Finding Self-Love as a Survivor: How Do You Love Yourself When You've Been Taught to Hate Yourself?
by Cheryl Rainfield, 2003
As survivors of child abuse, many of us have been taught to hate ourselves, to consider ourselves less equal and to think our needs are not important—just by the very act of abuse. The act of neglect, of sexual or physical abuse, and of ritual abuse all carry the message that we weren’t worthy of loving, compassionate treatment. And if we received verbal or emotional abuse that told us even more overtly that we were worthless, trash, or to be hated, well, those messages just piled up inside.
Abusers often foster or encourage self-hate messages, because it makes their victims more compliant and easy to abuse. But those messages aren’t true. They are tools used by abusers to break spirits and continue abuse. They are conclusions jumped to by frightened children who blame themselves instead of their abusers because it is less frightening and overwhelming to do so—to find a “reason” for the madness of abuse. And they are scars that many of us carry today.
So how do we find self-love when, for so many of us, self-hate has become a pattern, a way of surviving and living? And is it even possible?
I know for a fact that it is possible. Self-hate was something that once infested every aspect of myself. It was a part of every thought that went through my head, it affected every action I took. It has taken me a long time to love myself, and at times I still struggle with the voices of self-hate. But I did find self-love—and you can, too.
For me, learning to love myself was a combination of things, a building of layers upon layers—but the two most important things were receiving love from others, and making the conscious, open-hearted decision to love myself.
I was offered all sorts of advice on loving myself before I chose to—perhaps, in part, because it was painful for other people to see how much I hated myself. But there wasn’t much true change until I made the conscious decision to love myself—and accepted that as fully as I could. Still, I don’t think I could have reached that place if there hadn’t been people around me, offering me love, compassion, and different, kinder reflections of myself. It’s hard to embrace self-love when the only messages are hate.
Receiving love, kindness, compassion and real praise from others gave me examples of how to love myself—examples that we so often never received, as survivors of abuse, but examples that are necessary to learn from. And with that love and compassion, I slowly came to believe that I was worthy enough to receive love and praise.
Making the decision to love myself—a decision that came from deep down inside me, not just from my head, and that were not just words I was feeding back to other people because they wanted to hear them—took a long time. It took listening to the wisdom inside me—and also listening to the pain that I felt when I hated myself. I had to know that I didn’t want to keep hating myself any more—it’s such a painful thing to do—and that I truly did deserve to treat myself as kindly, lovingly, and compassionately as I did my friends. Making that choice is such a key part of the journey—but the choice has to be made fully, and deeply.
Once I made that choice to love myself, or at least to stop hating myself and try to show myself compassion, it helped to layer on new ways of thinking and being, and tons of positive reinforcement, love, and compassion from others.
A few of the things that helped me at this point, and throughout the whole process, are:
- Receiving love, compassion, and real praise from my friends and therapist. Large or sustained amounts of praise and love can be overwhelming, especially for people whose self-hate is strong. I so often deflected kindness, praise, and love—though it was helpful to keep hearing it even while I was deflecting, because it went in there somehow. It can help to know your limits, and to try to take in love and praise in the amounts you can hear (and hold onto the rest for later).
- Deliberately asking my friends and therapist to tell me good things about myself—things that they appreciated and liked. Real things, not superficial things, about the kind of person I was. I actually had them write those things out (or I wrote them out after they said them) because that was the easiest way for me to take things in. I was also then able to go over those things again and again—which can be very helpful. And, in conjunction, I tried to allow those things to really go in, tried to allow myself to believe them. Even if I didn’t believe them, even if my self-criticism instantly came up, I would try to allow them in a little bit, and then a little bit more, into my heart.
- Making a list of things I liked about myself—no matter how small—and adding to it over time. Also, trying very hard not to have any negatives on that list, any positives twisted around to be negatives, or any “but”s.
- Reading articles like this, and finding books that reinforced my worth, my goodness, and how I deserved to be loved. (The Courage to Healhelped me with this. There are many other books as well. You might want to go to a bookstore or library and find the books that speak to you.)
- Counteracting all the negative messages I received as a child, and from the very act of abuse. Counteracting them specifically by writing out the negative messages and then writing responses. This involved telling those negative messages that I was worth love and compassion, that I and my needs did matter. (See my article on critical voices for more ideas.)
- Repeating positive and caring messages to myself over and over.
- Noticing, as consciously as I could, when I acted harshly, meanly, or critically with myself—and then trying to change this. This involved trying to pay attention to my putting myself down or hurting myself, and then noticing how I felt when that happened. Then, trying to change how I acted towards myself, even if it was just the teeniest movement—like telling myself afterward that I didn’t deserve to be criticized, and that I did deserve to be loved—and then building and building on those movements until I could change how I acted and thought towards yourself.
- Offering comfort and love to the little kid inside me who was that abused kid. It meant hugging her and comforting her in my mind—and truly letting go of any blame I might have felt for her. It meant letting her—and me—know that the abuse wasn’t her fault, and that she is truly loveable. It meant giving that part of myself as much love as I could.
- Surrounding myself with loving people, as much as I could—with friends who loved and respected me, with a therapist or support person who could offer me lots of positive reinforcement and compassion.
My article Tips on Self-Love also has a number of suggestions of things you can do to help increase self-love.
It takes time to come to self-love. It can be hard…but it’s not as hard as hating yourself (in my opinion)—and it’s so very much worth embracing. There might be times when you move backward—but then you’ll stream forward again. Embracing love for yourself can bring great happiness and lightness, and can make things easier and more joy-filled.
So reach for self-love today. Open up your heart and soul. Go as slowly or as quickly as you need to towards self-love. You deserve to find it.
©Cheryl Rainfield, 2003
Written by Cheryl Rainfield, award-winning author of SCARS, STAINED, and HUNTED
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