Perhaps the most well-known effect of abuse is low self-esteem. But even though we all understand that we suffer from it, we may not really appreciate what that means, how the abuse has contributed to it, or how it affects our life. Low self-esteem is a persistent feeling of worthlessness. Low self-esteem directly interferes with us fulfilling our full potential in life, leading to a kind of compromised half-life that others have a hard time understanding.
One thing that’s really important in having a high sense of self-esteem is self-respect. You can’t feel worthy of the good things in life if you don’t respect yourself. Abusers don’t show us much, if any, respect. Things like intimidation, manipulation, degradation, and ridicule directly take aim at our self-respect. Even things like enmeshment and neglect show us no respect because we’re not treated as if we matter just because we exist.
When we can’t respect ourselves, it’s difficult for us to demand respect from others. We may do one of two things. We may allow others to treat us disrespectfully. This could happen in both personal and professional relationships. Or, we may cover up a lack of self-respect by withholding respect from others, which makes us unpleasant people to be around.
Abusers give us little reason to feel confident about ourselves. Some undermine everything we accomplish with constant criticism and ridicule. They’re so threatened by anything we accomplish that they have to put us down in order to relieve themselves of the insecurity they feel when their children, who they’re supposed to better, are better than they are.
Others undermine our confidence in certain settings. We may get their support when we’re doing something they think we have a special talent for, but we don’t get the feeling that they’re really interested in encouraging our confidence in other things. They may have a personal interest in seeing us succeed at a certain thing because it gives them prestige or they can accomplish it through us. This can also, however, backfire when we succeed and they may speak as though it were all their doing, thus undermining our confidence in the end.
For instance, Bette Davis was encouraged in her early years by her mother, who relentlessly pushed her to persist in her acting career. Once she was successful, however, her mother often spoke as though Davis’s success was all due to her. People who worked with Davis said she was never confident about her abilities, and she even bowed out of commitments a number of times because she lost confidence in herself. While we can’t say this was entirely due to her relationship with her mother, which had many weird elements to it, it was probably a contributing factor, and Davis herself sometimes wondered if her mother had encouraged her only to live a life through her that she could never have lived through herself.
Perhaps the most extreme form of low self-esteem is self-hate. Abusers make us feel so utterly worthless sometimes that we can’t help but hate ourselves. Sometimes they do so overtly by calling us losers or telling us they wished we were never born. How can we not hate ourselves when we’ve been completely rejected by those who brought us into the world? If they can’t love us then who can?
Sometimes, our abusers show us they think we’re worthless in indirect ways. It’s difficult for us to grasp what’s happening, but emotionally, we feel what’s happening and end up hating ourselves. Emotionally abusive parents may have something to say about everything we do. They may offer this as suggestions, but the message we get is that we can’t do anything right. They may also step in to involve themselves in nearly everything we set out to do, again making us feel like we can’t accomplish anything on our own. Their motivation is to help, but because the circumstances are usually inappropriate, we get a different message.
Another way emotionally abusive parents make us hate ourselves is by making us feel guilty over things we shouldn’t feel guilty about. Some abusers can’t deal with the problems in their lives and have to blame someone, and their children are easy targets. Children who are told they’re to blame for mental illness, addiction, a divorce, or poverty believe their parents. Even as adults, we may be blamed for illness, poverty, and addiction. We may recognize that it’s not logical for us to be blamed, but this is coming from people who brought us into the world, making it difficult, if not impossible, to ignore their rejection. We end up hating ourselves even when we can recognize that there’s no logic in what they say.
Lack of Fulfillment
Low self-esteem is a serious problem, even though it seems to have been talked to death in personal development and self-help environments. It’s at the heart of under-achievement or misplaced over-achievement. We and others can make the true argument that achievement is within our control, but it’s not as simple as just telling ourselves we can accomplish whatever we want to accomplish. That doesn’t take into consideration the convoluted thinking that goes on beneath our level of awareness.
