Even when you try to hide it, people can sense when you feel bad about yourself. Consciously or not, we “read” and feel each other’s emotional states. We convey our state of mind to other people with our words, posture, facial expression, the way we dress and the way we respond to things.
I call this the Underdog Effect; it hangs like a dark cloud around you and can drive you to behave in ways that make you feel even worse.
The Underdog Effect begins with harsh events in your life that started in childhood—things like neglect or abuse—that damage your self-concept, i.e., who you understand yourself to be. This can continue for years or decades past the original hurt. You get so used to it you don’t even know you’re doing it.
It doesn’t stop there. The unhealed wounds of the past can push you into more wounding in adulthood: Past trauma creates present trauma. Even though you’d never want to make things worse for yourself, you end up bringing more problems into your life. Problem people. Problem situations. The problems start in your outer circumstances but get internalized and become part of your personality, part of your experience.
I’m here to tell you that the wounds of trauma can be healed. It might take a lot of focus and self-mastery, but when you face the part of the problem that you’ve internalized, it’s a great day, because this—not your parents and their failures—is the part that you have the power to change.
A combination of three things perpetuates the Underdog Effect: bad habits, faulty decisions, and distorted perceptions. These are common side effects of early traumas such as being neglected, judged, invalidated, ignored, stigmatized, bullied or abused. It wasn’t your fault, but it got internalized.
Let’s take the example of being late for work all the time. That’s a bad habit. There’s a whole series of faulty decisions behind the habit: to not get up on time, to leave getting ready until the last minute, to let yourself get distracted. One reason for faulty decisions is probably dysregulation, which is common for those of us with CPTSD. But if I tend to get dysregulated when hurrying, then anything I do that risks being late is a faulty decision. But why would I sabotage myself like that? I want to be on time, I want to stay regulated and I want to keep my job.
That’s where distorted perceptions come in. We know from recent research that people who had trauma in childhood are often challenged to predict the risk involved in bad decisions. Neurologically, stress can bring on a temporary “dimming” of the ability to gauge the consequences of, for example, miscalculating the time it takes to get to work.
You can see this on an MRI when a person with childhood trauma is stressed. The left frontal cortex where reasoning happens has less activity. Meanwhile, the right frontal cortex, where emotions happen, gets more active. So we wake up feeling hurried. That’s stressful. Then oops, our perception distorts and we make a faulty decision about when to leave the house. Then we’re late, which brings on more stress, and—you guessed it—the negative cycle starts again! Distorted perceptions lead to faulty decisions which lead to bad habits.
Your distorted perceptions can also make it hard to distinguish between something that’s happening to you versus a problem you’re bringing on yourself. So instead of adjusting how you do things, you rage at the traffic, resent your boss, or feel judged by the other people who gave you a look when you walked in late.
However it plays out, the end result is that you feel bad about yourself. That’s how it happens, the Underdog Effect: that feeling of low self-esteem, with maybe some distrust of other people and confusion mixed in. That’s what makes us doubt ourselves. That’s how we generate that cloud around us that feels negative to other people.
Here’s how to change this and lose that low self-esteem: Take back your power and start changing the things right in front of you. It’s astonishing how much you can heal your self-esteem by changing the problems in your life now.
It’s hard to control how your brain functions, but relatively easy to work on actions to change the behaviors that make you feel bad about yourself. Everybody with CPTSD does better when they learn to notice when they’re dysregulated and take steps to re-regulate. When negative emotions have hold of you, focus on getting re-regulated rather than trying to fix the emotions and the emotions will often come down by themselves.
We also need to keep working on our habits, a little bit every day. This may sound like a lot of work, but it’s happy work with immediate payoffs. And it’s easier than staying stuck in trauma symptoms, or trying to change other people.
It’s not our fault we have Childhood PTSD. But the great news is, healing is possible. You get to ask for help and you get to decide what works for you. That’s how you can feel good about yourself, and grow your self-esteem to a level that’s unmistakable to the outside world.
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