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Q: After three years of being manipulated, controlled, stalked, brainwashed and threatened, feeling like I was constantly walking on eggshells to appease him, and frankly, scared that he could kill me someday, I got out. But now that I’m on my own, I feel completely unstable emotionally. I blame my husband for tearing down my self-esteem and making it feel like it’s impossible to trust anyone anymore. I’m safe, but I feel paralyzed. How can I rebuild my self-esteem? - Anonymous
The paralysis feeling after abuse is real. A lot of survivors of emotional, mental, verbal and psychological abuse—the nonphysical tactics of power and control abusive partners use—feel stuck in this loop of anxiety, distrust and shame because of what an abuser has brainwashed them into thinking. Nonphysical abuse can be just as mentally damaging as physical abuse.
Leaving is the first incredibly difficult and brave step to take when you realize your partner is abusive. But after leaving, the effects of abuse don’t simply disappear with your crappy ex. The psychological toll abuse takes can be its own kind of torture, but luckily, there is a way out of this, too.
How do you build your confidence and self-esteem? It starts with reminding yourself that you’re in charge now, Anon. You get to decide who you are, what you’ll do next, how to live your life, etc. However difficult it may be to trust your gut now, it’s important to remind yourself that you can. Your intuition is trying to lead you back to yourself. Your abusive ex likely stripped away that self-confidence you used to rely on. You were likely gaslit by them, which is when an abuser convinces you that everything you believe to have happened is incorrect, that your memories are wrong and that you can’t trust anyone but them to define your reality.
In case you haven’t heard, abusers are liars, and that was a lie.
Talia Bombola, dubbed the Confidence and Assertiveness Specialist, is a certified psychodynamic therapist out of Newport Beach. She’s helped survivors overcome this very thing.
“If they think about having, like, a thermometer or compass to guide their emotional stability, it’s like someone took a hammer to it and they’re trying to rebuild,” Bombola describes. “It’s about that partner destroying their ability to trust both other people and themselves while destroying their faith in humanity.”
You’re likely plagued with thoughts of, But if they loved me, why would they do these awful things? How can I ever trust someone again who says they love me?
“This inability to trust can ruin love in a way because love gets associated with abuse and control. The reason why the control is so effective, especially in the beginning, is because [the survivor] is given a love like they’ve never experienced before,” Bombola says.
This is the key difference to learn: love-bombing is not love. The first part of love-bombing is something we all like—being showered with attention, affection and gifts. The second part, however, is an abusive agenda rooted in control. That’s why it gets so confusing. Unfortunately, this is part of what makes abusers cunning.
“Unfortunately, the person who was giving you these love-bombing things, they come at a steep price,” says Bombola. When the time comes that you’re ready for another relationship, you can more clearly see the red flags based on your previous experience.
“Once you have a solid foundation again, you’re much less likely to fall for love bombing,” she explains.
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So, how do you get to that solid foundation? Here are Bombola’s recommendations:
- Therapy with someone who specializes in the aftermath of abuse. Bombola admits this can be hard to find, but don’t give up hope. See "How to Find a Domestic Abuse Therapist" for tips. Talking through what you endured with a professional can help you make sense of it and come up with better strategies for rebuilding self-esteem going forward.
- Seek out a support group. Hearing from others who are also struggling with some of this emotional fallout can help you not feel so isolated. You can reach out to your local domestic violence shelter for recommendations or seek support online.
- Seek out books or podcasts on emotional healing. Learning more about what you’re going through can help you feel empowered to take control of your healing. Consider turning on a podcast, like Bombola’s Heal Through Humor, that touches on a lot of these issues. She also recommends books like Women Who Love Too Much, It Didn't Start With You, The White Knight Syndrome and Healing the Shame That Binds You.
- Learn about grounding. Bombola says that when a wave of distrust, panic or anxiety overtakes you, grounding techniques like the “5 Senses” one she teaches her clients can help relax you by shifting your senses to tangible things around you. Look for five things around you that you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. More grounding ideas can be found here.
- Try journaling. Write down your anxious thoughts, your low thoughts and your wins (did that 5 Senses grounding technique work? Did therapy bring about some lightbulb moments?) Bombola says it’s helpful to have “proof” that you can look back on to see that your journey through healing is actually working and that you’re making progress.
To learn more about the path your healing journey might take going forward, read “Stages of Recovery After Trauma.”
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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