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3 Things Childhood Trauma Survivors Should Stop Telling Themselves

Danielle Dahl, Lead Contributor

I have complex PTSD and struggle with the impact childhood trauma has had on my life. One of the worst remnants of my ordeal is the internal monologue that happens almost all the time. I always seem to be telling myself that I do not deserve good things when they happen. I know that this isn’t true, and I work on it all the time.

I also tell myself that I should not feel bad because I did not have it as bad as other childhood trauma survivors. I know how crazy this sounds, but it is a real thing.

When I manage to convince myself that I do deserve good things and that the fact that worse things happened to other people does not diminish from the fact that bad things happened to me, then I live in fear that all the good things are some crazy fluke. I tiptoe around and wait for the universe to figure it out and take it all away. This means I have complex PTSD and anxiety, like so many other survivors.

Whenever I catch myself saying these things in my head, I try and stop! Like every other learned behavior, though, it is much easier said than done. I have been focusing on trying to redirect my thoughts anytime a sentence starts with I don’t deserve, I feel bad, or this is too good to be true. 

I don’t deserve…

The truth is, we survivors of childhood trauma tell ourselves these words frequently. Sometimes, I look around at the things that have gone right in my life, and they don’t feel real. I have a husband, who I love dearly, two kids, a ridiculous number of animals, an education, and work I find fulfilling.

If I didn’t tell you about my past, you would never suspect I was born addicted to drugs, kidnapped and abandoned by my father, raised by an emotionally and physically abusive grandma, and left behind by my mother right before high school. My life is purposeful now, and I can almost believe the events of my youth and childhood happened as part of the grand design. Fated, if you will. 

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Yet, for as often as I feel proud and accomplished, I feel like a fraud. Like I am bluffing a bunch of professional poker players and any minute someone is going to call it. I will have to reveal that I started the hand with an offsuit 2-7, and there is nothing in this hand worth saving. I’m not worth saving, but the chips are down, and I am all in. 

So, I struggle when I write a story about my mother leaving me because she was a federal witness against a biker gang, and people respond with:

  • You have a gift for painting pictures with words.
  • Thank you for bravely sharing your story. This is amazing.
  • I admire your courage. 
  • Thank you for writing this amazing piece that touched my heart deeply.

My emotions become so muddled with this type of praise. I mean, as a writer, I revel and rejoice that the people like me, they really like me! And then I tell myself that there are people who had it worse than I did, and likely, accomplished much more, or helped more people. What makes me deserving of all the elements that make up my existence?

According to Robert Taibbi, “Childhood trauma not only leaves emotional scars, but it also leaves the child with a distorted view of themselves; they live with self-blame, with a fear of replicating these wounds, with a view of a world forever unsafe, clouding any feelings of happiness.”

 I feel bad because…

Taibbi’s words are an apt description of how I live my life every day. My trauma makes me feel guilty because I think of people who have lived through abandonment, verbal, physical, and emotional abuse. Those with drug-addicted mothers and absent fathers who lived in abusive homes, who experienced all of what I did, along with many additional horrors. 

I have heard stories of the despicable deeds people do to children, and I thank God (or maybe I would if I haven’t had so many crises of faith) that at least my life was not that bad. My therapist tells me that this is a common occurrence for people with complex trauma. I survived the trauma itself, and because it wasn’t as bad as someone else’s, I try to downplay how bad it was. It is also a way that I can ignore it and control it.  

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I feel awkward when other people who have no childhood trauma say kind things to me. I feel sad when people with worse stories begin to tell me what happened to them. I feel guilty when I think about how my younger sister struggles with drug addiction to cope with the pain. There are many “bad” feelings wrapped up with trauma, but I am learning that I do not have to take ownership of all of the heinous acts in the world. To heal, we must acknowledge our individual trauma and find a way through all of the emotions. 

This is too good to be true…

There is a cloud hovering over the things that genuinely bring me joy in life, a feeling that it is all too good to be true. My children are a perfect example. I love them dearly and am so proud of the people they are growing to be.

Yet, I worry that I will mess them up while I try desperately to do everything “right.” I blame myself when anything is not perfect. My poor teenager thought I wanted her to be perfect, and it created a rift in our relationship that we are healing and talking our way through. She wanted to go to therapy and it has been life-changing for both of us.

About a year ago, I committed to following my passion for writing. I wanted to share my stories and help others know that trauma can create lasting change. Yet, I often wonder if people are just reading my stories out of pity? I ask myself if I am helping anyone daily. I am a full-time writer now, and it feels like it is a dream.

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I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Some terrible calamity to remind me that things like this do not happen to broken people like me. Taibbi describes it as “Your head is always telling you that what you did or didn’t do is the problem, and the only way to solve the problem is to try harder. But the real problem is not your repeated “failures,” but the process of self-abuse that is running and ruining your life.”

I always believed that I had a high self-esteem, however, after spending a year in talkative therapy, I have learned that these sayings all stem from the fact that my self-esteem is low. Trauma taught me many things and some of them are difficult to unlearn. One of the first steps was learning to stop these types of thoughts when I have them. I deserve all the wonderful things that this life has to offer, and I have worked hard to achieve them. It is true, that things could be worse, and that was helpful to tell myself when I was trying to survive. However, I owe it to myself to acknowledge how I came to be who I am.

I survived and I am here now, and I should be proud of where I am. And so should you. Not everything that is good, is doomed to fall apart. Sometimes things are as good as they seem. Have faith in yourself, believe that you can create your destiny and that your past doesn’t dictate your future. I will be rooting for you over here, while I try and do the same.

Feel free to share anything that you know you should stop telling yourself in the comment section below! If you have any tips for dealing with trauma I would love to hear from you!

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  1. L

    July 9, 2021 at 12:06 PM

    You definitely had it worse than me. My mother was the emotionally and physically abusive narcissist, as opposed to a grandmother. My problem is getting to accept my life as it is, as limited, reduced. Whilst others enjoy a healthy social life and marrying for love, that isn’t available to me.

  2. Danielle Dahl

    June 24, 2020 at 3:30 PM

    Thank you!

    It is sad how many trauma survivors tell themselves that what they went through is not “trauma.”

    Keep going and use your trauma to create change that improves your life!

  3. Maria

    June 21, 2020 at 10:06 AM

    I love this!

    Personally, I struggle with “I feel bad…” because some days I really do. When I hear what others have gone through, I look at my trauma and almost feel like I’m being dramatic by calling it trauma.

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