The Link Between Attachment Trauma and Self-Criticism

Were all your emotional needs covered when you were a child? Or, did you have cold or manipulative parents? These psychological injuries in childhood leave an emotional imprint. They often lead to really harmful internal dialogues.
The Link Between Attachment Trauma and Self-Criticism
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 14 March, 2023

Hating and despising yourself. There can be few feelings more devastating to your mental health. However, surprisingly, they’re really common. Indeed, many of us feel this way for much of our lives. Sadly, these kinds of feelings are also harbored by some children and adolescents who, from an early age, develop a slow self-loathing.

Feeling like we’re simply large conglomerates of faults and are unworthy of affection originates in childhood. These feelings come from dysfunctional families or parents who raise and educate via detachment and even violence. They’re the kinds of dynamics in which secure affection and security are absent. Moreover, in their place are contempt, abandonment, and mistreatment.

What happens in the child’s brain when faced with unmet psycho-affective needs is extremely complex. It’s also heartbreaking. One of the most frequent consequences is that they develop an internal voice that urges them to despise and be ashamed of themselves. It’s a phenomenon that appears with high frequency. Therefore, it’s well worth trying to understand.

“Resilience is a mesh not a substance. We are forced to knit ourselves, using the people and things we meet in our emotional and social environments.” 

-Boris Cyrulnik-

Illuminated child's brain symbolizing attachment trauma and self-criticism
Problems in childhood with attachment can lead to self-sabotage.

Attachment trauma

Attachment trauma is a break in the bonding process of a child with respect to their main care figures. Such an experience can manifest itself in a variety of ways. For example, neglect, abuse, or abandonment. Indeed, growing up in environments dominated by so many deficiencies and threats, means children grow up dominated by anxiety, fear, and a lack of affection.

It’s easy to imagine what these experiences mean on a psychosocial level, but what about the psychobiological field? A research paper from the Medical University of Graz (Austria) claims that not having any reliable emotional support affects brain development.

It could be said that parents who provide their children with a secure and nutritious attachment, configure internal ‘templates’. These act as a matrix for the correct neurobiological and psychological evolution of children. However, any alteration in this process leaves them without a foundation. In effect, they have to grow up in survival mode.

Experiencing an upbringing lacking solid, secure, and nurturing affection causes children to grow up thinking there’s something wrong with them. This is because their parents didn’t love them as they needed.

Attachment trauma and self-criticism

We all experience, at some point, negative perceptions of ourselves. For example, perhaps it eats you up when you make mistakes. Or, you feel desperate because you keep finding yourself in disastrous relationships. As a result, some days you just don’t like yourself too much when you look in the mirror. That said, these experiences are usually only occasional; they come and they go.

The problem is that attachment trauma and self-criticism, together, form a recurrent relationship. For instance, many of those who suffered a dysfunctional and harmful upbringing and education develop an internal critic that destroys them almost daily. This self-sabotage manifests itself in many ways. For this reason, it’s important to define it.

1. The social comparison trap

As Leon Festinger explained in his theory of social comparison, we all exhibit the impulse to compare ourselves with others. We do it to learn, define ourselves, analyze our abilities and opinions, etc. But, individuals with attachment trauma tend to constantly look at others to evaluate themselves.

In doing so, they only see shortcomings, defects, and aspects that they process as incorrect. Others always seem to be happier, and more lovable. In effect, they perceive the lives of others as better than their own. This perception is fueled by critical and exhausting internal dialogues.

2. The difficulty in building happy relationships

Attachment trauma and self-criticism are manifested, above all, in the way we bond with others. Those who don’t understand what it means to be loved, cared for, or respected, have serious difficulties connecting with others.

There’ll always be those voices in their head that fill them with doubts. They tell them that, at any moment, they’ll be hurt again so they’d better run away before it happens. As happened in their childhood, their doubts, fears, anguish, and the need to be loved, create extremely tortuous relationships and friendships.

3. All-or-nothing thinking

Dichotomous thinking is a cognitive distortion that makes us see reality through extremes. It’s an inflexibility of thought. It makes us say things like “Everyone just wants to annoy me” “Nobody loves me” “I  always do everything wrong” or “My life is never going to go well”.

Attachment trauma and self-criticism build a dialogue that reduces all personal worth and turns reality into an insecure scenario. Consequently, threat, betrayal, and doom seem to always be just around the corner.

4. The feeling of uselessness (self-sabotage)

Unconscious self-manipulation is a daily occurrence for the individual who suffered attachment trauma in childhood. In fact, they exhibit an almost constant tendency to boycott their goals. They also undermine their potential when they try to carry out any plans. Furthermore, self-sabotage leads them to constant avoidance.

For these people, it’ll always be preferable to flee or abandon any situation, instead of committing and fighting for what they want.

Sad man thinking about his attachment trauma and self-criticism
Attachment or relational trauma plunges the individual into a state of stress and self-sabotage.

Attachment trauma can condition our lives in many ways. For example, the brain changes as a result of this early trauma, just when a good part of its structures are developing. It’s common that, as the child grows, they’re indoctrinated with harmful and debilitating internal talk. Unsurprisingly, this prevents them from building healthy self-esteem and self-concept.

What can be done in these cases? One therapeutic approach of notable relevance is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. Dr. Francine Shapiro developed this method. As a matter of fact, specialized help and treatments backed up by scientific evidence are always the best strategies for dealing with traumas.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Lahousen T, Unterrainer HF, Kapfhammer HP. Psychobiology of Attachment and Trauma-Some General Remarks From a Clinical Perspective. Front Psychiatry. 2019 Dec 12;10:914. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00914. PMID: 31920761; PMCID: PMC6920243.
  • Shapiro F. The role of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in medicine: addressing the psychological and physical symptoms stemming from adverse life experiences. Perm J. 2014 Winter;18(1):71-7. doi: 10.7812/TPP/13-098. PMID: 24626074; PMCID: PMC3951033.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.