As one heals from childhood trauma one realizes that much of our personality is a trauma response. How we relate to people and situations are the coping patterns from our dysfunctional childhood.
The survival strategies or defense mechanisms, we subconsciously adopted became our habitual responses. Over time, this became our normal pattern of behavior which consolidated as our personality.
After my mother died, my life was a roller coaster of surviving harrowing events. Survival for me meant, being hypervigilant and complying with the demands/expectations of my crazy-making father, grandmother, and other family members.
My original vibrant, confident, and chirpy personality devolved into a fearful hunchback. In 2 years, the essence of who I used to be, simply vanished.
In the course of my healing, I realized that being codependent and a people-pleaser that’s still a significant part of my identity was actually a trauma response.
What Is Personality?
Our personality is the set of characteristic behaviors, cognitions, beliefs, and emotional patterns that are the outcome of biological and environmental factors.
Temperament is innate, a genetic construct while personality is epigenetic – the interaction between genetic factors and the environment.
Further, temperament is the road map for our personality. You are born with a temperamental bias, your experiences will determine how that bias turns out. Personality traits are largely influenced by environmental factors. Our family dynamics, siblings, the school we went to, peers, and other socio-cultural (race/culture/langue) factors.
The most important factor that determines our personality is our relationship with primary caregivers. Having a secure, attuned attachment with at least one person greatly affects how we see ourselves and our relationship with the world.
Growing up in an abusive home right from birth can seriously damage one’s developing personality. Nearly all of the dark triad and cluster B personality disorders stem from severe deficits in the 0-5 years period.
Personality disorders may develop as a result of the dysregulation that trauma inflicts on a person.
Trauma Fragments Our Personality
When growing up in toxic homes, our brain keeps us safe by instinctually picking either of the 4 types of trauma responses – fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response. Depending on who we were dealing with, like an automatic switch that mode of reactivity gets flipped on.
Often, we are nervous wrecks of mostly freeze-fawn responses. As helpless kids, we don’t have the option to fight or flee.
Invariably, childhood trauma causes splits or fragments in our still-developing personalities. We don’t develop a coherent sense of self – Who am I? What is it I like or don’t like? What do I want to do or not do?
Internal Family Systems (IFS) – Our Vulnerable and Protective Parts
According to, Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, created by Richard Schwartz, to deal with traumatic experiences our psyche is split into parts or subpersonalities – vulnerable parts and protective parts. They helped us deal with abandonment, rejection, fear, and pain.
Vulnerable parts (The Exiles) – They hold painful emotional states and/or negative beliefs (pain, shame, fear, guilt, not good enough) about themselves from past wounding experiences.
Protective parts (Manager and Firefighter) – They protect vulnerable parts from being activated and protect them from being flooded by the pain.
Managers work at preemptive protective roles – being hyperalert, perfectionist, and people-pleasing.
Firefighters work by distracting a person through maladaptive behaviors like overeating, drug use, violence, or inappropriate sex.
Healing can only occur when we openly and honestly acknowledge the hurts of our childhoods, accept our shadows/parts, and integrate them into our psyche.
Our Survival Personality Does Not Allow Us To Thrive
As adults, coping strategies from our childhood may not serve us at all. Our smart brain may have gotten us through difficult times by doing whatever it needed in order to survive However, these coping mechanisms do not allow us to thrive and grow.
Unconsciously, we relate to people through the lens of our past. Projecting our past onto our present interactions distorts the true reality of any situation.
Like a spoke in a wheel, our childhood programs sabotage every relational interaction. Because not everyone is our damn shitty father or mother.
Tweaking My Core Self
Further, the IFS model posits that underneath our trauma parts, all of us have a true Self or spiritual center. This Self is separate from survival parts. This Self is made up of healing qualities of curiosity, connectedness, compassion, and calmness.
However, being our authentic selves in the real world can often be dangerous and challenging. I know my natural empathetic friendliness was preyed upon. We have to tweak our real selves to astutely handle our environment.
After years of trying to be a good Christian and forgiving bad behavior, I realized no matter what there are some people who can be dangerous. One can’t indiscriminately be kind and tolerant.
Thankfully, at that time Jordan Peterson burst onto the world stage. I vividly remember him saying, ‘don’t be too nice or agreeable, people will take advantage. You need to develop your inner psychopath.’
So true, wish he had been around much before. Would have saved me so much unnecessary pain and suffering.
