Self-esteem is a dangerous thing to lose.
When our self-esteem is low, it affects every relationship we are in. It affects intimate partner relationships, friendships, child-parent relationships, business relationships … and impacts our ability to build new relationships. When something happens, in life or in relationship, our self-esteem helps define how we react to it.
One of the first things an abuser destroys is the self-esteem of their victim. When your self-esteem lies in tatters at your feet, the person who you believe to love you, who has promised to protect and care for you … they have all the power. They have control because they are the one who has destroyed your self-esteem. They are teaching you what to think and believe about yourself, and it’s not good. Using projection, gas-lighting, backhanded compliments, “helpful” criticism and more, they teach you that you have less worth than they do. They teach that your needs are not important, but their needs are. They re-write what you know to be truth, they re-define your reality until all you can see is the world they have designed around you.
Outside of a severe traumatic experience, self-esteem cannot be destroyed in a day, it takes time for your perception of self to shift. It takes daily, contradictory information. It takes subtle but insidious insults, judgments and personal attacks. Often times these are hidden as “constructive criticism” or “I love you, so I need to say something” comments. Other times it’s disguised as humour, a “joke” about who you are that tells you who you are is wrong, or insufficient.
An domestic abuser is someone you trust. It’s someone you have confided in, believed in and willingly entered into a relationship with. A domestic abuser will use those confidences, the information you willingly shared, against you. They will take your deepest insecurities and fears and will twist them to harm you. They will wear you down until you don’t even realize your self-esteem has fallen. Once your self-esteem is defeated, it’s easy to slip into depression… which the abuser will then use against you as well.
It’s a slippery, downward spiral. Once you have lost self-esteem and slipped into depression or anxiety, it’s exceptionally hard to break free from the toxic, abusive relationship. It’s a tactic deliberately implemented to trap the victim in the relationship. Once self-esteem is destroyed, the abuse can escalate without risk to the abusers need for the relationship.
It’s one reason women stay and keep going back.
The destruction of self-esteem is typically effected through verbal and emotional abuse. It’s the first step. Once this is working, the abuse can (and usually will) escalate to physical violence. If the victim takes a stand for themselves, breaks the relationship or otherwise resists the physical abuse, the abuser will slip into the honeymoon cycle of the abuse and draw the victim back in …. because, after all, “it was the first time he hit me”. If the victim returns to the relationship, the verbal and emotional abuse will continue and likely be amplified until they are beaten down even further, when physical abuse will happen again. The initial physical assaults are usually “minor”… a kick, a shake, a slap, a punch to the wall or vehicle… These “minor” assaults are a way to test the water, to see if the victim will take a stand for themselves again. The less a victim stands up for themselves, the more the attacks will worsen.
And, should a victim decide to leave the relationship permanently at the first sign of abuse, with the first “minor” assault, she will most likely be judged and ostracized by her peers. She’ll be told she is over-reacting, that she needs to give him a second chance… that she is giving up on the relationship far too easily. At least, that’s what I was told. Because she loves him and she doesn’t really want to give up on the relationship, she often takes him back… and the abusive cycle continues to escalate. It’s harder to leave the second time. After all, she knew he was abusive and she went back, so doesn’t she deserve what she gets?
She deserves to be treated with respect. With kindness. With love.
Abuse in any form is deadly. It may not appear to be so when the abuser is “joking” about how awful the victim is. When the abuser is sharing embarrassing personal details with strangers, or simply showing with words or actions how much you don’t matter to them.
We must stand up against abuse. We must show people with our words and actions that they are valuable… We never know what is happening privately. We don’t know who is being emotionally beaten down. We have an opportunity with every interaction to uplift the heart of our neighbour, friend and even stranger we run into every day.
Let’s be deliberate in protecting the hearts of those around us. Let’s hold the judgment and be supportive. Let’s trust that no one walks away easily from a relationship and understand that there is likely FAR MORE to the story than we can see from the outside. Let’s stand together.
Let’s recognize that verbal and emotional abuse is where it all starts. When we allow one type of abuse to happen in front of us, we allow all types of abuse.