The meaning of low self esteem

Part one of this series on self esteem explains what self-esteem is and how you can measure yours. Part 2 now examines the consequences of trauma on our self esteem.

This relationship is very important for us, because we believe that our low self esteem is caused by who we are, or some mysterious vulnerability. It is not: often, it’s a direct consequence of what happened to us.

And this, my friends, makes a real difference: it is not about us.

Of course, having a self esteem issue does not mean we have necessarily been through a trauma. And violence can have many other consequences . Sometimes, our self esteem stays miraculously intact regardless. The relationship between sexual trauma and self esteem is not that simple.

But psychologists have long known that sexual violence creates long term damage in our self esteem. Why it is so is not that difficult to understand: it’s all about the messages we receive.

Continue reading “The meaning of low self esteem”

A self esteem definition

Clara’s talking to herself

Let’s have a look at the internal dialogue taking place in Clara’s head :  « I have been so ridiculous in this meeting. When my boss asked for my opinion, I blushed, then blurted out something that made no sense at all. I feel so ashamed.

Deep down, the reality is that I’m incompetent at work. Other people seem so self assured; I just feel lost. I never really know what is the best thing to do. I never really succeed in anything. I’m really not up to the task.

In reality, I feel stupid and worthless most of the time, in any type of social interaction. What I say or do is often silly, if not downright inappropriate. I can not even count the times when all I wanted to do was to disappear into the ground. I hate parties. I hate dinners.

And I’m not even talking about my love life: it’s even worse. »

Continue reading “A self esteem definition”

Am I codependent ?

Codependency

Codependent no more, from Melody Beattie, was one of the first self help books I bought. It has been very, very useful, all these years.

I have read it once again recently and it has stood the test of time. It’s still great, and it is still relevant for survivors of violence. Especially at the beginning of recovery, when we are completely lost.

Strangely enough, it is not about recovery from sexual abuse. Beattie defines it mainly as a consequence of being involved with alcoholics, even if she widens her definition somewhat.

The thing is, I have never been involved with an alcoholic, or any person caught up in a chemical dependency. My family of origin was dangerously dysfonctional, but no trace of alcohol at home.

Still, I could recognize me on each page of this book. This confused me for a while.

Over time, I have understood why. There are many ways to define a codependent, but my take would be: “someone who has no boundaries. ” A direct consequence of sexual violence (possibly all types of violence) is the destruction of our boundaries.

What are boundaries ?

In its simplest form, boundaries are what allows us to say no, and to maintain this refusal to do what we don’t want to do even if pressured. Said like this, it is pretty obvious it will be a problem for survivors, isn’t it? What perpetrators like is precisely ignoring and shattering our boundaries. Sexual violence is a way to invade someone’s body and mind.

Once our boundaries are destroyed, or if they have never had a chance to emerge for people abused early like me, life can be very, very difficult indeed.

Having weak, or absent boundaries means we don’t know where we start and where we finish, where other people start and finish. We are emotional blobs, all over the place. For me, it felt like this :

  • Most of the time, I had no idea what I was feeling, what I wanted or what I needed. All I could do what trying to guess.
  • I could however, tell you what other people were feeling, needind and wanting. Part of this attention was hypervigilance, one of my speciality. Part of it was projections. Sometimes it was sheer paranoia.
  • I was feeling unsettled, uneasy and unsafe if someone around me was experiencing an unpleasant emotion. I had this bizarre compulsion to try to fix their feelings, for example offering unsollicited help or advice.
  • I was utterly unable to take care of myself. I’m aware this sentence conjures up images of women having a manicure of spending quality time reading a book. In my case it was more that I was forgetting to eat, to cover myself when cold, in other words very basic self care.
  • At the same time, I was constantly trying to take care of the person I was involved with (or wish I had been involved with). Trying to guess his desires, the help he needed, how I could impress him, or whatever.
  • Obviously, saying no was horrendously difficult. It was even worse than that: I usually sensed what others wanted and complied before they even asked.
  • In a relationship, I was automatically assuming it was my fault if something was not going well. Even if it was obvious for everyone else, I could literally not see if someone was behaving badly. I felt responsible or guilty or their bad behavior. Naturally, this tendency of mine was very handy for anyone wanting to take advantage of me.

