How your self esteem can be affected following an abusive relationship

People often just think about the physical damage caused by abusive relationships, but it’s generally the emotional scars that take longer to heal. The most common emotional fallout from abusive relationships is loss of self-esteem. Women can be left feeling a shadow of their former selves when constantly worn down by abusive comments that attack every aspect from their appearance to their personality. Even seemingly low-level abuse will take its toll over time. It’s often not until women have moved away from the abuse that they realise just how depleted they have become.


So what can we do about it? The fact is there is no instant cure for low self -esteem, particularly when it’s been declining over a very long period of time. Recovery is a gradual and continuous process that should actually never end. We should never stop working to improve our self-esteem. Improving self -esteem requires lots of conscious thoughts and activities that make us feel more worthy.


The most effective way to improve self-esteem is by speaking to ourselves with more kindness. If we repeatedly tell ourselves we’re stupid and can’t get anything right, it’s just as damaging as if someone else was saying it to us. When abusive partners have constantly undermined us, it’s difficult not to take on some of the criticism and accept it as true. It’s common to have a default setting of self-criticism that we rarely consciously think about. These criticisms are called negative automatic thoughts (NATS). It’s normal to have NATS in some situations, but for those suffering with low self-esteem, these NATS can get out of control causing self-esteem to spiral lower.


To improve self-esteem, we need first to notice our NATS, which ones do we use and in what situations. The next stage is to ask ourselves if they’re true. Are we really stupid, always, in all situations, where is the evidence that we’re stupid, would our friends have coped with the situation any better, would we give our friends these negative labels, would our friends give them to us? Also, notice how you feel when you talk to yourself negatively, understand the impact it is having on you. Negative self-talk is invariably damaging to us. It’s important to learn to be kinder by speaking to ourselves as we’d speak to a close friend. If we learn to be understanding, appreciative, kind and sympathetic towards ourselves, our self-esteem will reap the benefits.

Other aspects of our behaviour towards ourselves will weaken or improve self-esteem. To feel more worthy, we need to identify what we want, what will make us happy and take steps to prioritise those needs. Many women struggle to do this as they are by nature self-sacrificing, putting everyone else first. But on an aeroplane, when an oxygen mask drops in front of you, what do you do? As we all know, the first rule is to put on your own oxygen mask before you assist anyone else. Only when we first help ourselves can we effectively help others. When we raise our self-esteem by looking after our own needs, we can be a better friend and mother.

How we manage our health will also impact on self-esteem. Over-eating, consuming junk food and neglecting to exercise will damage our feelings of self-worth. Properly looking after ourselves by choosing healthy and nutritious food, exercising, spending time on skin care routines and even meditating will increase our feelings of worth. Small improvements that can be sustained and built up over time will be more effective than sudden changes that we’re likely to give up with.

Our social circles will either add to or take away from our feelings of self-worth. We might like to think that all of our friends and acquaintances are kind and supportive, but are they really? It’s sometimes worth carefully considering how friends make us feel when we’re in their company. This is the true test and gut feelings count as behaviour can be very subtle. Friends can be categorised into two different groups, drains and radiators. The drains in our lives tend to make us feel bad. They might be subtly critical, jealous of our successes or just hang around us for what they can get out of us. Your true friend will not offer you a cake when you’re on a diet, nor will they constantly ask to borrow things that they forget to return. Our radiator friends on the other hand will make us feel good because they’re true friends who are on our side. They’ll be happy for our successes, supportive of our goals and we’ll feel warm and safe in their company. Spending more time with the radiators and distancing ourselves from the drains will improve self-esteem.


As with many things in life, when we don’t actively work at it, self-esteem won’t stay stable, it will generally slide downhill. This is why it is important to be actively looking to improve it on many different levels.  The emotional damage from being in an abusive relationship really can be repaired. Sometimes we can do it on our own with the help of a few books, other times professional help is needed. But with a determination to reclaim our sense of self-worth and happiness, real positive progress can be made.