Childhood trauma helps us build empathy as adults, experts say

Surviving traumatic experiences throughout childhood can reflect positively on your emotional intelligence.

As per psychologist David J. Ley Ph.D., people who have been victims of disheartening experiences in their early years are more likely to develop higher levels of aggression, violence, personality disorders, and physical health problems. However, these unpleasant events can still have a “silver lining.”

In some cases, going through hurtful events can give you the ability to understand other people’s feelings in certain situations.

According to a study published in the PLoS One journal, those who have experienced childhood trauma have more eminent levels of empathy than others. Experts from New York and Cambridge have analyzed the relationship between childhood traumas and empathy levels throughout adulthood. 

The researchers were involved in multiple tests aiming to explore exactly how traumatic experiences throughout childhood affected the results of different measures and factors of empathy. They examined a total of two study groups via electronic testing, taking into consideration two empathy components – affective and cognitive empathy. Affective empathy is when we feel the pain of others, while cognitive empathy relates to the act of imaging ourselves into the shoes of other people and their experiences. Most participants had endured some kind of childhood trauma in both study groups. 

The experts discovered that different types of trauma experiences had different effects.

For instance, the loss of a loved one associated with enhanced cognitive empathy. Meanwhile, other traumatic experiences, including physical abuse, were correlated to affective empathy. Overall, the more severe the trauma is, the more likely a person is to have increased levels of compassion as an adult. 

The groundbreaking research also serves as an explanation about the long-term influence a childhood trauma can have on adults. It proves that surviving adversity in your early years helps you develop higher levels of empathy and emotional intelligence. According to the authors, “empathy may be an ‘end-product’ of posttraumatic growth that is longer lasting than the initial personal distress that is expected to be felt immediately after a trauma.” They conclude:

“Adversity can lead to posttraumatic growth.”

Truthfully, for most of us, traumatic experiences are helping us shape ourselves as mature human beings. Going through emotional adversity teaches us how to recognize the pain others feel. Moreover, it shows us how to empathize even with the ones who have zero empathy for others. While childhood trauma undoubtedly leaves many scars, it also benefits the development of high levels of compassion and helps us see the world clearly. 

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