Personality Development and The Traumatic Experience

Personality development is unique to each of us.  We are individuals with our own specific experiences, characteristics, traits, skills, talents, preferences and coping strategies. In fact, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines personality as:  the complex of characteristics that distinguishes an individual… especially: the totality of an individual’s behavioral and emotional characteristics : a set of distinctive traits and characteristics. These things comprise our individual personalities and you will find, because of the infinite combinations and permutations of these elements, that no two personalities are exactly alike.

Personality grows and develops throughout our lives.  However,  it is, for the most part, under way early in childhood, and becomes relatively fixed in the adult years unless specific and conscious efforts are made to change aspects of personality.  In mental health conditions, there are sets of difficult personality traits that cause self-defeating and self-sabotaging behaviors.  Some of these include patterns of interactions, managing emotions,  one’s tolerance for stress, and the overall ability to pursue goals, dreams and ambitions successfully.

Trauma and Personality

Traumatic experiences have a profound impact upon personality.  For example, in childhood our personalities are still in vulnerable and rapid stages of development.  When a traumatic event occurs during childhood such as physical or sexual abuse, the distress of those situations is incorporated into the child’s emotional management, coping styles and overall interpersonal dynamics.  Until these are resolved, children are at risk to have  interrupted development which can manifest in delays in their natural growth of personality, or unusual and age-inappropriate characteristics.  For example, a child that has been sexually abused may develop traits and characteristics that are inappropriately sexualized for their ages.  They may also shy away from others, interrupting a period in their lives where close contact, attachment and nurturance are vital to help the development of healthy emotional and personality growth.

Even in adulthood, traumatic experiences can change personality.  However, an adult has a personality structure that has already evolved, unlike children who are in the process of evolving.  Therefore, adults will not typically experience the pervasive personality distortions trauma can cause in the personalities of children.  For example, a traumatized adult may have a period of being mistrustful of others after being harmed, but they may also have a personality structure that incorporates basic trust. This makes an adult far more likely to return to a core characteristic of trusting others.  On the other hand, traumatized children are very likely not to develop a stable core of trust without significant help.