There is a complicated relationship between the traumatic experiences of an individual and their personality development. Trauma is the effect of enduring extreme stress or being the victim of violence. It can cause psychological disruption and result in clinical or borderline disorders, neuroses, and psychosomatic diseases. Therefore, traumas have a significant impact on people’s psychological health.
There has already been an investigation on how traumas cause personality changes. Berman (2016) suggests that the relationship between traumas and identity is complex. Traumatic experiences can alter a person’s sense of identity, whereas identity can affect an individual’s perception of traumatic situations (Berman, 2016, p. 1). It is also crucial to note that everyone develops their distinct personality traits, values, and beliefs. Therefore, different people may be affected differently by the same incident. When a group of people is attacked, some individuals may get traumatized to develop PTSD; others might perceive the shooting as stressful and recover quickly because their resources are sufficient to restore their mental health. As a result, the consequences of trauma are determined by a person’s personality, while a person’s identity might shift in response to the severity of trauma.
It is crucial to thoroughly study the connection between trauma and identity, given that trauma may negatively influence an individual’s physical and mental health. The study by Hampson et al. (2016) found that childhood traumas may determine a person’s conduct patterns and health-damaging habits (p. 9). This research paper will further explore the link between trauma and identity, and the findings will assist in reducing the severity of trauma. It will be based on the hypothesis that trauma has a detrimental impact on a person’s identity and is likely to result in adverse consequences in the future.
Trauma Alters People’s Identities
As mentioned above, trauma is a phenomenon which has a direct relationship with human identity and thus is capable of impacting it in different ways, including by altering it permanently or temporarily. It is first important to define what can be considered an identity in order to understand how it can be changed by trauma. Identity refers to various goals, values, and roles which people espouse during their lifetime with the intention of using these elements to construct their purpose or gain guidance (Berman, 2016). Many experts and scientists in the sphere of human psychology noted that identities serve as the foundation for people’s conduct in their lives and provide them with a plan on what they need to strive to achieve. Thus, it is possible to state that identity is an inherent part of the life of every person, which ultimately, to a considerable extent, gives meaning and direction. As a result, it can be assumed that changes in identity may entail significant implications for people.
Traumatic events are one of the key forces which can impact people’s identities and cause them to experience a change in their lives. The particular alterations brought by trauma can be different, yet the most common ones are disruptive in their nature. Research shows that trauma does not always disrupt the identities of people because some individuals possess internal mechanisms to cope with it and avoid suffering from its long-term impact on their health (Berman, 2016). In other words, a person’s identity can change mostly as a result of serious traumatic experiences which cannot be managed by people. Traumatic experiences capable of altering individuals’ identities and, subsequently, their lives are also unpredictable. As a result, people do not gain enough time to prepare for them and fail to cope with an excessive level of stress. Thus, when a person experiences a radical change in their perspective on their identity, it becomes reasonable to attempt to identify a certain traumatic event in their life and trace its impact.
There are many examples of traumatic experiences which can potentially cause a person to lose their identity or undergo a radical change in it. For instance, some persons may define their identity based on their relationship with other people. Thus, when a woman who identifies herself, first and foremost, as a mother loses her only child, she faces a traumatic event which radically alters her identity. The effect of the trauma becomes even more severe if the death of the child is unexpected or violent. Such an experience is particularly painful for a woman who considered herself a mother. Essentially, the traumatic death of a close person leads to the destruction of all aspirations and goals which were inherent to the identity espoused by the person. A woman who has lost her child encounters an instant erasure of her previous identity and requires her to reconsider her beliefs and perception of the world. In other words, the trauma alters the identity of the woman, and frequently in such cases, females may start experiencing a mental condition due to the inability to abandon their former identity.
There are also many scientific studies which explored the topic of how traumatic experiences change people’s identities. For instance, there is evidence that diminished identity, in other words, disturbance of identity, is one of the key factors involved in the process of grief (Berman, 2016). Such information indicates that traumatic experiences which cause people to grieve also impact their identity and affect their perception of themselves and the world. There is also evidence which shows that parents who lose their only child often experience changes in their collective identity (Berman, 2016). Finally, research demonstrates that trauma received by people as a result of war negatively impacted their identity development and contributed to identity distress (Berman, 2016). One of the most notable examples of identity alterations happening due to trauma was presented by Ranieri. The researcher described a case of an adult woman who experienced a loss of place and identity after being exposed to adverse experiences during her childhood (Ranieri, 2021). Thus, the existing research clearly shows that trauma is a major factor in the life of a person, which can significantly change one’s identity.
Perception of Trauma Depends on Identity
Traumatic events have a capacity to disrupt people’s identities, yet the particular relationship between trauma and identity varies among people. While it is true that trauma can affect identity, an opposite situation is also possible. In other words, identity plays a major role in the life of a person, and it also can enable individuals to embrace a certain view of trauma. As mentioned above, identity is the foundation on which people rely when embracing certain conduct and purpose. As a result, the identity of a person can shape the perception, interpretation, and experience of trauma. For example, a person who has a low level of self-esteem may consider negative events happening to them as deserved. Therefore, when such a person faces a traumatic event, they will not undertake any effort to overcome the stress and may allow the experience to traumatize them, altering their identity. Similarly, a person who has an identity of a high-morale individual when faced with traumatic events may cope with them and avoid suffering from any potential consequences.
