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PTSD and Other-Esteem

Andrew L. Martin, PsyD

We usually associate “esteem” with self-esteem, but esteem also refers to our attitude toward others. It’s how much we value and respect others. Esteem for others can be high, low, or even negative. To function well, we need to have a balanced sense of esteem toward others.

Esteem for others is often disrupted by trauma, partly because the brain tends to think in simple terms –  good/bad, right/wrong, all/nothing. Prior to a traumatic event, we may think all others are benevolent and kind. When someone hurts us intentionally, or otherwise treats us with cruelty, the brain may flip to the opposite belief – that all others are malicious or cruel.

Sometimes the brain will tell us that a whole group of people is malicious or evil. The brain does this to create an illusion of safety. It associates the trauma with something about the person who hurt us – their gender, race, position of authority, etc., and then decides it can keep us safer by avoiding all people who fall into that category. People with disrupted esteem for others experience bitterness, cynicism, and social isolation. They are suspicious even when treated with genuine caring and compassion, and they sometimes act cruelly themselves, justifying their behavior with the belief that everyone else is out for themselves anyway.

Disrupted esteem for others makes interacting with others miserable and difficult, and can lead to loneliness, and sexist or racist beliefs. Psychotherapy treatment of esteem for others involves accepting that the person who harmed us is to blame for their behavior – not their gender, race, or position in authority. It involves learning to see others in a balanced way, for example, that some people in power might abuse their power, but that does not mean all people in power are abusive all the time. It involves believing again in the basic goodness of humans and their intentions toward others, that people sometimes make mistakes, but that doesn’t make them completely bad people.  It also involves knowing we can end a relationship if the behavior continues, even after we explain it to them, and that we must get to know others before deciding if they deserve our respect.

Ref: Resick, P. A., Monson, C. M., & Chard, K. M. (2016). Cognitive processing therapy for PTSD: A comprehensive manual. Guilford Publications.




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