I'm Ugly and Unloveable: The Impact of Trauma on Self-Image

Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and thought: I am so unattractive?  I have.  In fact I think many of us have had this experience and wished we could look or be different.  Who hasn’t had a day where they’ve felt fat, judged their looks, compared their body to some unrealistic measure, or focused on the worst features versus the best? It’s so hard to avoid self-criticism especially when it comes to our bodies and the way we see ourselves.  For some people, this inner critic only comes out when we inspect imperfections closely.  But other people struggle daily to avoid feeling imperfect, broken, damaged, ugly, unworthy and un-lovable.

What causes people to have poor self-image?  Many people who struggle to love themselves and their bodies have also been through something painful in their past which impacts the way they view themselves in the present.  People who have experienced distressing or traumatic life events such as a difficult break-up, social rejection, humiliation, loss of control such as an eating disorder, physical or emotional injury, abuse or assault may see themselves in a distorted way when the pain hasn’t been resolved.  If you are reading this and are thinking that it sounds familiar, the tips below may be helpful in recognizing and repairing some of the effects that trauma has on our self-image:

1.  Trauma can take away our confidence.  When we go through something painful that we didn’t have the ability to do anything about we might find ourselves feeling powerless.  This feeling of powerlessness can translate into other life areas.  We may lack faith in our ability to accomplish our goals or embrace our strengths.  We might look at ourselves in the mirror and feel trapped or hopeless.  You can work to repair broken confidence by engaging in activities that give you a sense of mastery.   Make a list of things that you are good at or ask trusted friends or family what they admire about you, and then find ways to incorporate these things into your daily life.

2.  Trauma can make us feel ashamed.  We often internalize the painful things in our life and perceive them as being our fault somehow.  Shame can cause us to view ourselves as being unworthy or damaged.  When we look at ourselves, we may judge ourselves harshly.  You can practice becoming aware of shame using mindfulness techniques.  Practice self-compassion and focus on the positives, thinking about what makes you unique and likable. 

3.  Trauma can cause an identity crisis.  After something unexpected and distressing happens, we may feel like we’ve become somebody we don’t know or like very much.  Notice instances of self-attack, put downs or judgments.  Ask yourself if you would ever say these things to a friend.   Seeking help from a professional can help you put things in perspective.

4.  Trauma may cause black and white thinking.  Do you find yourself thinking in terms of “good” or “bad?”  This kind of thinking is very rigid and can reinforce feelings of low self-worth. Often we collect evidence to support distorted beliefs about ourselves while ignoring evidence to the contrary.  Practice becoming mindful of generalizations, all or nothing thinking, discounting your successes, and labeling. Notice triggers to this kind of thinking.

If you’ve been through a traumatic event, don’t give up, there is hope.  There’s various therapy methods that can help you overcome the challenges you are facing. Call or contact a professional, licensed therapist if you have lost hope and want to get back on the path to wellness.

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Coral Link, M.A. NCC, is a licensed therapist, specializing in EMDR therapy in Denver. She is passionate about serving the community and has dedicated her life to helping others.