Transformation and Healing After Trauma, Loss and Grief

My Mythic Garden

A blog by author and trauma expert Gary W. Reece, Ph.D.

Saving Face
Gary Reece, Ph.D.

Our understanding of the importance and relevance of Self-esteem has evolved over the years. My understanding of it was deepened by research on the effects of trauma in early childhood. I have also studied it and seen the effects of damaged self-esteem in my clinical practice One lasting conclusion from these studies is that the child’s view of himself is forever changed along with her view of the world when subjected to continuous abuse and neglect. Bowlby an early pioneer in attachment studies concluded “The major negative impact of early traumatic attachments is an alteration of the child’s normal developmental trajectory, possibly lasting for their whole life.” In my reading the other day I was reminded of this when I came across the words of Alfred Adler, one of the pioneers of psychology. He wrote “The supreme law of life is this, the sense of worth of the self shall not be allowed to be diminished; the basic law of life is the urge to self-esteem.”

I am reminded of this every time I see a parent child interaction. Whether it is in the super market or the playground and a parent is in “the face of a child” , angrily chastising him, it brings up ugly memories of my father belittling and shaming me. I also see the long term effects of early abuse in the adult clients I have worked with, in terms of the way low self-esteem plays out in their relationships. The inevitable outcome of abusive parental interactions is that the child feels small, helpless and ashamed. Self-esteem is more than just an internal psychological phenomenon. It also is embedded in all of our social interactions. It is always on the line not only in parent child interactions but also on the playground, place of business, sporting arena, or classroom.

Adler’s words were written long before the work of Bowlby and others on Attachment. But I believe he had it right. The primary goal of parenting and the rest of society ought to be the preservation and enhancement of the child’s sense of worth. Ernest Becker writes, “Self-esteem becomes the child’s feelings of self-warmth, that all is right in his action world. . . We see that the seemingly trite words “self-esteem” is at the very core of human adaptation.” (Ernest Becker, the Birth and Death of Meaning, Pg. 67) Becker goes on to conclude that “One’s life motif is devoted to the protection, maintenance and aggrandizement of the symbolic edifice of his self-esteem.” (pg. 67)

The centrality of self-esteem is critical to understanding human development. The work of modern attachment theorists and neurological development studies has advanced our understanding a great deal. The centrality of attachment was stated by Bowlby when he said:

Intimate attachments to other human beings are the hub around which a person’s life revolves, not only when he is an infant or a toddler or a schoolchild but throughout adolescence and his years of maturity as well, and on to old age. From these intimate attachments a person draws his strength and enjoyment of life and through the way he contributes, he gives strength and enjoyment to others. (John Bowlby, Attachment and Loss)

When we look at the origins of our sense of self and worth we must look to the importance of the early attachment experience of the child. Parental care which leads to secure attachment is the origin and foundation of healthy self-esteem. And conversely the effects of early life trauma on a child’s self-esteem are devastating. Abuse leads to a life time of self-hatred, doubt, guilt, shame, and self-destructive behavior. Study after study confirms that early abuse and neglect have lifelong-effects which impair a person’s ability to have healthy relationships. Children who have been abused are more self-destructive, prone to addiction, likely to divorce, more likely to be involved in criminal activity, and have serious attachment problems as well. It is cliché to say that adult abusers were abused children, but it is nevertheless true. It is also clear that early trauma is often acted out in cases of domestic violence.

The attachment process is responsible for the development of all the life skills necessary for a child becoming a fully functioning adult. The child’s view of him/herself becomes a part of the relational paradigm being learned through the mother’s attunement and appropriate response to the child’s needs as expressed through the child’s cries of discomfort. The “dance of attachment” as one author put it teaches the child many things: regulation of affect, a working model of the world, reciprocal intimacy, empathy, competence and self-value. It also teaches conflict resolution and how to repair breaches in the relationship. If the mother responds consistently with warmth and acceptance, the child comes to feel valued, even cherished as Erik Erikson put it. It is the sense of hallowed presence that becomes the internalized value of self. And as Erikson also noted, if this is missed, the child may grow up with a perpetual sense of loss and mourning. Another effect of trauma to the child’s sense of self is the tendency to reenact the original trauma. Another is that emotional development is often blocked at the age in which the trauma occurred. As Allan Schore observes:

