Abuse and Self-Love: stop the myth

Clients often express either doubts about not loving themselves or outright inability to feel love for themselves, which in all cases has been related to physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse.  Its as if they’ve learned that experiencing this kind of trauma prevents them from loving themselves, which in turn prevents them from loving others and fully engaging in their important adult relationships. The second part–difficulties with maintaining attachments in relationships–is true enough for many abuse survivors. That’s easy to confirm by listening to clients’ descriptions of their relationships. The first part, though, is dead wrong.  We who have suffered serious abuse of one kind or another, and are still around as adults to talk about it, and in particular therapy clients who by their very nature have decided to actually address the abuse, cannot have reached that point without a very large amount of love for themselves. There is no point in denying this fact, and there are many good reasons to accept it, for their own benefit. If people truly convince themselves they feel no love for themselves, the barriers they will have erected around this believe make it very very difficult to address unfinished business and the residual emotions and memories of the trauma.

So, then, why do abuse victims experience this distance or detachment or disconnectedness in their primary relationships as meaning they are not capable of loving themselves? They’ve certainly listened to a strong cultural message about it: news media, advertising, self-help books, church, or even previous therapy. Its also possible for some that their belief that they do not or cannot love themselves, and therefore cannot truly love others, helps them escape from responsibility for their problematic relationship because they can blame the perpetrator for those difficulties. In this way, abuse victims unintentionally allow themselves to be conduits of the abuse: perpetrator of abuse–> victim of abuse–> victim’s partner. Thus the victim’s partner also suffers the effects of the perpetrator’s abuse.

The first step in overcoming this problem is to stop telling yourself that you lack the capacity to love yourself. This is almost certainly not true. Once a person begins to believe they do have the capacity to love themselves, two important things happen. First, they begin to find inner resources that allow them to stop creating self-fulfilling prophesies that lead to bad relationship experiences. Second, they begin to trust in the possibility of finding connections with others (perhaps starting with their therapist and then their partners, friends and families) that will help them grow. Unintentionally, but no less importantly, they then begin to put a stop to allowing the perpetrator of abuse continue to wreak havoc on their lives and relationships.