When I would tell people about my abusive boss, who would slap me across the head for making mistakes, they would often respond: why did you not just leave the job? It seems to be the most popular question when it comes to abusive situations: why did you not just leave?
Well, by the time that a toxic relationship escalates to abuse, the target is already so enmeshed, so far stripped of their power and individuality that they can’t. This is what abuse is and does. It strips a person of their identity, and it takes away their power. It leaves a shell of a person without a real sense of self, without self-confidence, without self-esteem.
The Act of Self-Empowerment Starts Even Before the Escape
To escape and heal from abuse, a target needs to empower themselves. Before a target understands that the abuse is wrong, and that they do not deserve that treatment, there is no notion of escape. Even once a first escape attempt is done, lacking confidence and self-esteem may send us right back to our abuser. It is a normal, albeit unfortunate, aspect of the abusive relationship.
I moved away from my parents a number of times. Not just in the way that you do when you are a grown up, I tried to get as far away as I could. I picked a school clear across the country, picked a course that even took me abroad every other semester. I was not even always that consciously aware of my escape attempts. I knew I felt better when away from them, but I was so convinced that I was not able to survive without their help, that I kept asking for help or advice and that always meant going back and once more settling for their reign. I lacked a belief in myself and my ability, which kept me tethered. Not until I started to build confidence, did I manage to get away.
Why We Need Both Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem
The concepts of Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem are often used interchangeably, but I think that is doing them a disservice. They each have a specific definition, and we need them both in order to be healthy successful individuals.
I read a simple, but effective definition recently:
[Confidence] is directly related to actions and the belief you have connected to the action. For example you might be confident in your cooking. Why? Probably because you do that again and again and have got to the stage where you feel confident because you have practiced.
Self-esteem is more about your core belief in yourself, I am worthy, I am not worthy, I am loveable, I am not loveable. It has very little to do with action and more about how you feel about yourself as a person and what beliefs that carries.
(from Confidence verses self-esteem by Sile Walsh)
For us to empower ourselves, we need to work on both these aspects of ourselves. We need to begin trusting our talents and abilities, as well as belief we are able, talented and worthwhile. One without the other leaves us unbalanced, and at risk for repeated abuse.
How to Build Confidence
Since confidence is about action, about our skills level at things, the way to increase our confidence would naturally be to practice and repeat whatever skill we are trying to improve. I think though that the issue we as survivors have is not so much the lack of practical skills. It is the lack of acceptance of our skills.
Acceptance of our skills means not only accepting what we CAN do, and what we ARE talented at. It also means accepting our weaknesses and areas where we need to learn and improve. Both those aspects of acceptance need to be founded in reality. Mostly I think survivors of abuse massively underestimate their strengths and overestimate their weaknesses.
Building confidence then becomes less about improving our skills level, and more about learning a more accurate understanding of our skills level. I have found that doing self-affirmation have made me more aware of my own strengths which is I think where many of us lack self-awareness.
However this is where confidence and self-esteem meet, and in order to improve one, we really also have to address the other.
Where Confidence and Self-Esteem Meet
The overlaps that we may experience between confidence and self-esteem, is where we both our distorted beliefs about ourselves and those of our abilities make us jump to conclusions about each other. Perhaps we think that ‘not being a good athlete’ translates to ‘not being worthy’, or perhaps we feel we are ‘an utter failure’ and even when we receive accolade for our achievement, we continue to think we are underachieving.
For someone with confidence and self-esteem, it is completely possible to say: ‘I am not a good administrator’ without that translating to feelings of unworthiness or failure. Sile Walsh points out that, in a healthy situation, our confidence may fluctuate throughout the day, as we engage in different tasks and activities. At the same time our self-esteem, our core beliefs about ourselves, should stay fairly stable and should not be impacted by our day to day activities.
This is often not the case for survivors of abuse. I know that making a mistake, or not being able to perform a task comfortably can send me in a tailspin of low self-esteem. I experienced that the other day, when I made a mistake. As soon as it was noticed, I also fixed the mistake very quickly. Still the rest of the day I was beating myself up, feeling like a total failure and my inner-monologue went something along the lines of: ‘See, who were you fooling to think you could handle this?’ I am sure you have been there, we all have.
How to Build Self-Esteem
So, how do we address the self-esteem issues? It is a far more complex challenge in my opinion, because we need to address our core beliefs, and those are not always stored at a conscious level. Besides, beliefs are built slowly. So, where do we even start?
Firstly it is important to become aware of your own beliefs. What are the beliefs that are actually present and what is the conversation running through your mind? Spending time with your own thoughts is a good idea. Setting up a meditation routine, doing mirror work, or journaling are all ways in which you can connect to what is going on in your own head. Once you become more aware, you can begin identifying the places and thoughts that are damaging your self-esteem.
When you become aware of the specific negative beliefs you hold about yourself, you will slowly become aware when these are triggered. Are you triggered when around specific people, places or activities? Once you identify triggers, you can start to come up with strategies. Can people or places be avoided? Can you come up with a strategy that helps you control those thoughts when they start hitting you? Can you shield yourself by a preparation ritual?
I appreciate you these are not long term solutions. They are more aimed at not increasing the damage. To counteract the negative belief, we will have to start spending some quality time with ourselves, and with quality people too. To do this, try to make another list. A list of the people, places and activities that trigger good feelings, make us feel stronger. The situations that make you feel more secure and better about yourself. Can you see more of those people, can you spend more time in those places and do more of that activity?
Our core beliefs are almost habitual, so by increasing our “exposure” to positive beliefs and decreasing negative scenarios we enable ourselves to build new habits.
The more we become, and remain, consciously aware of this process, the better we will become at building our self-esteem. Whatever strategy you used to become aware of your core-beliefs, keep using it. Check in with yourself. You will begin noticing the changes. Be patient with yourself. Do not judge yourself for what you rationally understand to be stupid ideas or unnecessary relapses. Kindness is key in every aspect of recovery, and perhaps most of all when it comes to addressing your self-esteem.
Remember, you are a wonderful human-being deserving of appreciation, love and kindness, most of all from yourself!