All traumatized persons seem to have the evolution of their lives checked; they are attached to an insurmountable object. Unable t integrate traumatic memories, they seem to have lost the capacity to assimilate new experience as well. It is as if their personality development has stopped at a certain point, and cannot enlarge it any more by the addition of new elements. (Schore, Pg. 240)

Trauma leaves a lasting sense of rejection, or of being a nuisance. When not responded to consistently the outcome is a sense of worthlessness, or anxiety about the predictability and safety of the world of relationships. With a compromised sense of trust and a diminished expectation of the response of others to him/her, I have found that individuals live out this self-esteem configuration as a self-fulfilling prophesy. Individuals with low self-esteem, particularly in adolescence seek out others with the same level. In other words we seem to live at the level of our self-esteem. We seem to get what we expect from ourselves as well as others.

Relationships, both intimate and social, have a dynamic of ambivalence about them, causing us to wonder if this person really loves us, and not only that, we wonder how close we can really allow this person to get. Intimacy and trust are crucial to successful relationships. Through attachment we learn to engage in attunement repair if there are significant breaches in the relationship. Most couples I have worked with have major difficulties expressing feelings of hurt, anger, and disappointment. People with problems with depression and anxiety, I have found did not learn to soothe themselves or regulate feelings of distress during the crucial attachment period. How we modulate and communicate intense emotion is crucial to the health and stability of relationships.

When resentment builds up, it can go several different ways. Many couples learn to accommodate to a level of distance which prevents any significant conflict, they are “fight phobic.” Others have a volatile style of intimacy, one minute they are going after each other with a full complement of destructive, hostile and angry words and behavior, and the next minute they have made up and act as if it never happened. They are acting out their ambivalence: fear of abandonment and fear of intimacy. If they in their anger sense that the relationship is in danger, then they find a way to return to their form of stable instability. If they get too close and fear being hurt or too enmeshed then they do something unconsciously to achieve distance again.

There are many variations on this theme, but the underlying dynamic is one of low self-esteem and lack of ability to feel valued and entrust oneself in the hands of another.

Secure attachment essentially is found neurologically wired into the “implicit memory and implicit self”. This means that it largely is unconscious which is to say, we don’t walk around every day thinking about our self-esteem; it is usually manifested in our moods and behavior. We tend to feel confident and adequate, optimistic about our lives because that was our early life experience with our family. A secure base was somehow created through daily interaction. The way we respond to threats to our self esteem is also a matter of unconscious defenses. Our social relationships are choreographed by mutually interactive ways of “saving face.” These are the unwritten rules of preserving and enhancing our self-worth.

Secure self-esteem has another positive quality which is critical to success in life: Resilience.
Research has shown that resilience comes from having learned to tolerate a certain level of distress and have developed a sense of competence, a feeling or belief that one can manage most life stressors. This is crucial to navigating through the turmoil of daily living. It is especially crucial when life unexpectedly delivers a major trauma: because even the healthiest person with resilient self-esteem can be devastated by a catastrophic loss. It is even more problematic to one who has a history of early trauma.

In the trauma event the implicit feelings of impotence, uselessness, helplessness and low regard are made vividly explicit for all to see. We are literally caught, shockingly off guard, exposed, vulnerable as if we have returned to the state of being a small and frightened child whose world has gone off track. Allan Schore writes regarding the psychological consequence of trauma:

The psychological consequence of trauma is the breakdown of the adaptive mental processes leading to the maintenance of an integrated sense of self which is central to self-recognition and the ability to maintain a coherent, continuous and unified sense of self. (Allan Schore, Affect Regulation and Disorders of the self, pg. 240)

Recovery from trauma depends upon this core sense of self and the quality of our social environment. All are reflective of our basic sense of worth, competence, and trust in the reliability of our relationships and our ability to maintain and restore our coherent life narrative. The foundation of which began lo those many years ago in the second womb called the family. Saving face is the ritual we unconsciously act out in recognition of our own worth but also the worth of the other. Those who have not learned to participate in this ritual are constantly at odds with others and do violence to the fabric which binds us all, the social contract to preserve and enhance the worth of the individual. This becomes a microscope, a lens through which we may pierce all of the contrivances, facades, gyrations, posturing, and social games of status and competition to see what the underlying force of human motivation is. It is not sex and aggression as Freud postulated, but I believe it is as Adler called it. The basic law of life is preserving and enhancing self-worth.

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