Abuse and It's Effects on Positive Identity
Good self-esteem or positive identity is an asset to any person. It helps improve
relationships, confidence, job performance and makes it easier to enjoy and embrace
life to the fullest. When a person has been abused, their good self-esteem is
threatened and often lost. Understanding how this happens and knowing practical
ways to deal with it can be valuable tools in our self-help toolbox!
Each of us is born with the gift of individual personhood. Our unique genetic
make-up and DNA set us apart from all others. We have boundaries that help us to
know where we stop and where others start. Inside of these boundaries and within the context of our individual personhood, we are free to grow, to question, to risk, to explore and to experience life in our own unique way! If allowed to continue and encouraged from those closest to us, we become comfortable in our own skin (within our own boundaries) and a positive identity develops.
Abuse is an invasion of those boundaries; an attack on our individual personhood. Abuse happens when someone stronger than ourselves overpowers us, either emotionally, physically, verbally or sexually. Even if the abuse is not “severe” in comparison to what others have experienced, the impact on our self-esteem can be severe. The boundaries between us and the perpetrator are blurred. We tend to own some or all of the blame for the abuse and thus take on what rightfully belongs to the invader. With our boundaries destroyed and our personhood invaded, we are left vulnerable to the world around us and confused about who we really are.
A common reaction to the invasion of abuse is withdrawal. Sometimes the victim will withdraw so far that they actually dissociate from the event completely. This may be good in the long run except for the fact that the dissociation almost always involves other emotions, longings, fears and identity markers that can no longer be accessed. People who are extremely shy and introverted, people who are emotionally shut down and people who lack in social graces are often (not always) reacting to some kind of abuse. The invasion has left them afraid to feel, afraid to connect and afraid to make a mistake.
Another reaction to the invasion of abuse is an attempt to build a wall of defense. The feeling of vulnerability is countered by erecting some kind of wall that we believe will protect us. We can become very angry and keep others at arms length by our temper. We can become very controlling and thus minimize the possibility of future hurt. We can become very sarcastic or funny to deflect our real feelings. We can become an overachiever so that others will identify us by our accomplishments and not by our fears. These walls feel protective but are actually putting us in bondage. We cannot do life without our anger, control, sarcasm, humor or achievements so we are not free to be who we really are… we are forced to keep up the act… and that is exhausting.
This second reaction was my own way of dealing with childhood sexual abuse. I kept the walls firmly in place from age 11 until age 35. At that point, exhausted from trying to keep myself safe, I attempted suicide, not out of despair as much as out of exhaustion!
When we react in either of these ways to abuse, we end up losing ourselves, our true identity, our positive identity or self-esteem. There is another way. From my own experience I have learned the power of these positive and practical steps that can lead us out of brokenness and into confidence in who we really are. Consider the following:
1) Be honest about our abuse.
We cannot properly deal with all of the feelings and reactions associated with our abuse if we refuse to face what actually happened. As with any recovery program, admitting the problem is the beginning of healing.
2) Forgive those who hurt us.
Holding on to the anger, hatred, malice or even ambivalence toward our abuser only keeps us tied to them and to the abuse and its consequences. Forgiveness does not mean that you are saying it was no big deal. It is not saying that you would let them hurt you again. It is not saying that it did not happen. Forgiveness is simply a choice to release them after coming to the conclusion that there is nothing they could do that would take away what happened to us.
3) Surrender our coping mechanisms.
Just as we have to be honest about our abuse, we have to be honest about all of the ways that we have developed to try to help
ourselves cope with the abuse. What walls have we erected? What masks have we put on to hide from others? What self- medicating habits have we picked up? Name these coping mechanisms and then willingly lay them down. We may need to invite a few people who are close to us into this process since we often have blind spots related to coping.
4) Embrace the truth about who we really are.
Learn to look beyond what happened to us to the person we really are on the inside. At this point, having a relationship with God is a key factor. If we have become connected with our Creator through the sacrifice of His Son Christ Jesus, we get our true identity from Him. We are His sons and daughter, regardless of our abuse, achievements, failures or coping mechanisms.
5) Join a safe community.
At this point, with walls torn down and feelings exposed, belonging to a community where we feel safe is vital. A support group, home group, counselor or accountability group can provide a place for us to grow in our new positive identity. People who know our need for healing and encouragement will be a great help in this process of rebuilding.
Commit with me not to allow past abuse in our lives to rob us of our positive identity. Choose life!