’t always a stable part of my life. I moved around a lot. I think much of my self hate comes Friday m the abuse I did to myself for some years. Also not knowing how to cope with adulthood in therigh ways because I was never taught any good morals and values. It is important to instill these things and to act out of kindness to children because it will affect who they become. I feel so much guilt and shame of my entire life. I made horrible decisions and I am paying for them today. Im trying to learn how to overcome these feelings of self hatred because it is eating me up inside. Its like I dont have a soft spot for myself which inadvertly turns me into someone I dont like. I wish I loved me again… Its affecting my whole life… I dont work. I dont get out amongst society anymore. I dont have any friends. I just feel like a very shameful person… feeling like I dont even deserve to helpothers because of everything I did to myself… feeling pretty worthless… People tell me that I am a terrible person. I feel like a terrible person.

    • Jana says:

      Dear Nadia, maybe Brene Brown talk on Vulnerable Is Not Weak could also give you some good energy http://www.goodlifeproject.com/brene-brown-vulnerable/
      I hope so! ❤

    • Anonymous says:

      Things in the past did hurt but if there is one person you know who really cares for maybe you can realize they were there when you weren’t. There are times we don’t know what wr do or say to others when we feel they are bringing things to our attention maybe with out getting affended maybe just think and view what they are willing to do because they fo love and care for you. Let your wall down and learn to trust them without thinking that they are judging you

  14. Sarah Dickinson says:

    This post was not only insightful & informative, but touching & surprisingly relatable. Thank you for this post.

  15. complicitgrace says:

    I needed to read this today. I have recently learned about the concept of talking vs. processing trauma. I have recently experienced a trigger and it has started a whirlwind in me where I recognized that I have to finally process my trauma and not speak about it as if it happened to someone else. My blog is detailing the process I am going through and I am working closely with my psychiatrist. I am writing my trauma out in small segments so that I can identify the emotions and perceptions I experienced. Not just a broad sweep of the experience. Last night the actually processing began and I am overwhelmed with emotions and am crying. Crying is an activity I avoid as it takes all my energy out of me and leaves me with a horrendous headache. I don’t avoid crying because I think it is an indicator or weakness it is just the physical toll it has on me. However, it is impossible for me to face this trauma and not cry. Prior to my decision to finally process this trauma I began developing a self care routine and have been using it even at times when all i want to do is collapse from exhaustion. I am fully committed to processing this as I dont I want to be able to recognize the what my feelings are telling me and be able to make better choices in the future not based on the fears I developed over the years.

  16. Victoria Thompson says:

    I greatly appreciate providing actual acts I can do to help myself. I just realized the other day (through therapy) that I haven’t loved myself for most of my life (close to 40). My parents have been addicts all of my life, so I still receive emotional abuse from them (unintentionally). I’ve realized that if I could love myself and quit the negative thoughts, then I could love others more easily without judgement, and feel overall happier. I know it’s a key to overcoming so much. I have been feeling lost in the “how” to overcome my lack of self-love, so thank you!

  17. Jane says:

    i have only just stumbled across this post on a desperate search of ‘where to begin’, after a very hard session today with my therapist who challenged me on loving myself, as this will begin the healing process in my life to heal from childhood sexual trauma/abuse etc. My question is when reading through this, and the thing i most struggle with is even the thought of caring for myself brings me to my knees, it makes me cringe. If i think about it i do self care to an extent, I keep my eyebrows plucked, i get my hair dyed, i shower each day and wear presentable clothing, however i look after my ’emotions’ more than my self care needs, I overeat, binge eat, self harm, and constantly doubt myself and beat myself up,, i punish myself regularly … I am a mother also, and have 2 out of 3 special needs kids,, the stress levels in my home and life are out of this world..i parent just to survive., however i do often reflect on my desperate need for love and acceptance as a child especially from my mother who i believe self hated as well as she nearly died of anorexia as a teen, and suffered from severe manic depression and all kinds of pobhias, i find my self spending extra time nurturing my kids need for love, making sure daily they are hugged, told repeatedly they are beautiful and wanted and accepted because there is no way they are ever going to experience my hell of a life. So where do i start.. every part of me is screaming no.. i am sitting here stuffing my face with food, after a self harming session.. i have cried for hours and hours, i have the worst headache ever and my face is all swollen. I should be pleased i am here now because 5hours ago i was ready to end it all… because the conclusion i drew from today was- if i can’t love myself i will never heal …so my thoughts were whats the point anymore.. i don’t even know where to begin due to the HUGE resistance and war that is in me.. do i give up? or how do i find an answer or the beginning of the so called yellow brick road!

  18. Frankie says:

    Thank you for caring enough to write this article and share it with me and with those on the journey towards self love after so much trauma. I’m proud of everyone here because you all are making an effort to really try to be better people than the ones that hurt you. I, too was a victim and I was a victim of horrible child abuse and neglect. I am struggling just like you all are, I know one day we will achieve and overcome this struggle to love our selves and arrive to state where we don’t have to struggle anymore. I am looking forward to that, to that happiness; to that place where I can smile and be free and enter the life that I was meant to have. Never give up! You are so worth it.

  19. Miss Elaineous says:

    I cannot begin to thank you enough for this blog post. Until just a month ago, I couldn’t even say out loud that my parents did not care for me as they should. It felt like abuse should be yelling and screaming and hitting – but for me it was subtle – never doing anything right, always pointing out what you did wrong, no affection, choosing their career and others above me. Worst of all, I was severely bullied and endured sexual abuse for two years at the hands of my classmates, along with other painful things.- they did nothing. To give you a clearer picture, around the age of 10 I was out for a bike ride when two drunk boys in a pick-up truck threw full beer cans at me and tried to run me over. Thankfully there was a deep ditch. I raced home in a panic and through tears and pain tried to tell my mom – but she was in the middle of a piano lesson with one of my siblings and told me to calm down and go to my room – she didn’t have time to deal with me. I so wish I could have been held and rocked and told I was okay in that moment.

    I developed anorexia when told i was too fat, I am a workaholic. I have always looked for validation from others, even down to if it was okay for me to like certain clothes, or food or an activity. I absorb what everyone around me wants/needs and become that. I was just diagnosed with complex PTSD – and am working on learning to love myself, like myself, take care of myself, and trying to figure out who I really am and what I like instead of always evaluating what others are thinking or want. Thankfully I have several really loving people around me helping me through.

    This blog post gives me hope, words for what I am struggling with and and a place to start. I’m committed to change – I’m done being afraid all the time. I’m in therapy – and hope I can silence those awful “voices” in my head, learn to love myself and in turn, learn what it means to love those around me. I can’t wait for freedom.

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