20 Common Personality Traits of Family Trauma Survivors
Our coping skills often lead to adult pathology.
Posted January 28, 2023 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
In childhood, children lack the tools to understand when something bad or dysfunctional is happening, only that they have to endure the trauma.
As a result, they develop coping skills and mechanisms to deal with it, which leads to adult pathology. “Childhood experiences literally impact the biology of the brain.” (Perry, 2021). More therapists now are aware of the link between childhood trauma and adult personality traits.
In my experience working with survivors, many end up with similar personality traits. Many of these traits can be explained through other means such as being neurodiverse. However, if you find that you check off many of these, history might have affected them. Also, many neurodiverse individuals experience trauma. Here are the most common traits I have noticed:
- People-pleasing behaviors: Children who had to fight for the attention of their caregivers learned how to engage in people-pleasing. Instead of having to endure the emotional pain of a caregiver dismissing them, children learn that making them happy makes life easier.
- High-achievement or perfectionism: Children who grow up in emotionally neglectful environments tend to thrive under high stress, but they are also prone to perfectionism.
- Constant comparison with others: Some level of comparison is a normal part of being a human. But if you notice yourself constantly comparing yourself with everyone, this could be a sign of low self-esteem or low self-confidence, which often comes from neglectful experiences.
- Avoiding relationships or getting close to people: If we were hurt or abandoned in childhood, fear of getting hurt again can keep us in fear of getting close to others.
- Jumping from relationship to relationship, or staying in a relationship past its expiration date: Just like avoiding relationships can mean avoiding emotional pain, survivors who jump from one relationship to another are often trying to fill the void of their childhood attachment wounds. If we can somehow prove that we are worthy of love and affection, this heals the inner voice inside us that constantly tells us we are not.
- Too rigid or too loose boundaries: Setting boundaries that are too loose is a common trait of survivors from environments where their boundaries were not respected. Likewise, those who have too rigid boundaries, to the point of not letting others in, might also be trying to protect themselves.
- The need to “fix” others: Children who grew up in environments filled with dysfunction might carry the need to help and heal others into their adult relationships.
- Disordered eating: There is a strong connection between childhood traumas and disordered eating. “Many people with eating disorders often report having suffered some kind of childhood trauma” (Rabito-Alcón et al. 2021). Many of my clients with binge eating disorder, for example, are trying to fill the chronic loneliness or emptiness they feel.
- Self-medicating with substances or substance misuse: People who experienced pain are often looking for ways to numb it. While previous generations did not address the link between substance use and trauma, we now know there is a definitive link between substance misuse or addiction and trauma, and can use this information in treating clients.
- Feelings of depression, anxiety, or anger that do not go away: Occasional feelings of depression, anxiety, or anger are normal and could be situational. But studies have shown a link between these physical and mental health symptoms, and childhood trauma, particularly if they are recurring.
- Experiences of chronic pain: Many studies have connected chronic pain in adulthood with the physical and mental health symptoms of experiencing childhood trauma, especially abuse or neglect.
- Sensitivity to rejection: After growing up in an environment where caregivers were rejecting, emotionally unavailable, or unsupportive, it is common to develop a sensitivity to rejection.
- Not feeling seen or heard: Not having these needs met in childhood, leaves survivors with unmet needs. Being left out or not included in conversations, social gatherings, or other events can also trigger the feeling of not being included in the family of origin.
- The need to over-explain or make excuses: In an environment where emotions are shamed or lead to punishment, children grow up with the message that certain feelings or experiences are “bad” or “wrong.” They might feel compelled to over-explain themselves out of fear of not being believed.
- Feelings of shame and guilt: Survivors of childhood family trauma frequently carry a strong sense of shame and guilt. Children have a natural propensity to self-blame, and they often assume what happened, or didn’t happen, to them is their fault.
- Poor self-esteem or self-image: In the absence of caregivers who teach children they are valuable, children internalize the message that they are not.
- Lack of ability to relate to others or being self conscious: After growing up in an environment with unsafe adults, it is normal to attribute unsafe behaviors towards people outside of the family, which can keep survivors from ever fully trusting others.
- Difficulty expressing emotions: Growing up in an environment where emotions were frowned upon, dismissed, or even ridiculed sets us up for a lifetime of discomfort expressing uncomfortable emotions.
- Fears of social situations: When we grow up in environments where interacting with others was scary or even dangerous, it is normal to grow up with a fear of repeating these interactions.
- Acting in dysfunctional or unhealthy ways towards others: The most common precursor to abuse or violence is the experience of this in childhood. Dysfunctional or bad behaviors are on a spectrum, and we all exhibit some bad behaviors at some point in our lives; this does not mean we are bad people. This is not to excuse the behavior that caused it, but to help us shine a light on the reason behind it and allow for space to grow and heal.
If you struggle with some of the above characteristics or personality traits, finding a trauma informed therapist can help, especially one with knowledge and understanding of family trauma.
Allen, Brian & Lauterbach, Dean. (2007). Personality characteristics of adult survivors of childhood trauma. Journal of traumatic stress. 20. 587-95. 10.1002/jts.20195.
Perry, B. 2021. What Happened to You, conversations on trauma, resilience, and healing. New York : Flatiron Books, 2021.
Rabito-Alcón, M. F., Baile, J. I., & Vanderlinden, J. (2021). Mediating Factors between Childhood Traumatic Experiences and Eating Disorders Development: A Systematic Review. Children (Basel, Switzerland), 8(2), 114. https://doi.org/10.3390/children8020114