Becoming Aware Of The Five Personality Traits
The five-factor model of personality distinguishes the following five broad personality traits called OCEAN:
1) Openness (O) – imagination, artistic interests, emotionality, adventurousness, intellect, liberalism
2) Conscientiousness(C) – self-efficacy, orderliness, dutifulness, achievement-striving, self-discipline, cautiousness
3) Extraversion (E) – friendliness, gregariousness, assertiveness, activity level, excitement-seeking, cheerfulness
4) Agreeableness (A) – trust, morality, altruism, cooperation, modesty, sympathy
5) Neuroticism (N) or Emotional Stability – anxiety, anger, depression, self-consciousness, immoderation, vulnerability
Trauma Changed My Personality
I know that post my mother’s death I slowly learned to become even more conscientious (if I did all the work my father wouldn’t get angry. I also became much more agreeable (if I helped my grandmother she would love me). Sadly, despite taking on responsibilities that were not mine all I got was crumbs and often there was covert abuse.
Not surprisingly, this spiked my level of neuroticism (negative emotion). I grew more angry, resentful, and depressed.
Sadly, the positive traits like extraversion ( cheerfulness and optimism) and openness (creativity and adventure), went down markedly.
What Aspects of My Personality Need to Change
Now we are not either this or that of the big five personalities, rather one has different percentages of the 5 traits. Transforming personalities require first becoming aware of which traits we need to downplay and which we need to amplify.
I’ve had to really work on my hyper-alertness about people particularly around males because of past sexual and physical abuse.
Like even when my son would stand behind me at times was triggering. Instead of simply tolerating the distress inside, I have learned to express my discomfort. And immediately, do some tapping around my eye area.
Slowly expanding my window of tolerance and being able to discuss things has helped me feel less hyper.
Though being nice and kind is an innate part of my core self. Nonetheless, I’ve realized that I don’t need to overly accommodate the needs, feeling, and requests of other people.
I’m learning to check in with myself and ask what I want. Also, practicing standing up, saying no, putting up boundaries, and telling people to fuck off. After years of being ‘the good girl’ and being walked over, it feels good to be a badass.
Being overly conscientious was baked into my developing psyche when my mother was dying. To avoid any of my father’s rage towards my mother, I always picked up the slack for my brother not doing something.
I became a super-efficient, capable little woman at 10 years. Not surprisingly, my family was selfishly oblivious to the fact that I was still a child.
I’ve realized that a healthy relationship should have mutual serve-and-return. I shouldn’t keep doing things for people when there is no reciprocity or even acknowledgment. Furthermore, I have begun being more upfront in asking for what I expect instead of hoping the other person will automatically understand. And then get resentful, when my unspoken expectations are not met.
Some people are empathetic but some can be such block-heads who need to be goaded into giving back.
I am learning to tone down my over-friendliness, some of it was a trauma response to buying love and acceptance. And some of it is my innate temperament to be friendly.
I’ve realized that being indiscriminately friendly and trusting with people I don’t know can be dangerous.
Even with people who are family but who I know are jerks, I’ve learned to reign my kindness and keep my interaction to the minimum. Instead of being the good Christian and tripping down Polite Lane. Normal social etiquette doesn’t apply to toxic relationships.
Not Resorting To Fake Laughter
Like many of the female species, fake laughter was reflexive defensive behavior, particularly in unpleasant situations with sexual overtones.
Nonetheless, fake laughter causes cognitive dissonance. It makes you seem weird and crazy like the current VP of the USA, Kamala Harris. Why the hell doesn’t she stop it?
Instead of laughing off uncomfortable situations, I directly ask what the person means or just walk away if they continue with inappropriate behavior.
As I linger in the liminal space of who I was forced to be and trying to be who I am meant to be, I’ve had to re-evaluate each and every one of my beliefs and behaviors. As I excavate layers and layers of defenses, I try to understand why I originally developed them in the first place.
After years of living in a constant state of stress-reactivity, one cannot automatically switch off our trauma responses.
Nonetheless, by being mindfully aware of my surroundings and my own reactivity I am trying to change my habitual responses.
Cultivating constant self-awareness about what I am thinking, and feeling, and how that is affecting my responses and behavior is a critical step in transforming my personality.
During any challenging interaction, I remind myself of Don Miguel’s 2nd and 3rd Agreement:
- Don’t Take Anything Personally – How someone treats me has nothing to do with my intrinsic worth.
- Don’t Make Assumptions – I cannot expect something without clearly articulating it.
Changing One Belief, One Behavior At A Time
Trauma changed our personalities. We adopted beliefs and behaviors that saved us during that terrifying time. However, these beliefs and behaviors can detrimentally affect our present lives.
Nevertheless, we have the power to change that narrative. No longer do we need to maintain this false self to keep us safe. We are adults now.
We adapted and changed before, which only proves that we can change again.
Take small steps to change your personality. Write down what you want to change – beliefs, thinking patterns, ways of reacting, behaviors, dressing, etc. Start with picking one or two things. Do them regularly (in fact daily.) Wear clothes that feel you. Find the hobby that you always wanted to do – jumpstart your creativity
Practice it, act it, fake it till it you make it. Don’t fit in, expand out.