The Trauma Effect: when loss kills your confidence
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
It was 6am. I’d tried to grab a few hours of fitful sleep before the phone rang.
It was my dad.
“I’m so sorry love, she’s gone.”
My world had collapsed a few hours before during a devastating and unexpected call with an apologetic consultant. He’d awkwardly delivered the news that my mum was dying. There was nothing they could do to save her. Her death could take days and she was in too much ‘serious discomfort’ to communicate.
“Make your way over in the morning.” The consultant said, as I tried to process what the hell was going on. “We’re making her as comfortable as we can. Get a few hours of sleep - you have some challenging days ahead.”
My mum had been admitted to hospital a few days prior. She’d been unwell for years and we were used to her hospital stints for dialysis and the complications that came as part of that. But on this occasion, I had a niggling feeling that I needed to be there.
I planned a surprise visit for the following day. She wouldn’t expect it. I was a three hour drive away and had kids and a job to juggle, but I knew it would perk her up. I was also prepping for her to come and stay with me for some respite once she was discharged (she lived alone which wasn't easy when she was poorly). I’d spent the day frantically organising her care.
In fact, I was so busy sorting everything, that I hurried her off the phone that day and promised to call her later.
Later never came.
By the time we knew the score, a natter was no longer an option.
She passed much sooner than expected – and moments before any of us could get there. Alone. In agony.
Three years on and the anniversary of her death still dredges up the same cacophony of emotions – the guilt, shame, regret and sadness.
But whilst the emotions ebbed and flowed as I floundered through my grief, the surprising element - the part of the process that I wasn’t expecting - was the subsequent loss of confidence.
I later discovered that this was fuelled by ‘secondary loss’.
Secondary loss can sneak in under the radar – probably because it’s unpredictable and more rooted in the meaning of the loss than the loss itself. Most of us have heard of the stages of grief, but the aftershocks that follow it are less well documented.
Whilst there are no ‘stages’, there are many commonalities within secondary loss and its subsequent impact on confidence. They are worth discussing, because at some time or another, the chances are they’ll affect us all.
Trauma changes the trajectory of your life - sometimes temporarily, sometimes dramatically. You’ll feel the sudden impact of the event itself, but the effects surge outwards – like a tidal wave or a series of ripples, effecting you in a host of different ways as you try to adjust to your new reality.
Your confidence is rooted in your thoughts, actions and resilience and each of these are profoundly affected by life-changing events. It therefore stands to reason that your confidence can take a massive hit when you suffer significant loss or trauma of any kind.
In the case of grief, it can rob you of your identity.
The way in which you define yourself is inherently entangled with your attachments to those you love. You fulfil roles in life in relation to others: daughter, mother, wife, partner, carer, friend.. Once that physical connection breaks, your definitions alter: widow, widower, orphan. (Although the disturbing thing about the English language is that there is no word for a parent who loses a child – as if that loss is too great to define.)
This isn’t exclusive to grief. Any major loss can affect your sense of self. Perhaps you've gone from from entrepreneur to unemployed, wife to divorcee, mum to single parent, rich to poor. Trauma can knock your confidence by causing you to question who you really are and to re-evaluate your roles and purpose. Something you took for granted has vanished. It can seem like the ground beneath you is continually moving whilst you're fighting to find your balance.
The core beliefs you hold about yourself and world around you are also challenged. Once the shit hits the metaphorical fan, your self-perception can change, often quite dramatically.
I’d always thought myself a reasonably good daughter, but I started to doubt that the moment my mum died. I wasn’t with my mum in her final moments. I hadn’t known they’d be our last words when I hurried her off the phone. She had no idea that I had planned to visit..
In the face of that pain, you question everything – your thoughts, your understanding, your motives, your behaviours. Effectively, you call your self-worth into question: am I enough?
Connected to the above is how we see of ourselves reflected in others.
If people look towards you as the strong one, the funny one, the reliable one, the raucous one, it’s a weird feeling when those long-held perceptions suddenly change – even if it’s only temporary.
Parents can find this especially hard. If you’re used to be being the decisive and dependable one for your offspring, it's a total sea-change to be propelled into a state of confusion, despair or vulnerability.
The loss of my mum signalled the start of truly testing period for our family. A further death of someone I loved dearly (albeit expected this time), and two traumatic and potentially life changing incidents with my kids meant those aftershocks just kept coming – but from different earthquakes. Whist the kids were both fine in time, us grown-ups found it rather more challenging. The support we received from those closest to us was invaluable in helping us though.
Like many people who have experienced a loss or trauma, I found my friends fell into two camps. Firstly, those who just ‘got it’ and openly acknowledged what was happening, versus those who acted as if nothing had happened at all.
I found the latter approach difficult. Why? Because I’d have rather acknowledged the giant elephant in the room.
I had no desire to make anyone uncomfortable - and I appreciate that we’re not all talkers - but total avoidance made me question some friendships and doubt my worth. Did they not care? Was our friendship not founded in honesty? Was I that much of a mess that they were scared I’d lose the plot if they just asked how I was? (Oddly, I was pretty matter-of-fact about everything whilst caught in the midst of it, it wasn’t until some months later that the mental fatigue and fragility hit me – another symptom of secondary loss.)
The perceptions of those around you can have a significant bearing on how you feel about yourself – no more so than when you’re vulnerable and your confidence isn’t sturdy enough to prop you up.
Finally, the secondary losses can fuel a sense of separation and detachment – even from yourself.
Grief, loss and trauma can lead to feelings of isolation as you struggle to navigate your experience. We all have a fundamental need to belong, but the impact of negative events can easily tip you into loneliness as what you feel is so damn personal. No matter how hard other people try, it can be difficult for them to understand exactly what you’re going through.
Likewise, it can be challenging for you to communicate what’s going on inside. Emotion is linked to long-term memory and reaching into that abyss to verbally recreate a sense of complex and confusing feelings can be a slow and tiring process. (Interestingly though, research shows this is exactly what we should be doing when we feel hurt as putting emotions into words can make the pain less intense.)
The sense of separation can even extend to yourself.
I remember the strange sensation of running on autopilot during our testing few months - as if I was there in mind but not in spirit, just going through the motions. In its extreme, this is called Depersonalisation Syndrome and is clever way of the brain cocooning itself from reality to gain some temporary relief. But it does this whilst enabling you to remain physically present and functional. Whilst it sounds like a positive state of mind in the circumstances, it’s tremendously disconcerting and has a knock-on effect on confidence. It’s tough to feel confident if you’re not feeling connected, particularly when you’re disconnected from yourself.
The key to rebuilding your confidence in the face of trauma, is acceptance.
It’s about knowing what you’re feeling is normal and that those secondary losses can, and will, happen. It’s understanding that your sense of self will shift – sometimes significantly. It’s about giving yourself the time and permission for the fallout to settle and for your brain to readjust.
Trauma, loss and grief can kick your confidence. But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, you will come back stronger, wiser and ready for anything.
P.S. If you're struggling with this issue, get in touch or head over to my community, The Confidence Build for Women for further support.