Building Self-Trust Following Trauma

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‘Trust Thyself!’

‘Trust your emotions, your unconscious, and yourself!’ is common advice offered to people trying to recover from trauma. I see posts saying this on my social media feeds practically every day. 

On the one hand, this advice is valuable. Having trust in ourselves is vital to well-being. But on the other hand, this advice is too simple. Trauma changes and distorts aspects of our bodies and minds, so building self-trust after trauma is a complex process. 

In this essay, I attempt to summarise that process, however, I will start by outlining the relationship between trauma and distrusting ourselves. 

Trauma and distrusting ourselves

One of the experiences that contributes to the creation of trauma is having our perceptions, emotions, thoughts, hopes, or passions invalidated when there is nothing wrong with them. 

Invalidation can be spoken or unspoken, explicit or implicit. For example, we may be accused of seeing a situation incorrectly, feeling unjustified emotions, or harbouring delusional hopes. Alternatively, somebody might give us ‘a look’ or turn away from us; maybe they deny us a chance to express something important, or are unsupportive when we try to follow our passions.

Irrespective of the form that invalidation takes, we invariably develop an unconscious belief that something inside of us is faulty. As a result, we lose confidence in ourselves, start to distrust our inner world, and enter the realm of trauma. 

The advice to trust ourselves aims to counter this damaging process. 

However, we cannot reverse trauma simply by choosing self-trust. That is because we are changed by trauma, and until these changes are addressed, it is unwise to trust ourselves. 

Trauma changes us by creating (1) unaddressed emotional wounds, which become vulnerable areas in our psyches, (2) fear of having these vulnerable areas hit, (3) terror of being retraumatised, and (4) chronic shame – a toxic and embodied conviction of being irredeemably inadequate in some way. 

We are rarely conscious of these changes because they affect our unconscious minds and bodies. Nonetheless, they distort our perceptions, emotions, thoughts, hopes and passions. Worse, they leave us no choice but to behave in ways that harm ourselves and others. 

If we trust the version of our inner world that has been distorted by trauma, we risk creating more damage. 

Distortions created by trauma will not impact the whole of our inner world. Inside us there will also be whispered suggestions that things are off-kilter, a sense that our lives could be better, a pull towards wellness. 

Nonetheless, there are various stages we need to pass through before we become trustworthy. 

Place our trust in others

The changes caused by trauma become so deeply embedded in us that we cannot see them for what they are. Similarly, we cannot imagine life without them. Thus, the first step in building self-trust is to find people or groups who can help us. 

We must borrow the eyes of those with clearer vision, draw on their wisdom, listen to their advice and learn from how they conduct themselves. Before we can build self-trust, we must give our trust to those who are not compromised by the same distortions that we are. 

This is challenging. Trauma makes it hard to determine who is trustworthy and who is not. It also makes it hard to trust anybody at all, so even if we find trustworthy people, we may struggle to open to them. However, it is virtually impossible to address the changes created by trauma without help from people who stand outside our distorted inner world, so this step is vital.

Understand trauma-caused distortions

The next step in building self-trust is to develop an embodied understanding of the distortions that compromise our inner world and the harm they cause. 

We do this with the help of those whom we have come to trust, but even with their support, it requires courage. As we start to understand our compromised inner world, we typically become afraid of ourselves. It is especially hard to live with this fear because at this stage, we have no idea whether we can change enough for things to feel different.

Indeed, this fear is so uncomfortable, that many people try to skip this step. They hope they can be fixed without having to get to know their inner world first. Katriona O’Sullivan, an academic and author who suffered childhood trauma, describes this in her memoir, ‘Poor’: 

‘I wanted to go [to the treatment centre]. But I wanted to go there in the same way I had moved [from house to house and city to city]. I thought that I would fix myself up there and that everything would be sorted. I didn’t understand that I, Katriona O’Sullivan, would have to get to understand myself first, see myself clearly for the first time and open up.’ (p169-170, Kindle version)

But here there is a paradox: When we realise that we cannot trust our inner world, we are laying the foundations for self-trust. This is not just because we are seeing ourselves more clearly; it is also because the qualities of honesty, vulnerability, and openness, contribute to becoming trustworthy. 

Knowing that we can be honest, vulnerable and open with ourselves, we automatically begin to create self-trust, even if we are unaware this is happening. 

Address trauma-caused distortions

A further step in building self-trust is to lessen the power of the inner distortions and diminish their potential to cause harm. 

This takes time and cannot be summed up in a couple of paragraphs. But, with continued help from trustworthy others, it is possible, and every advance we make – however small – is rewarding.

Reclaiming self-trust

While working with inner distortions, we continue to place our trust in those who are helping us. However, there comes a point when we must reclaim that trust. If we are to thrive, we must eventually stand on the ground provided by own inner world. 

Reclaiming self-trust again requires courage. By the time we reach this point, we know our old compromised inner world extremely well. In contrast, the new inner world feels young and unfamiliar, and we do not yet know whether our revised perceptions, emotions, thoughts, hopes, and passions are now trustworthy. 

Additionally, old trauma-created patterns never disappear, so there is always a risk they will regain power, particularly in the areas where we suffered our most damaging wounds. 

Thus, it seems safer to keep prioritising the wisdom of those who are helping us, rather than step into self-trust. When we do start to trust ourselves, it is often accompanied by terror. 

A way to support ourselves through the terror is to give ourselves permission to get it wrong and promise to learn from our mistakes. As long as we remain honest, vulnerable, and open, we will discover when our inner voices can be trusted and when that is not yet the case. If we build on this discovery, we generate ever more self-trust. 

Trusting ourselves does not mean we stop asking others for support. Indeed, knowing that we will ask for help will foster self-trust. What it does mean, however, is that the balance changes, and we put our perceptions, emotions, thoughts, hopes and passions at the centre of our inner stage. 

Developing self-trust is vital to healing trauma, but it is not simple

I will end by circling back to the beginning.  The advice to ‘trust ourselves’ is sound in that developing self-trust contributes to healing trauma and creating well-being. 

However, if we carry trauma, the process of becoming trustworthy is far more involved, complex, lengthy, and challenging than such short, catchy slogans make it appear. 

(c) Daniela F. Sieff, 2023


Daniela F. Sieff, PhD.

Daniela is a scholar, author, and speaker who explores emotional suffering, healing, and well-being. Learn about Daniela and her work at:

This essay stems from a book Daniela is currently writing.

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