There can be many examples of identities which may protect people from traumatization or partially assist them in their effort to cope with emotionally difficult events. For example, religious people construct their identity based on clear beliefs about God, which may help them to view the traumatic events as not isolated but as a part of a larger perspective. A notable belief among Christians of different denominations is that suffering and evil experienced by people in their lives should be perceived as the necessary preparation for life in heaven. Thus, a person who identifies themselves as a devout Christian may consider traumatic experiences as unavoidable and accept them without being subject to any negative implications (Berman, 2016). Apart from religious identities, there are many others which may change people’s perception of their trauma and alter their behavior in response to it.
There are many factors that shape one’s identity and can positively or negatively contribute to the person’s ability to handle traumatic experiences successfully without facing the implications. The research by Truskauskaite-Kuneviciene et al. (2020) discovered that traumatic events mostly were not life-changing experiences for the majority of young adults. In fact, the researchers discovered that despite being subject to negative events in their lives, youth may still embrace a positive developmental path and avoid facing traumatization. The researchers also state that there can be factors which contain the negative effect of traumatic experiences on young people’s identity. Specifically, such factors can be both external and internal, in other words, being a part of an individual’s identity. For example, young people may receive support from their peers, parents, or specialist, which can mitigate the impact of negative events. At the same time, there are internal factors such as a positive identity which is characterized by a high level of self-esteem and a clear sense of purpose in life. As a result, a positive identity also can enable a person to experience negative life events and not become traumatized.
The role of identity in the perception of trauma has been extensively studied by researchers. For instance, it was discovered that Aboriginal peoples who had a history of discrimination and strong identity were more likely to view negative intergroup situations being the result of discrimination (Berman, 2016). Essentially, the previous experiences of the Aboriginal people shaped their identity, which in turn enabled them to view similar experiences from a certain perspective. Additionally, there is evidence that a trauma which violates the core beliefs of an individual is more likely to have severe implications, including posttraumatic stress disorder (Berman, 2016). Thus, based on the scientific information and data, it is possible to state that the identity of a person can ultimately shape their view of traumatic experiences. Moreover, identity can both allow individuals to avoid becoming traumatized and enable them to suffer the consequences of negative experiences.
Researchers also have studied the relationship between trauma and identity from the perspective of reactive and instrumental processes. For instance, instrumental ones refer to the inclination of a person to have thoughts and behaviors which increase the probability that this person will enter a particular situation. The reactive processes constitute an individual’s tendency to view certain scenarios from a particular angle. Such processes can affect the trauma experience and increase the likelihood of trauma victimization. As a result, instrumental processes may force a person to engage in a behavior eliciting trauma or put them in an environment which has a higher risk of traumatic events happening. For example, research shows that children who were characterized by teachers as aggressive in the first grade had a higher likelihood of being subject to assaultive violence during their adulthood (Hampson et al., 2016). At the same time, children who had scored high on a reading test had a lower risk of being exposed to assaultive violence. Thus, the identity of a person and its components constitute viable predictors of future behavior in people and especially younger individuals.
Identity and Recovery from Trauma
The traumatization as a result of negative events in the life of a person requires a thorough recovery. While it is clear that some people are able to resist traumatization due to their identity, others still face the implications of traumatic experiences. Yet, in such cases, identity continues to play a major role and can either aid in the process of recovery or disrupt it. As mentioned above, the identity of a person can guide them in their treatment of trauma. Similarly, if a person gains a positive identity of a strong individual after encountering traumatic experiences, they can facilitate the recovery process for themselves and overcome traumatization and its symptoms. At the same time, the same is true in the case of the opposite situation. In other words, if a person decides to embrace the identity of a victim who is helpless and unable to resist their trauma, they will face difficulty recovering from it.
There are studies which investigated the influence of identity on the process of recovery from trauma and discovered many insights into the topic. For instance, scientists found that worldview changes contributed to posttraumatic growth and the development of wisdom (Berman, 2016). Essentially, the research proved that in order to recover from trauma, people needed to first make changes in their identity and alter their worldview to achieve the capacity to recover from trauma. Such evidence proves the notion that identity is one of the key factors in the healing process.
At the same time, there is also evidence which supports the idea that traumatic experiences can force a person to alter their identity to avoid staying traumatized. In the United States, many Muslims were subject to considerable discrimination after the terrorist attacks in 2001. A study on the experiences of Muslim physicians showed that although they were mistreated by others after the events, such negative experiences contributed to positive changes in their religious identity (Berman, 2016). Essentially, the traumatic experiences of being discriminated for Muslims became a factor which facilitated adaptive action and made them more resilient, which ultimately enabled them to recover from the negative treatment.
