Listen in to hear Melissa, Bridger and Caleb’s discussion over research on early relational trauma and misattributions.

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  • This article is looking at early relational trauma- trauma that happens interpersonally and early in life. Research has consistently shown the foundational impact that this has on later development and concept of self. 
  • Is there a correlation between early relational trauma and misattribution?


APA in Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy and is from the University of Hong Kong.

Article Title: Early Relational Trauma and Self Representations: Misattributing, externally derived representations as internally generated. Link to article here.


  • Experimental Study
  • Non-clinical population (university students) measured early relational trauma and looked at source attribution. 
  • Looked at the participants’ ability to know what sentence they said versus what sentence the researchers said. 
  • Look at how trauma has an impact on their concept of self, while also looking at parent dysfunction and negative affect. 
  • Optically-assessed stimuli was used during the experiment. 
  • The voice, tone, lack of tone could all be confounding variables, and they controlled for that by using visual stimuli. 

Evaluative vs. Procedural:

Evaluative representation of self: Looking at the intersubjective reality “What is going on in the core of the self.”

  • Self-schema 
  • Shame and guilt proneness 
  • Participants’ ability to be consciously aware and to explicitly identify this is a higher brain function. This happens later on in the neurosequential process. 


Procedural Representation of Self: 

  • Procedural- Looking at the form (step 1, step 2, step 3…) 
  • Attributing information is much lower in the brain and is a process. Attribution happens subcortically, whereas evaluation comes from tertiary processes.
  • Midline structures are one of the primary sources of affrentation, then going into the mammalian brain and then feeding into the cerebrum, the neocortex. 
  • The midline structures are shrunken for people who have early relational trauma. 


Example: A child comes home sad from school and when their parent(s) asks what’s wrong, they say, “I got in trouble at school.” Then the parent says, “Well, what did you do?”

  • All of the experiences with that child and their parent up to this point, get factored into the child’s interpretation of what the parent said. 
  • It depends on the relationship in and between the parent and child. 
  • Sharp tone in meeting the child can create a misattribution. Before the midbrain, the affrentation has now collapsed. It’s relying on stories that have already been made.
  • Objectification: When we stop engaging with a person through afferent sensory information from the current moment and default to the assumptions made by previous experiences.


Discussion over Early Relational Trauma:

  • Looking at the conceptual link between early relational trauma and the organization of the self schema. They chose to look at this through self-esteem and shame-proneness. 
  • They found that there was not an association between early relational trauma and self-schema organization. There is a link, but not in a way they assumed before this research.
  • For example, narcissistic orientation- high misattribution, low shame proneness
  • PMS- an experience of heightened misattribution. We have to be aware that our emotional state is valid while the misattribution is invalid. 
  • They found that there was not an association between early relational trauma and self-schema organization, but there was in the procedural representation of self. Emotional experience is still valid.
  • For example, sleep deprivation- produces major misattribution errors.
  • Self evaluation is so disintegrated and dissociated during evaluation of an individual with early relational trauma. 
  • “… However, individuals with early relational trauma tended to misattribute representations that were externally derived as internally generated. Though early relational trauma positively correlated with other earlier adversities, including non-relational trauma and parental dysfunction, the link between early relational trauma and source misattribution remains significant” (Chiu et al., 2019).


Accountability as Therapists:

  • Holding ourselves accountable to not be another experience of evaluating them.
  • Also, provide a space that is not procedural, objectifying, or telling them they’re “good” or “doing the right thing” but to just be. 
  • Stay within the embodiment of curiosity on how they are forming information. 



  • First, this article holds everything that we are so passionate about. Relationships shape our brains, which then shapes our future relationships. 
  • Secondly, relationships shape our selfhood and our selfhood shapes our relationships.
  • Thirdly, the self is a combination of the reflective appraisals of the other. As a clinician, when I’m challenging these misattributions by bringing in my subjective self to meet their subjective self to tell them that they are more than the role that they are playing. 
  • Lastly, sometimes as a therapist, we have to make the clinical decision between perfecting their roles that they are wanting to achieve or offering them the ability to work on being their fullest, happiest expression of themselves. It’s tempting as a therapist to help them collude in working on their roles. 

Citation: Chiu, C.-D., Ho, H. L., Tollenaar, M. S., Elzinga, B. M., & Zhang, T. (2019). Early relational trauma and self representations: Misattributing externally derived representations as internally generated. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 11(1), 64–72.