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The Healing of My Self Esteem

by annie

People used to say I had an inferiority complex. I said, “No, I am inferior.” And I meant it. Everyone else seemed more important, more worthy, more lovable, more needy than I. To me, this wasn’t a feeling, it was a fact. I remember times when I felt a need to talk to someone like my pastor, but if others came along and needed to talk to him, I would let them take my place because their needs were more important, more pressing, and I felt I should be able to handle my problems on my own.

There were people I really liked, too, and would have enjoyed spending time with them, or just stopping by or calling to say hi to them. But very seldom would I do it, even when invited to, because I didn’t want to invade their valuable time. I didn’t want to be a bother to anyone. After all, they wouldn’t want me in their life.

When I began working through my abuse issues, I had an image of a family at a big banquet table. They were all laughing and having a good time talking and just being together. I saw myself, a servant girl, bringing in their meal, and loving it because it meant I got to spend a few moments in their presence. Maybe they would say, “Good job,” or pat me on the back in appreciation. But at least I could see them and be close for a moment. With this picture, came a stab of pain. This is what I had been doing all my life with people. I would be there for them, do things for them, all so I could just be in their presence for a little while.

I also remember thinking to myself that I didn’t want to be the servant girl anymore—not that I didn’t want to do things for people anymore—I just wanted to be a member of the family, sitting at the table with them, enjoying all they shared together. But I didn’t know how.

I never realized how lonely I was. I never let myself think about how left-out I always felt. I was surrounded by people who loved and cared about me, but I believed if they really knew me, they would hate me and not want to be around me. I tried to think about what it was about me they would find out. I just knew there was something awful and shameful about me.

This carried into my relationship with God as well. I could believe he really loved everyone else unconditionally, but I was different. Someday, God would also leave me because I was so bad, so unworthy.

Now I understand where those beliefs came from. I received powerful messages growing up, both verbal and non-verbal, that I was nasty, bad, unlovable, ugly, unworthy. I was so unlovable, my own dad could walk out of my life when I was six and never even turn his head to look back at me, never even call to see how I was. I was a nothing. And person after person throughout my growing-up years reinforced those messages. Some may have reinforced them unwittingly, not realizing the damage already done, but I had no other way to interpret their actions.

The beginning of building up my self-esteem came when I realized I was calling people liars by not believing them when they said they cared, especially when all their actions toward me were loving and caring. Through the years, my life has been filled with people who have said they cared, even while abusing me. It’s not easy to trust again. But that was then and this is now. I can trust my own intuition about people. I can now choose who I let in my life and who I give my trust to. I had to make a conscious effort to believe that there are people who really do love me and care about me.

I also began keeping a list of all the nice, nurturing words people would say to me. I became aware that I wouldn’t allow their words to penetrate to the inside. I was afraid to hear and accept these kind, loving words, so I would immediately discount them and tell myself they were “just being nice.” I realized that I don’t say nice things to people that aren’t true, and if I say something nice or nurturing to someone, I want them to receive and value what I say. So I chose to begin hearing, believing, and valuing the kind words of others that build me up.

Then came the work of accepting and loving myself, even the little girl part of me that I had so rejected because I believed she was nasty and bad and caused the abuse. This was not easy, but again it involved choosing to accept and believe the truth—I was not responsible for the abuse. I was a little girl who needed love and affection. What they did says something about them, not me. I still have to tell myself that over and over again, sometimes having to think about what I’d say to another survivor and realizing the same truth applies to me.

Then the biggest step in the healing of my self-esteem came while preparing for a class on shame and grace. One day, I remembered the beautiful ornaments I used to make. They were made of pearls, lace, and colored glass beads on satin balls. People saw them on my tree and loved them, so I began making them for family and friends. My mother wanted an entire tree of them, so I made them for her. The next year, I looked at different family members’ trees and painfully noticed the ornaments I made weren’t displayed. My mother didn’t use a single one ever again. (Now I should mention that I had trouble with my hands that made making these a painful task.) I was crushed.

As my mind went back to those ornaments and the hurt I experienced at not having them valued, I realized an important truth. I valued those ornaments, not just because they were beautiful, but because I created them. I put time and effort and love into them. And it cost money and physical pain to make them. I gave them trusting they would be valued as well by the recipient.

I then saw how God values me simply because he created me. I was a creation of beauty to him and he gave me to my family for them to value me and care for me as he did. That didn’t happen. I could sense how he must have felt an even greater hurt and disappointment that his valued possession was not cherished and cared for properly. They allowed, and participated in, the marring and damaging of the very essence of me. Just as my ornaments needed to be carefully protected from becoming dirty, damaged, and frayed, I needed to be protected. Unfortunately, I was not a priceless treasure to them, but I am to God.

And now I see that God has been restoring me, replacing missing pieces, cleaning me up, and helping repair the damage that was done. This visual image has meant a lot to me in the healing of my self-esteem.

It is so freeing to know that love from God, from others, and for myself doesn’t depend on what I do. If I should lose my abilities to be a “servant” to others when needed, work, sing, play the piano, write, be involved in others’ healing, if I can never do another thing, I am still a person of value—just like everyone else.

  • reprinted from "Survivors & Friends" newsletter: 1994 Volume III: No.2

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