Nevertheless, certain identities and their elements, such as beliefs and worldviews, can negatively impact a person’s recovery efforts. Researchers discovered that utilizing a traumatic experience as a foundation for one’s identity caused people to have posttraumatic stress symptoms and a lack of any positive development (Crossley, 2000). In other words, people who decide to focus on their trauma rather than on the efforts to overcome it and find ways to handle symptoms tend to suffer continuously without a prospect of recovery. Nevertheless, it is clear that additional research is required on the topic of recovery from traumatic experiences in order to determine the role of identity in it.
Trauma As Part of Identity
It was already mentioned that people could focus on their trauma and integrate it into their identity, yet the topic needs to be studied in detail. It is clear that trauma is a powerful phenomenon capable of disrupting a person’s sense of identity. At the same time, the identity of a person also can affect the perception of traumatic experiences as well as their recovery process. Therefore, the situation when trauma becomes incorporated into identity constitutes an example of a fusion of the two phenomena. Yet, in all of the situations, the way a person approaches their trauma can define their entire life in the future and make them behave in a certain way. While it is logical to assume that the integration of trauma into identity may lead to negative consequences, it is not always the case. In fact, the effect of the incorporation of trauma into one’s identity can be different and may vary among people.
There is also autobiographic research into the early-life experience with traumatic events, which is worth exploring. For instance, Merritt (2022) presented her multi-dimensional study on adoption as a traumatic experience and its effect on the life of a person. Many people who were adopted consider adoption a major part of their identity and refer to themselves as adoptees. The process of adoption can be traumatic due to different reasons, including the forced separation from biological parents. As a result, many adoptees integrate the traumatic event of adoption into their identity and thus shape their behaviors according to it. In some cases, it may cause people to face posttraumatic syndrome symptoms and fail to overcome them. At the same time, there is also evidence that adoption can serve as a preventative measure against future trauma in some people (Merritt, 2022). Such data once again prove that the incorporation of traumatic experiences may have different outcomes.
There have been several studies which analyzed various levels of trauma integration and assessed the impact of such activity on people. For instance, there was a study conducted in the college environment where students integrated their trauma into their identity. The results of the study demonstrated that the effects of integration were both negative and positive. Specifically, in the case of negative effects, the focus on trauma and its centrality in the identity of participants predicted posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms. At the same time, other students who made trauma a part of their identity developed an advanced level of adaptive psychological functioning, which enabled them to counter similar negative events in the future. Thus, there is evidence that trauma incorporation can actually be positive, and therefore it is essential to identify the factors which contribute to such an outcome.
Research into elements which determine the positive experience of integrating trauma into one’s identity has also been conducted. For instance, there is a study on the identity of women who underwent breast cancer in their life and managed to survive and their relationship with their traumatic experiences. The results of the research showed that the participation of the women in special support programs, which provided them with assistance and guidance, encouraged them to embrace an identity of a strong survivor. As a result of the support programs, as well as the creation of a survivor identity, the women achieved posttraumatic growth, which positively impacted their ability to overcome the posttraumatic syndrome’s symptoms. Thus, the evidence presented by the research demonstrates that external support can be one of the defining factors in the process of a positive integration of trauma into one’s identity.
The relationship between trauma and identity is complex, and these phenomena can affect each other in different ways. Generally, it is possible to conclude that there are four main types of relationships. First of all, trauma can alter the identity of a person by forcing them to discard their previously held beliefs and worldviews. For instance, a woman who identifies herself as a mother may lose her only child and thus experience a trauma altering her personality. The second type of relationship is that the perception of traumatic events depends strictly on the identity of a person. If a person has an identity of a strong individual, they may overcome traumatic experiences without suffering from stress. The third type of link between the two phenomena concerns the recovery process. Essentially, a person’s identity determines their ability to overcome posttraumatic symptoms and recover from traumatization, and in such cases, external factors may assist individuals in it. Finally, there is a relationship which implies integrating trauma and making it a part of one’s identity. Such incorporation may have both negative consequences and positive ones.
Berman, S. L. (2016). Identity and trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress Disorders & Treatment, 5(2), 1-3.
Crossley, M. L. (2000). Narrative psychology, trauma and the study of self/Identity. Theory & Psychology, 10(4), 527-546.
Hampson, S. E., Edmonds, G. W., Goldberg, L. R., Barckley, M., Klest, B., Dubanoski, J. P., & Hillier, T. A. (2016). Lifetime trauma, personality traits, and health: A pathway to midlife health status. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy, 8(4), 447–454.
Merritt, M. (2022). Rediscovering latent trauma: An adopted adult’s perspective. Child Abuse & Neglect, 130(2).
Ranieri, F. (2021). Trauma and place identity: The breaking and repairing of place attachment in the mind of an adolescent with developmental trauma. Journal of Child Psychotherapy, 47(3), 338–356.
Truskauskaite-Kuneviciene, I., Brailovskaia, J., Kamite, Y., Petrauskaite, G., Margraf, J., & Kazlauskas, E. (2020). Does trauma shape identity? Exploring the links between lifetime trauma exposure and identity status in emerging adulthood. Frontiers in Psychology, 11.