How to Develop Self-Worth after Childhood Trauma

Self-Worth And Childhood Trauma

Do you find it difficult to feel good about yourself?

Do you compare yourself to others and feel defective, inferior, or inadequate?

When you don’t have a strong sense of self-worth, it can be hard to set boundaries, prioritize self-care, ask for a raise, or have healthy, satisfying relationships with others.

In this article, you’ll learn how to develop self-worth and feel good about yourself, especially if you had a difficult childhood, experienced childhood trauma, or had a dysfunctional family of origin.

How to develop self-worth when you grew up in a dysfunctional family

What Is Self-Worth?

Self-worth is the belief that you have value and are worthy of love and belonging. People with a high level of self-worth don’t have to constantly prove themselves or earn people’s love and approval. They feel confident about who they are and know that they are good and valuable even when others disapprove or are angry with them. They accept themselves and don’t expect themselves to be perfect—and therefore aren’t overly self-critical.

Self-worth isn’t conceited. It doesn’t mean that you think you’re the best or better than others.

It simply means that you know that you have value just as you are.

Self-worth includes:

  • Recognizing that you need and deserve self-care—and prioritizing it
  • Feeling confident about who you are
  • Living authentically, even if others disapprove
  • Being able to speak up and ask for what you need or want
  • Accepting yourself and knowing you have value despite your imperfections
  • Being able to accept compliments, love, and praise from others
  • Treating yourself with compassion when you make mistakes
  • Setting boundaries and distancing yourself from people or situations that reinforce feelings of unworthiness
  • Letting yourself rest because you know you don’t have to prove your worth

How Childhood Trauma Undermines Self-Worth

Self-worth begins in childhood. The way your parents or caregivers treated you became the template for your self-worth. If your parents were consistently attentive and comforting, you probably learned that you matter. However, if your parents were absent, inattentive, inconsistent, or harsh, you likely learned not only that others couldn’t be trusted, but also that your needs don’t matter and you don’t deserve to be cared for, loved, and comforted.

Young children don’t understand that being abused, neglected, or otherwise mistreated isn’t their fault. The easiest explanation is to blame themselves. So, children who’ve experienced trauma tend to grow up thinking they caused the abuse or neglect because they were bad, difficult, too needy, stupid, ugly, defective, etc.

Verbal abuse in childhood also destroys self-worth. When you’re explicitly told that there’s something wrong with you, it’s nearly impossible to not internalize those messages and treat them as facts rather than abuse. The hurtful things others said to us in childhood often become the hurtful things we say to ourselves.

Our parents and families are supposed to love us unconditionally and take care of us. They should notice your feelings, encourage you, celebrate who you are, and be interested in you and things that matter to you. When your family fails you in this way, it’s confusing. You understandably blame yourself. During childhood, blaming your parents is dangerous because you’re dependent on them. So, you try even harder to please them and win their love and affection.

When you grow up with childhood trauma, your self-worth is based on how others treat you. Their mistreatment seems like proof that you aren’t worthy of love, that you don’t deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and that you don’t have anything valuable to contribute. In reality, child abuse and maltreatment are the adult’s failing, not the child’s.

In addition, if your parents or caregivers didn’t feel good about themselves, they couldn’t teach you to feel good about yourself either. Instead, they may have taught you to be ashamed of who you are and the things you do; they may have encouraged perfectionism and used harsh punishments to control you.

Codependency and Low Self-Worth

Low self-worth is a sign of codependency (although this alone doesn’t mean you’re codependent).

People experiencing codependency focus on other people’s needs and problems. Taking care of others gives them a sense of purpose and makes them feel needed. Codependents often find themselves repeatedly in relationships with people who are troubled, needy, controlling, or manipulative. And that “need to be needed” can keep you in relationships that aren’t healthy or satisfying.

If you don’t feel good about yourself, you’ll seek approval and validation from others. This manifests as people-pleasing and self-sacrificing—giving and giving, but not taking care of your own needs or asking anything of your partner or friends. As a result, you have one-sided relationships, you feel resentful, and you’re emotionally and physically unwell because you don’t take care of yourself.

How to Increase Self-Worth

Developing self-worth is a process that requires action on your part. You can’t wait until you feel worthy to practice self-care or set boundaries. Instead, you need to do things like practicing self-care and setting boundaries in order to develop self-worth. So, even though it’s hard, try to implement the following strategies even if you don’t feel worthy or comfortable doing so.

how to develop self-worth

Practice self-acceptance. You don’t need to be perfect to be worthy. Everyone has flaws and makes mistakes—and we all have value just as we are.

Know that self-worth isn’t something you earn. You don’t have to prove your worth to yourself or others. Self-worth isn’t a reflection of your achievements or station in life. Everyone is worthy of love and respect—even you!

Prioritize self-care. Not only is self-care essential for your health, but it also demonstrates that you care about yourself. When you exercise, limit your screen time, or rest, you are saying to yourself, “I am worth taking care of. I deserve to be healthy and happy.”

Ask for what you need. It’s important to recognize that you have needs and your needs matter. Having needs doesn’t make you “needy”; we all have needs. Practice noticing your needs, accepting them without judgment, and asking others to help you.

Set boundaries. Boundaries are limits that show others how you want to be treated—what’s okay and what’s not okay with you. They protect you from being mistreated and are a reflection of your self-worth. You can start by speaking up about small things and then work your way up to setting more significant boundaries.

Say nice things to yourself. Be aware of how you talk to yourself and set an intention to treat yourself with the same loving kindness that you give to others. You may feel that you deserve self-criticism, but that’s likely because you’re so used to being criticized by others and yourself.

Accept compliments and praise, but don’t rely on them for your self-worth. When others say nice things about you, trust that they are telling you the truth. Don’t dismiss their compliments or praise because you don’t feel worthy. At the same time, be mindful that you don’t rely solely on other people’s opinions for your self-worth.

Quick Tips for building self-worth

  • Avoid comparing yourself to others.
  • Limit time on social media.
  • Avoid people who put you down or treat you poorly.
  • Set realistic expectations for yourself; don’t expect perfection.
  • Don’t push yourself so hard.
  • When you make a mistake or fall short, be kind to yourself.
  • Celebrate your progress and effort, not just the outcome.
  • Give yourself compliments.
  • Fully accept compliments from others.
  • Ask for what you need.
  • Prioritize self-care.
  • Say nice things to yourself.
  • Share your opinions and ideas.
  • Treat yourself with love and respect.
  • Set boundaries.
  • Use positive affirmations or mantras, such as “I am enough”, “I don’t have to prove my worth”, “Other people’s opinions don’t determine my worth”, or “Everyone is inherently worthy.”

Additional Resources

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©2023 Dr. Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com.

How to develop self-worth. Tips for adults who grew up in dysfunctional families.

Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

2 thoughts on “Self-Worth And Childhood Trauma”

  1. Very insightful. I found myself wanting to do other activities even when my body and mind were screaming at me to slow down and stop. Those other activities became much more “important” because they seemed more “fun” at the time. But really I was in denial and I didn’t believe my needs were as important as the fun things in life. I have compassion and am learning from my experiences to change this.

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