Thanks to social and cultural influences, many women have long been conditioned to feel like they should be polite and quiet and put up with life’s difficulties, no matter what the circumstances. How often have we called the hardworking single mom in poverty “strong” and “brave,” seemingly rewarding her struggle with compliments?
Women who are domestic violence survivors can also feel this pressure to “keep it together.” In turn, they may doubt themselves when they want to leave their partner, even if that person is abusive, or when they request an order of protection, file charges or go to a shelter. But if you’re a survivor, you have the right to take steps to keep yourself and any children you have safe and healthy.
Friends, family and cultural beliefs can also play a part in a survivor’s self-doubt. For example, you may hear people say you should stay with your partner until your children turn 18 or that your partner’s abuse is just part of what comes with being a woman, a form of victim shaming. Comments like these can make you question whether you were in the right to leave your partner.
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How Your Partner Might Worsen Your Self-Doubt
Enduring trauma can deepen your sense of self-doubt and make it even more difficult for you to leave your partner.
“Leaving an abuser is a big challenge,” says Alice Mills Mai, a licensed mental health counselor at Centering Wholeness. “Abusive partners plant those seeds of self-doubt from the beginning of the relationship. Using gaslighting, emotional and psychological abuse tactics, they make survivors question their thoughts, choices, and decisions. A survivor can become dependent on an abusive partner to the extent that they may come to believe leaving the abusive relationship is a wrong decision.”
Abuse, and nonphysical abuse, in particular, can tear down your self-esteem and self-efficacy. “There’s a corrosion,” says Chantelle Doswell, MSW, founder of Ordinary Healing in New York City says. And when you don’t trust yourself, you create an opening for someone else to tell you who you are and how you should be. For example, an abusive partner may tell you what to wear or who to be friends with. Going along with these requests may make you feel considerate and caring, not abused. You may not even recognize that you are in an abusive situation.
Your partner may also lead you to take on responsibility for their reactions to you. “When they have a feeling, it’s almost second nature to you to take on the weight of how to fix it,” Doswell says.
When you’re with an abusive partner, you may still love them, so it can be challenging to decide to finally leave for good. “There’s a perception that the abuser is the ‘bad guy’ and the survivor is the ‘good guy,’ but most people in relationships don’t see it that way. They think, ‘I love this person, and it’s not healthy, it’s abusive. It’s not one or the other, it’s both’,” Doswell says. “A lot of people want to talk to their partner and fix it. They don’t actually want to leave.”
4 Steps That Can Help You Overcome Self-Doubt
First of all, understand that building back up your self-esteem that an abuser worked to tear it down isn’t a quick process.
“If you’re with somebody who abuses power and control, being able to understand that and getting to the place where you know what to do about that is a huge amount of lifting, especially if you have low self-esteem to begin with, or you don’t feel good about your ability to handle things,” Doswell says. Start here to begin the process:
1. Be around supportive people.
Building healthy, nurturing relationships can help you overcome self-doubt. “You want to get yourself around people who make you feel comfortable being yourself, where there’s some sense of safety,” Doswell says. Also, people who believe you. You need people in your life to remind you of your strength—and that includes the strength it takes to survive in an abusive relationship. “Going to a shelter or filing charges are not easy decisions,” Mills Mai says. “Survivors can combat self-doubt by taking smaller steps toward leaving the relationship.” One step could be reaching out to a friend or family member you trust.
2. Turn inward for a sense of safety.
You may find some calm and self-knowing through meditation, journaling or daily affirmations. These actions can create a sense of stillness, and in that stillness, you can recognize your gut feelings and then learn to trust them. “The first part is acknowledging that your body has any wisdom whatsoever. On a small level, that can mean noticing when your body feels worse and when it feels better,” Doswell says.
3. Trust your gut feelings.
Think about what would happen if you followed those gut instincts more often. “It’s scary because you have all this experience that tells you it’s not going to work. Trauma will have us thinking things are dangerous that aren’t, and having things be safe when they aren’t,” Doswell says. “But there is something unconscious that moves us toward healing.”
4. Imagine the opposite.
If you’re doubting your decision to leave or not go back, imagine the opposite scenario. What would it look like if you did go back and the abuse continued? What if it was worse? Which scenario puts you more at risk? It may be helpful to read some of the Survivor Stories we’ve compiled on our site to hear how other survivors got out and stayed out.
For more tips on healing after a separation, read “How to Minimize Stress and Fear During Your Divorce.”
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Why Overcoming Self-Doubt Is Crucial for Parents
If you’re a mother and you doubt yourself about leaving an abuser, it may be because you worry your children will resent you, or that they would choose to stay with your partner if you left. You may feel that way even if you are more present in their lives, talk to your children more often and are the one who provides emotional safety. You may perceive yourself as someone who isn’t good enough and who nobody—even your children—cares about.
You may not even be able to imagine a world where you and your kids are safe. If you’ve never felt like your life was stable or consistent, you may not feel as though your plans to leave an abuser are realistic. “We call it ‘remembering the future,’” Doswell says. That’s where you might want things to go well, but you’ve never experienced that. So deep down, you believe the only possible future is another version of the past. You can’t imagine a healthy, safe future.
But as kids get older, they have their own perspectives. They will likely better understand the reasons you had to leave and will choose what kinds of relationship they want to have with you and your partner. They may even find strength from getting through trauma.
Separately, the trauma of being exposed longer to domestic violence can affect all areas of their lives. They will be at an increased risk of being abused or becoming abusive partners. They may also have learned emotionally or physically abusive behaviors and can pass that on, even to the protective parent. For these reasons, and many more, escaping abuse early, especially when children are involved, is never a selfish choice. It could stop the cycle of abuse from repeating itself in a new generation.
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