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 meaning of our self esteem.

We often 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.

Low self esteem is a scar

What I do know, because I lived through it, is that a horrendous self esteem can be the only conscious trace of our traumatic past, buried under denial and dissociation.

It’s a curse then of course, but also a blessing: tackling this problem will lead us, sooner or later, to go beyond denial and solve other problems as well. For me it has been the proverbial tip of the iceberg, throwing me into my healing journey. This journey has led be far beyond the reason why I seeked help initially.

Having a low self esteem is sometimes the most visible consequence of trauma, but it is always only a consequence. It is not here because we are inadequate, not here out of the blue: it is a sort of psychological scar.

When I started a psychotherapy, I did not immediately talk about my traumatic past. It was not because I was scared or ashamed to talk about it (although I was both). It was because of my deep, entrenched denial: this essential part of my past was not on my radar.

Had my shrink asked the question directly (which, incredibly, he did not), I would not have said no, probably. Nor yes for that matter. I think I would have had a blank stare and said nothing. That was not why I came to see him. What I wanted was to stop feeling horrible, and for me, the most excruciating, immediate, tangible problem was my abysmal self esteem. It was not related to my past. I did not want it to be related to my traumatic past.

If your self esteem is a killer, get help

To illustrate my first post on self esteem, I took Clara’s self esteem example, which is not precisely where we want to be.

Compared to what was going on inside of my mind though, her inner critic is almost likeable.

Mine was a killer.

I was totally incompetent, innapropriate and bizarre. I was also guilty, in all situations, of wanting to steal attention, to lie, to deceive, to manipulate others. Everything was systematically my fault (except good things, which of course were not).

Or at least, that’s what Robert thought. Yes, that’s the name I gave my inner critic, thank you for not judging.

These days, Robert still exists but is not talking much. He ventures out sometimes in particularly stessful situations, attempting weak comments which don’t stick. I’m wondering if he does not have self esteem issues himself, you know, doubting his usefulness 😉

But when I was entering adulthood, he was big, powerful, and he was aiming at my throat. Had I not recruited professional help, I am convinced I would not be here today. I would probably have lost myself in addictions, despair, or risky behaviors.

What I understood during these years of healing work was that Robert’s presence was not due to my internal flaws or misfortune. It was a direct product of my history, and in particular of explicit or implicit (but exquisitely clear) messages perceived around sexual violence.

These messages are all accusatory, dismissing, and contemptuous. They are also completely wrong.

Wrong message #1: you don’t matter

This message is practically tatood on the abuser’s forehead, conveyed by his or her behavior and sometimes even with actual words.

What perpatrators say in words or behavior is that our needs, including basic ones like physical security and integrity, are of no value compared to theirs.

Our absence of desire, our lack of consent, our disgust, our fear, and in some instances our physical and psychological survival is not something that matters, compared to their compulsion to hurt.

A perpetrator is negating the victim’s existence as an individual. He or she will take the whole space, including our body and mind, taking what he or she wants. Psychologically, there is only one person here, parasiting another. There is no relationship, only predation, with no thought for the consequences.

It’s difficult to imagine a more destructive message for one’s selt esteem. Even more so when the abuser is someone we know – which is often the case.

Other people may be reinforcing this message: if there were enablers, or people who refused to believe of help you, that’s what they conveyed: don’t disturb my well being with this. Me staying out of what happens, not being bothered and having to do something about it, or even look at it, is more important than you not being a victim of violence.

This is particularly true when the abuser is a relative: what happened then if you were not protected, is that you were used for the needs of your disturbed, chaotic family. They were more important than you; I am very aware that I have been the family sacrifice, so that others could appear to function normally. Understandably, it has been a hard pill to swallow when I started to face my past.

Wrong message #2: nothing happened

I don’t think I have to prove this point to anyone reading this, you probably know very well already: denial is huge when it comes to sexual violence. Individually and socially, and even in ourselves.

Lots of people around you, to start with the abuser, will go to any length to say that what experienced did not happen. Said or implied enough times, by people who are powerful, or important to you, and you will start to doubt yourself.

This is not a sign of weakness by the way: it is a characteristic of all human beings. Various social psychology experiments show that we do doubt reality when the group around us contradicts what we perceive.

Problem is, if you start to doubt your perceptions, your history, what happened to you, your self esteem can only deteriorate: you believe you cannot count on yourself, believe yourself. You start to feel weird, if not a bad person for inventing such horrendous things. You can not rely on your own judgement. You don’t know where reality is any more. You are scared, angry, and depressed, but you don’t know why. You end up wondering what is wrong with you.

Wrong message #3: this is your fault

It may seem strange seen from the outside, but for most of us, it can take years to really believe it was not our fault. It certainly was a long process for me.

This false belief that we are at fault is not necessarily conscious, but it is very often there. For some reason, this particular type of violence creates guilt in victims.

Sometimes we do believe, deep down, that we caused it, because of the way we behaved, how we were dressed, our level of alcohol consumption, our lifestyle, whatever.

Sometimes we are clear we did not cause it, but we think we should have found a way to resist, find help, found the words or magical keys to stop it, whatever. This was my case.

All of this is, of course, horse shit. Nothing you did, nothing in you, caused the violence. The responsibility of what happens rests solely on the shoulders of the abuser. Psychologically and legally, we are never responsible for someone else’s behavior (with the exception of our small children).

Like for denial, we have a lot of help from people around us, to believe it is our fault. Really. It is getting better now, but still, you can hear these horrendous first reaction sometimes: “but what did you do? Were you drunk? How were you dressed ? Did you have an ambiguous behavior?, Were you walking alone at night? Did you text flirty comments ?”.

I think you know, but let me state this clearly regardless: even if you did all the above, you are still not responsible for the violence. The perpetrator is. All the rest is an attempt to not deal with what really happened: violence, by someone who is more powerful – physically, psychologically, financially or socially.

Wrong message #3: it’s your fault if you feel terrible

Back in the days, Robert used to tell me : “It does not matter what happened, it was so long ago. You should be over it. You are weak. You should be able to have a normal life. You are not normal. You are using your past to excuse your flaws. Why can’t you shape up ? Why are you depressed ? What are you afraid of ? What’s wrong with you?”. A real, mean bully.

It’s terrible even to remember his ramblings. Hearing them, and believing them, was a torture.

Here again, this is the only type of scar that invoques such verbal abuse. I have never seen a physical injury leading to such contempt, you should heal, why are you not up and running, what’s wrong with you.

The injury is here. Healing takes the time it needs. The time needed depends of the extent of the damage, the duration of the abuse, who inflicted it, the support you received during and after, you level of emotional health before it happened, and maybe also genetic factors. It is not a question of courage or willpower. Leave yourself alone with this.

Wrong message #4: you are crazy anyway

Much to the chagrin of the medical profession, it now appears that for some of us who were diagnosed crazy were not. We were just traumatized, disbelieved, dismissed, and accused. Well, no wonder some of us felt really crazy.

Specifically, it’s the case with hearing voices. For decades, it was decided people who hear voices were psychotic, and there was nothing much normal people could do to help, except drugs. Recently, it appeared that what was needed was much more simple: listen, and believe what you hear.

An amazing medical discovery.

This revolution is bubbling up with other mental health problems, like depression, anxiety, addictions or eating disorders. Mental health problems may not be linked specifically to sexual victimization, but they are very often linked with trauma.

Again, it is not about us. It’s about what happened to us. Don’t believe these messages. Stand up to bullies, including your internal one.

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