Since childhood, abuse survivors have been made to feel worthless in many aspects of life if not in every aspect of life. It’s a belief we’ve developed. Beliefs from childhood are very difficult to change (not impossible, but difficult). Our mindset is geared towards supporting those beliefs, including the belief of worthlessness. When we try to rise above this belief and prove we’re not worthless, we encounter resistance.
It’s interesting how this comes out in dreams (something that I’ve noticed in my own dreams and that was mentioned, I believe, by Carl Jung). You might notice that as you begin a new project or work on some goal, things begin smoothly and you’re filled with optimism. After a little while, however, progress falters and you start to beat yourself up for real or imagined mistakes. In dreams, this can appear as a stranger who makes you uncomfortable lurking in the shadows, following you, imprisoning you, holding you down, attacking you, or making you feel bad.
This process repeats itself as we move forward with our goal so that it seems like we’ll never reach it. We also feel like everyone else who’s working towards the same goal doesn’t falter or “misbehave,” like we do. We feel like there’s something wrong with us. Too many of us give up at some point because we’re overwhelmed by the feelings of worthlessness. In a sense, it gets even harder as we move closer to the goal because during times when things are moving ahead smoothly, we get our hopes up.
I believe this constant rise-and-fall dynamic is part of the legacy of abuse. Although everyone deals with obstacles on the path towards a goal, an abuse history can lead to feeling overwhelmed by feelings of worthlessness. Most people understand that an obstacle to a goal is part of the process, no matter what produces it, whereas for abuse survivors, an obstacle may be seen as a challenge to our self-esteem, proof that we mess everything up, that we’re not capable as others are. These dark feelings can overwhelm us so much that we give up.
Another legacy of low self-esteem is self-sabotage. This is when we destroy the prospect of bringing something good into our lives, whether it’s a healthy relationship or a professional accomplishment. Sometimes we self-sabotage in only some aspects of our lives. For emotional abuse survivors, low self-esteem has a lot to do with self-sabotage.
Experts suggest two situations where we self-sabotage: when we expect to feel bad and when we expect to feel good. At Psychology Today they write that self-sabotage is meant to protect us from feeling bad. We anticipate we’ll be hurt, so we avoid getting into a relationship or drive our partner to break up with us. We fear failure at work so we sabotage any possibility of promotion.
In Forbes, Barbara Stanny quotes from a book by Gay Hendricks called Big Leap where she says that we each have a threshold of happiness. Once we reach an accomplishment that surpasses that threshold, we retreat, sabotaging that accomplishment so that we can stay within our comfort zone of happiness.
In both cases, our low self-esteem from our abuse history contributes to frequent and devastating self-sabotage. Because abuse creates a painful environment that’s difficult for us to escape, we learn to distance ourselves from our emotions. We either numb them or cover them up with other emotions. For example, we may show anxiety when really we feel angry. As a result, we become masters at finding ways to protect ourselves from negative emotions because that’s what we had to do to survive the abuse in our childhood.
On the other side of the spectrum is a low threshold of happiness. Emotional abuse creates a miserable environment. Not that there aren’t moments of joy, but there tends to be something inauthentic and temporary about them because we know that soon, everything will change and we’ll feel miserable again. For example, any accomplishment I was praised for by my parents was never a full source of pride for me because I knew that soon, I’d hear the criticism. Praise was never unconditional.
As a result, a sort of autopilot mechanism sets in early that every situation in life is somehow threatening. It makes us feel bad either by hurting us or proving how worthless we really are. In an effort to maintain emotional balance, we sabotage most of our accomplishments. As a result, we deprive the world of too many of the beautiful things we have to give.
Low self-esteem is like a poisonous plant that our abusers have planted in the garden of our life. It taints everything we try to grow there. Personal development and self-help advice about raising self-esteem can help, but we have to acknowledge that we’ve been taught destructive lessons by people who had tremendous influence on us at a time when we were most vulnerable. We can then believe that these lessons aren’t ours and begin to learn new ones about the beautiful people we really are.