It’s as if I had checked out of myself, and focused all my attention and energy on other people. They could agitate me like a puppet, really. I needed alone time after each social interaction, to recover. Being in a group was almost a torture.

Abuse had destroyed my capacity to stand like a separate human being, with emotions, desires, needs of my own. I could not relate to someone without getting lost in him, or her. And I was constantly out of touch with myself.

Of course, it is not the only damage there is a long list of possible consequences of trauma: post traumatic stress disorder, depression, addictions, difficulties in relationships, low self esteem, self sabotage, eating disorders… , we could go on like this for a while, couldn’t we ?

But we need to pay special attention to our boundaries (or absence thereof). First, because it feeds other problems. Of course we are stressed without boundaries: we are unprotected ! Of course it takes a toll on our relationships and our self esteem. We are unable to stand up for ourselves, and can end up being revictimized.

But also because this damage is often invisible. We often don’t even understand what the problem is: we sense that something is wrong but we don’t know what. There is no medical diagnosis. No common sense explanation.

As it is often the case, if we don’t see what the problem is, we can’t solve it. This book helped me to see what was missing.

From there, is it possible to build boundaries later in life ? Absolutely. I’m proof of that. It takes more than a book, of course. For me it took several books, gentle help from therapists, observing others having solid boundaries, and a few very painful, and useful, life lessons.

But it is so worth it. I can say I am now living my life from inside myself. Most of the time, I don’t care about what other people want, feel, or think. If they want me to know, they need to tell me, and I can decide what to do (more often than not: nothing). It is so comfortable.

At this rate, I’ll probably end up like these old ladies who say exactly what they think and do exactly what they want, without any regard for social rules. I’m looking forward to it.

Recovery: where to start

Me too : Recovery works

I do consider myself in recovery for more or less 25 years. Yes, it is a long time, and I realize it can seem discouraging.

It does not need to be. I started to feel better relatively quickly – granted, considering the state I was in, it does not seem such a feat.

But still, it was important to see my situation improving. It created the space for a lovely feeling: hope. One day, I will be fine. And sure enough, one day I was just fine. Not “happy ever after” fine, but fine most of the time.

Even more important, I’m not sure that once it’s started, a recovery ever stops. It is always possible to improve our emotional health, regardless of what happened to us, regardless of where we are.

At the beginning, we have problems of epic proportions (how do I face life ?). After a while, they become more specific : “how can I keep my boundaries when I am in love?” (or, more bluntly, “how do I keep this guy from walking all over me?”).

Fast forward, we are still on our journey, asking ourselves if we should not invest more time in our friendships because, you know, we had other priorities but we realize now that friendship is important too.

As one of my mentors put it “The sooner you have solved the first 100 problems….the sooner you can move on to solve the following 100 problems”.

After a lot of recovery work, we still have problems to solve. But they definitely are not the same problems. We also understand that everybody has problems, and is, or should be, working on them. There is no “happy ever after”. For me, it’s good news: it means it will always get better.

What are the possibilities ?

That said, I am convinced that it took me too long to be comfortable in my own skin. It’s probably easier nowadays, but I found it incredibly difficult to find help and information when I started healing.

I started with what was the easiest for me: reading self help and psychology books. You see, I was scared by people. Books on the contrary could not take control, be intrusive, overpower or overwhelm me. Also, they would not judge and find me totally innaprorpriate and unfit for life – which I did; but I did not need a confirmation.

I would have loved recovering by reading books. Seriously, I tried.

Not surprisingly, it was not enough. One day, it finally dawned on me that in order to heal, or even survive, I would need the help of actual, real people. I hated the idea.

I have had a few therapists, but save one of them, they did not seem to have a clue as how to help me – strangely enough, they did help even if they had no clue, more on that later.

I even started a university degree. I do have a master’s degree in clinical psychology now. I still would have one more year to go to be a licenced therapist, but still, I know a few things about mental health.

The incredible thing is, during these four years studying in France, the topic of sexual violence, and how to help people who have lived through it was never addressed.

Not once.

I must admit I suddenly empathised with my previous therapists: no wonder they had no clue. Is this denial from the helping profession a general thing ? Are we that retarded here ?

