Sunday, October 9, 2011

Identity Loss

One thing I've noticed over and over when working with people who have experienced some sort of trauma is how depressed they often feel.  When we start talking about the factors that contribute to the depression people often describe feeling lost and unsure of what to do to move forward.  It became increasingly clear to me that whatever trauma they've experienced has fundamentally changed who they are as as people.

Most people realize they aren't the same as they were before the trauma occurred; actually, that's often why they come in to see me in the first place.  Maybe they've recognized it themselves or maybe their loved ones have said to them, "You're a completely different person now."

What most of my patients want is to be how they were before whatever happened took place.  Unfortunately, that's simply not possible.  "You can't un-do what's been done," I explain.  Events that bring a person face to face with death make them acutely aware of their mortality.  This in itself is a very frightening and yet very profound experience.  A close encounter with death or a severe illness or injury forces a person to reconsider his perception of himself as a competent individual who is able to handle threats and is capable of keeping himself safe.  He suddenly realizes that there are many threats from which he is unable to protect himself; this makes him feel very vulnerable and defenseless.

My patients are fundamentally changed as a result of their experiences; they cannot go back to being who they were before.  This is a difficult thing to accept; acceptance take place over time, not all at once.  A person must make a conscious decision to let go of who they were without first knowing who they are going to become instead.  They have to grieve the loss of their former selves.  "I really liked who I was before," one patient lamented early in his grief process.

After that there is a period of limbo.  Creating a new sense of identity takes a lot of hard work.  A person may have to re-examine deep seated beliefs about himself, other people, and the world.  He may need to find new activities that bring him joy and pleasure.  He may have to end some relationships with people with whom he is no longer able to relate.  He may have to seek out new relationships with different kinds of people.  All of this takes time.  Meanwhile, the person feels like he is no one, going nowhere.  He is lost.

For anyone reading this who has been through a trauma, did the experience change you as a person?  Did you go through a period of grieving the loss of who you were before?  How did you come out on the other side of it?


  1. I think trauma strips you bare of who you are, at least that's what it did for me. It's like emotional amnesia. I just couldn't deal with anything anymore, and before I was so darn competent.

    When my kids were killed I just couldn't seem to emotionally connect with who I was anymore and I questioned myself over the simplest things.

    I would have done ANYTHING to go back and got sooo stuck in my grief for them and for who I was before.

    But eventually I was able to move forward and I did work really hard with the help of a therapist to rebuild who I was again into who I am now.It was hard to do both and the work sort of intertwined.

    I made peace with the deaths the best any mother could. And as far as me and my therapist work, we set goals. Getting my life back to what is was before, social life, church, family, and so on.

    But on an emotional level because of the help I received I came thru the other side feeling more balanced as a person (wife, mother, daughter, friend, woman ) than I did before their deaths. There was a deep knowing of who I was, much deeper than before. Sounds unreal doesn't it? But it's true!

    I think I'm the same person with improvements with insights and perspective that I didn't have before, loss does that to a person.

  2. Jen -
    I thought of you as I was writing this post. I completely believe you when you say you came through your trauma being more certain of who you are than you were before it happened. Achieving the "deep knowing" you describe is one of the surest signs that healing has taken place. This kind of healing only occurs as a result of sustained effort and hard work. Thank you so much for sharing your experience!

  3. I experienced a traumatic event when i was in college.. i have body dysmorphic disorder and i decided to do drugs (hallucigen) that night.. i literally think i freaked myself out and after that day i havent been the same. i knew who i was before. an outgoing, loud, cool kid but i am just... plain now.. very plain.. i definitely feel like i am in that period of limbo.. like jen said, i feel like i have been stripped of who i was.. I cant accept that fact that i might never be that person again.. Also, the biggest part that bothers me is that i am no good around people anymore.. i almost feel inferior to anyone i encounter.. i didnt really grieve the loss of who i was before, i was always just saying alright i gotta find out whats wrong with me. once i get better, everything will get back to normal and i will continue my life where i left off. thats definitely not the case. can you explain why i might feel so inferior and literally do not have any confidence at all?

    For anyone reading this who has been through a trauma, did the experience change you as a person? Did you go through a period of grieving the loss of who you were before? How did you come out on


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