Q: OK, so, I thought I’d feel better after I left my abusive ex, but even though it’s been months, I still feel so low. I used to be a really confident person before him, but after five years of his awful comments about me, I really began to question my self-worth. He told me every day that no one else would love me and I think I started to believe him. I know he was just projecting his own self-hatred onto me (thanks, therapy!) but I can still hear those messages in my head. How do I get back my self-esteem?
A: I have good news and bad news. The good news is this is a totally normal thing for survivors to go through. The bad news is, your ex-partner used brainwashing to distort your beliefs about yourself and the world, aka, no one else will love you. What a ridiculous declaration. I don’t even know you and I can say with one-hundred-percent certainty that you are loveable and worthy of love—the safe, healthy kind this time.
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Through repeated lies and gaslighting, sometimes counterbalanced with love-bombing (think of it like feeding a starving person scraps of food except the food is affection), your ex was able to tear down your self-esteem and control you through something called coercive control.
There may have also been physical abuse, which can take another toll on your self-esteem. How could a person who says they love you also hurt you? It can make survivors question their value as human beings.
Regaining your self-esteem after bravely escaping domestic violence takes time. It’s something you’ll likely need to work on it daily, just as you would strengthen your body after being injured. Building up confidence in yourself is especially important if you have children who were also in the home with the abuser. Kids are apt to imitate your actions, attitudes and emotions and, if you are modeling confidence and self-appreciation, they will be more likely to feel the same about themselves. Children who witness violence at home are more likely to have low self-esteem and high incidents of self-blame later in life.
When it comes to rebuilding self-esteem after abuse, here are four ways you can start.
Stop blaming yourself. Many survivors will take on a certain level of shame or blame for the abuse. You might think you should have known better, left sooner or fought back harder. Abuse is never the fault of the victim—it is always a choice made by an abuser. And abusers often target those who are empathetic and caring and who will give the abusive person chance after chance. The truth is the only person who could have stopped the abuse was the abuser.
“Survival isn’t always graceful,” says Stephanie Robinson, MACP, RSW, psychotherapist and chief clinical officer at Open Mind Health. Survivors, she says, should try to recognize their extraordinary survival skills and forgive themselves for anything else.
“It is important to become knowledgeable, insightful and aware of your own trauma responses and recognize the cycles of abuse. This will help with gaining a healthy perspective and feeling more empowered,” advises Robinson. Read more about how abuse often follows a pattern in this guide.
Find support people you can be honest with. When you’re in a period of low self-esteem, you may find yourself questioning your decisions. Did I do the right thing? Should I have given him another chance? Do I deserve good things to happen to me? This self-doubt can not only wreak havoc on your self-esteem but can also make you vulnerable to returning to an abusive partner.
“The most important thing someone can do to rectify their compulsion to return is to immerse themself in positive emotionally reconditioning experiences and safe people with healthy boundaries,” says Robinson. It’s imperative that your support system, whether friends, family members, support group members, a therapist or an advocate at your local hotline, are people you can speak the whole truth to, she adds.
“Seek support persons who can help unpack the experience so you can begin to understand the things, including the lies and secrets, that keep you tethered emotionally, psychologically, financially, sexually, spiritually and physically in that unhealthy space.”
Reframe negative self-talk. “Often after we leave an abusive partner, we continue to speak to ourselves in derogatory ways and continue the destructive objective of the abuser on ourselves,” says Robinson. You might think that the solution to this is to simply tell yourself positive messages constantly. I am good enough. I’m freaking amazing! This might work, or it might feel like toxic positivity—the kind that gets on our nerves more than helps. What might work better is to notice those negative messages and simply accept them, then reframe them.
I know I made a mistake, but I’m human, and humans make mistakes. I’m going to try again tomorrow. Think of how you’d speak to a child who was feeling bad about themselves and the gentleness with which you’d choose your words.
Survivors are, across the board, the most courageous people out there. They took action or deflected the abuse and violence on a regular basis. It takes a lot of bravery to do that, especially knowing the level of danger they are in. Don’t forget that.
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It may also help to try meditation which can teach you how to slow down, notice and process your thoughts as they come in. Here are six meditation apps to try.
Be patient and kind to yourself. Finally, Robinson reminds us that regaining self-esteem is a process and that “it takes a conscious effort, every day, to heal and commit to a personal evolution.” Journaling might help you to notice your progress along the way. Record each success you have and take note of where you’re still finding challenges in feeling good about yourself. Notice what makes you feel good about yourself each day and then, simply, do more of that.
Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to your nearest domestic violence shelter for the guidance of a trained advocate.
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