The one thing I did not do, and that I think I should have done, is reaching out to a support network or group. It’s easy enough to hide behind a false self while working a corporate job. Doing it among fellow survivors is another story entirely. Wether you want it or not, they will understand you, and they may even, God forbid, connect !

Oh well, it’s still on my to do list.

How to choose a recovery path

So, where to start ? Recovery books ? Therapy ? Support groups ? Frankly, all of this is useful. Any type of supporting, accurate information, and any type of connexion with supportive people is good. In whatever order.

If, like me, people scare you, start with books, articles, and blogs like this one. You can still get a form of (one sided) connexion with the people who wrote these, especially when they share their story. And the information you get from some of these authors can be invaluable.

In this blog I will share books that I found really useful and why. I would love to hear from your favorite books.

At some stage though, you will have to recruit real people in your support team. We all need to be seen. We all need to learn to trust. To be validated. To go through corrective experiences. Therapists are good for this, if you can afford it, financially and emotionnally. And I hear support groups are great also. Just don’t stay alone.

Me too: what is sexual violence ?

Stranger violence

My friend Sara always stayed in her home country, France. For reasons she never articulated, she did not like the idea of travelling abroad. It was not a real problem for her though, and she organised her life around it.

One day, Sara was promoted. Part of her new responsibilities included travelling abroad. Before her first trip, anxieties mounted to an almost unbearable level. When the day came though, her business trip web very smoothly, and she came back relaxed and satisfied.

This episode triggered some self reflexion: why was it initially such a problem for her ? She remembered that as a yound adult, she travelled to North Africa with a few other friends. The whole time, the group of girls had been harrassed by unsolicited, insistent and intrusive male attention. Some nights, it was impossible to sleep because of the never ending ringing at their doors. Sara realised that her anxiety at the idea of travelling appeared after this unfortunate first experience.

Family violence

I’m Laura, and as a young adult I experienced serious difficulties. My self esteem was shot. I was feeling terrible most of the time. I was battling depression and addictions. The capacity for connecting comfortably with other people seemed to elude me.

Worst of all, I did not have a clue as to why I was feeling this way: I had a good job with a promising professional future. I was in a committed relationship with a smart, kind and loving guy. I had friends.

What was wrong with me ? Why was it impossible for me to have a comfortable life ? Why did I have the impression of looking at me life behind a pane of glass, without really participating ? I reached out for help, and over time I understood my difficulties were caused by the sexual violence I experienced as a child.

My definition

Sexual violence can take many forms. Sometimes, it is experienced as a child, sometimes, as an adult. In some instances, the perpetrator is a loved one, in and in some instances it is a stranger. It can involve physical contact, or not. It happens once, or lasts for years. It is not linked with gender neither for victims, nor for perpetrators. The extent of the damage varies greatly.

But even if, like in Sara’s case, it happened while she was an adult, coming from strangers, and with no physical contact, it was still sexual violence. It wounded her, and limited her life. It probably would not hold in front of a court, but it is still intolerable.

Sexual violence is trying to impose sexual activities to someone who did not give her or his informed consent.

By definition, it involves all sexual activities with children or young teens: they are unable to provide informed consent. Most of the time they don’t know what sexuality is anyway. And they certainly cannot imagine what the damaging consequences will be for them.

In order to qualify as violence, the attempt does not need to lead to actual sexual activity. As Sara can attest, forceful attempts are enough to instill fear. It is precisely what these men were looking for: sexual violence is mostly a power trip.

The importance of explicit consent

Lastly, even if the victim did not protest, it is still violence: the absence of explicit consent if enough.

Let’s take an analogy: imagine someone decides that your house would be better off with enhancements and turns it into a small gothic castle. Would you need to convince people that you did oppose vehemently the change ? That you shouted, that you fought, that you have bruises to prove it ? Would you need to provide testimony and evidences that your taste does not go to gothic style ? That yes, you do dress in black and wear burgundy lipstick, but it does not mean you want to live in a gothic castle ?

Of course not. When it comes to property, you don’t have to prove that you did not consent. They other person has to prove that you did. It makes a world of difference.

Why is it true for our house, our car, and not our own bodies and minds? Are material things more important than us ?

It’s easy enough to obtain informed consent: all you have to do is ask, with a willingness to hear the answer. And leave kids alone. Nothing complicated.

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