Being abused as a child or being raised in an abusive environment can have a profoundly negative effect on your adult self-esteem. As children we generalize our experiences and assume that the whole world operates the same as our immediate circumstances. If we felt unsafe, unloved, unfairly criticized or hurt as a child by the people who were supposed to take care of us, it can affect our whole perspective on life and be devastating to our self-confidence.
Domestic violence, verbal, emotional and sexual abuse during childhood are insidious because they destroy our natural sense of trust and color our view of the world and the people in it, making it seem like a dangerous and scary place.
We don't necessarily need to be the immediate target of abuse in order for it to affect us. I grew up with a critical, dominant mother who was verbally abusive to my relatively passive and emotionally neutered father. He bottled up his feelings of frustration so they built to the point where he would explode violently.
It was mostly my parents who were on the receiving end of each others abusive treatment, but as a sensitive child I was traumatized by growing up in an environment where I felt unsafe and on edge much of the time. It's all too easy to end up as collateral damage when you're a boy if your parent's relationship is unhealthy. It took me a lot of therapy and a long time to work through the fear I internalized during their arguments, and my resulting fear of conflict.
Recovering from childhood abuse is possible. Here's how to do it:
Decide To Live Your Life Differently
By default adults who were abused as children are much more likely to go on to become abusive themselves, causing the cycle of abuse and violence to carry on down the generations. Abusive parents typically have poor social and emotional coping skills, and as children we learn our own skills mostly from them.
In order to break the cycle, you need to decide to live your life differently: to deal with the trauma that you've inherited and to learn better coping skills from somewhere else. You have three choices: become an abuser yourself, become a victim, or break the cycle and become your own man. Breaking the cycle of abuse requires courage and determination, but it's really the only viable option.
Heal Your Emotional Pain
Living in an abusive situation is traumatic, and when we're traumatized our emotions often shut down. This is a primitive short-term survival mechanism that can make abuse even more damaging long term. It robs us of our sense of who we are as we grow from a boy into a man and can leave us feeling vulnerable and insecure instead of powerful and self-assured.
Shutting down emotionally is painful because we don't just repress unpleasant emotions like fear and sadness when we get overwhelmed; we also end up suppressing pleasant emotions like love, happiness and joy. Years later we find ourselves suffering from depression and not knowing why.
The solution is to seek out some emotional healing via whatever form of therapy you find most helpful. Primal therapy is particularly good at unlocking the deeper emotions that you may have repressed as a child in order to survive.
Programs like Heal For Life (in Australia) and Path Of Love (worldwide) offer a fast track to healing trauma and the shame associated with abuse. Find whatever works for you so that you are capable of feeling and expressing the full spectrum of emotions. It may feel painful at first allowing your emotions to come to the surface, but stick with it and you'll learn how to liberate your joy as well as your pain.
Let Go Of Other People's Shame
Abuse is shameful, and as children we were particularly vulnerable to taking on other people's shame. I felt dreadfully ashamed of the way my parent's treated each other and it took many years of therapy before I was even able to talk about it without feeling overwhelmed by irrational fear. Psychologists refer to this as “carried shame” when we end up carrying someone else's shameful burden. It's time to hand their shame back.
You can't heal shame by yourself because it stems from a fear of being abandoned and unlovable if the truth about us is exposed to other people. Hiding the shame doesn't work either; that just compounds the problem. If you have been affected by abuse, you need to find non-judgmental people who you can tell about what has happened to you in a loving, supportive environment so that you can begin to heal. John Bradshaw's excellent book Healing The Shame That Binds You offers deeper insights into the toxic nature of shame.
Free Yourself From Emotional Bonds With Your Abuser
In addition to healing your damaged emotions you need to free yourself from the emotional hold that the abuser had, and possibly still has, over you. Whether they are still alive or long dead, still in contact with you or not, it is important to break the emotional bond between you so that you can deal with the person or situation that hurt you objectively. You don't want to continue to suffer new hurtful experiences at their hands or to relive painful memories of your treatment in the past.
Breaking the emotional bonds that keep you trapped as a victim is called forgiveness. This is a much misunderstood concept. It is not an altruistic or self-righteous action. You learn to forgive your abuser by healing the emotional pain that they have caused you, and breaking the emotional ties between you so that their actions can't hurt you any more.
It helps if they accept responsibility for what they have done and acknowledge the hurt they've caused you, but it's still possible even if they don't. In fact, setting yourself free is even more important if they don't, can't, or won't apologise. You may or may not wish to remain in contact with them, but either way you're shifting the emotional dynamic in the way you relate to give yourself back your personal power.
You can't force forgiveness; it's something that happens over time as you heal emotionally and recover your sense of self. It's not about letting them off the hook; it's about letting you off the hook so you don't have to suffer painful memories of past hurts over and over.
If the thought of forgiving the person or people who abused you is repugnant or you think they don't deserve it, it just means that you haven't fully healed your pain yet and are still carrying some resentment. The point is that you deserve to be free. Be patient with yourself and focus on getting the healing you need first.
Rebuild The Confidence That Was Stolen From You
If you had an abusive or traumatic childhood, you can't go back and relive it problem-free. What you can do though is rebuild the confidence that you were robbed of, and live the rest of your adult life as a victor instead of a victim. Start today. No matter where you're at with your self-confidence right now, building greater confidence in all areas of your life is possible and the results are well worth the effort.
You build confidence and self-esteem by taking action to expand your comfort zone and face your fears gently and consistently over a period of time. You can learn new social skills like the ability to relate to other people better than your parents did. Make it your mission to triumph over the people who abused you by outgrowing them emotionally. The more confidence you build as an adult, the more successful and happy you will become and the less time you'll spend ruminating over the effects of your rotten childhood.
If you want help or aren't sure where to start, get The Confident Man Program.