The false beliefs that we have bought into drive much of our behaviors and attitudes. As I read this lesson for the first time last year, I had one ah-ha moment after another. I learned a great deal about myself and my thought patterns. I hope and pray that you will too.
The false beliefs that we've discussed in lessons 1 and 2 lead to low self-worth, guilt and undeserved responsibility for the abuse. Most often, abuse survivors look to family members to fix the brokenness - especially when our abuser was a family member. Survivors try to resolve the beliefs and feelings through various behaviors such as care-taking, people-pleasing and continued conflict. Any of this sound familiar?
Before I go further with this, I want to focus on how a survivor looks to family members to fix the brokenness. I was stuck in this pattern for a very long time. I longed for my mother to love me. I wanted so badly for her to finally take my side and throw her protective, unconditionally loving arms around me. I wanted to hear the words, "You are right. He abused you and I neglected you and ignored the abuse. I believe you and will do everything in my power now to nurture and protect you. I love you. You are special and so very important to me." I thought that if my mother said those words, that it would change everything. It would make me whole again to know that my mother believed me, cared about me, and loved me as a mother should. As I have talked with other survivors, I've learned that most of us have these deep longings for family relationships. And many of us put ourselves in situations that continue to be hurtful, sometimes even abusive, in hopes that the relationship will one day be loving and healing (only to be hurt more while we wait). As I discussed this with a counselor last year, I commented that it was almost "sick" for survivors to do this to themselves... But the counselor reminded me that WE are not the ones who are sick for having these longings. It is our abusers that are sick. It is our dysfunctional family members who are in the wrong. Our desire to have loving relationships with our families is completely natural and God's design; however, it is sometimes just not possible. God did not design families to be broken, but all too often that is the state of affairs in this world we live in. And the "sins of the father" continue to be paid for by the children.
One way to think about self-esteem is to replace the word "esteem" with "respect". So, SELF-RESPECT it is. Think about your life. Do you treat yourself with respect? Do you demand that others respect you? If the answer is "no", you likely suffer from low self-esteem. For me - the lack of self-respect led to a relationship with an abusive boyfriend. I believed I was utterly unlovable and didn't deserve anything better. Other ways that one can disrespect themselves include promiscuity (and other sexual behavior), drug/alcohol abuse, self-harming, etc. Many victims believe that they do not deserve respect. You might feel dirty, used up, or damaged. These feelings prevent you from protecting yourself, and you wind up being abused again and again. Having self-esteem provides the ability to acknowledge both our strengths and weaknesses and to see ourselves as people with value and meaning. Another way I've heard it is "God esteem". To view ourselves as God views us.
Frequently, victims of sexual abuse struggle with body image issues. They look into the mirror and see an image that they hate. For some, they hate a specific part of their body - a part that was frequently abused. As a young child, I hated my femininity. I prayed that God would change me into a boy, and engaged in every boy'ish activity I could find. I wanted desperately to repel my father. I kept thinking, "If I can become enough like a boy, he will lose interest in me." For many, this thinking continues into adulthood. Many dress in too-big clothes, or have even intentionally gained significant amounts of weight to ward off any unwanted attention. The thing that runs through a victim's mind is, "I don't want to have sex, so it must be my body that is sending these signals. I hate me. I hate my body. I hate everybody."
The following is a list of symptoms of low self-esteem. Write down the ones that you experience.
A constant feeling of worthlessness
Persistent thoughts that you didn't do it right
Broad swings in negative and positive attitudes about yourself
One mistake destroys feelings of accomplishment or success
Over-responsible - feeling that everything is always my fault
Under-responsible - being unable to acknowledge that I was wrong
Difficulty making decisions
You may have noted one or two, or the entire list... Consider sharing what these have been like for you in the comments.
We need to realize that low self-esteem is a mindset, not a state of being. Low self-esteem is an attitude about ourselves; therefore, it can be changed! We are not vain, self-centered, or egotistical when we view ourselves as God views us. We can allow Christ to lead us as we change our mind-set from one of inadequacy to one of competency and fulfillment. He can transform our feelings from helplessness and hopelessness to affirmation and determination, from condemnation and self-hatred to self-affirmation and love.
Guilt / Self-blame
If you have an absolutely awful feeling inside yourself that says you somehow caused the abuse, know that you are not alone, but that IT IS NOT TRUE. Frequently, victims will blame themselves for not preventing or stopping the abuse. Adolescents and children who have been sexually abused rarely have the emotional maturity to deal with what is happening to them. Physical and mental maturation is not reached until late teens. When children are violated, however, the normal maturation process is severely damaged.
Can you identify any guilt or self-blame in your life?
Let's talk for a minute about that last statement, "when children are violated, the normal maturation process is severely damaged". I have heard that in some ways a child stops maturing at the age he/she was abused. As I've talked with other survivors, many have noted that a part of them was "stuck". That they still felt like that child - young, vulnerable, unable to stop it, unable to deal with it, having no control, feeling the EXACT same emotions from years ago. Many times we also view our abusers as we did back then - as our parent, our trusted family friend, our teacher... A person whom we fear because of their abusive behavior, but that we also care about and desire to have a completely different relationship with. As we journey through this recovery process, we are becoming less and less stuck and are beginning to see more clearly the reality of our lives. We are beginning to recognize our brokenness and are placing responsibility on the correct person - the abuser. We are maturing, healing, growing...
In addition to self-blame, survivors experience a deeper feeling that something was terribly wrong with them. If they weren't so messed up, the abuse would never have happened. That feeling is called shame. What child victims of sexual abuse must cope with is incomprehensible. Children lose their rightful identities as loved and valuable human being. They must try to mature in life with a foundation based on confusion and betrayal.
Many factors enter into the healthy development of children. The false beliefs of shame and undeserved blame, established as children grow, devastate their emotional stability as adults. Whether we experienced sexual abuse as children, as adults, or both, we need to let go of the shame and undeserved responsibility.
Have you been shaming yourself? Thinking something along the lines of, "I don't deserve to be happy." or "I'm a freak. I am not worth loving."
Take some time right now to pray about these major consequences of sexual abuse. Tell yourself the truth... If you have low self-esteem - tell yourself, "God loves me and I can love me too." If you feel guilty or are blaming yourself - tell yourself, "Responsibility belongs to the abuser." If you are ashamed - tell yourself, "I am worthy of respect and love."
For me - this lesson was empowering, yet it also grieved me. It laid all my losses out in black and white. I was overwhelmed at the life that someone took away from me and the awful one they gave me to replace it. I had to take some time to look closely at this and deeply grieve all that I'd lost. I realized that it was utterly sad, crushing, heartbreaking... I was less angry and just plain sad that my life is not how it should be. And as sad as I feel about it, I can only imagine how heartbroken God is. From a parent's perspective, I feel that I have a very slight grasp of how He feels. This is not how He designed His children (my parents) to treat their child (me - also His child). So, if God is more grieved than I am (and I firmly believe He is), then I have a lap to crawl up into for comfort. I am not alone - God is with me. Tears are streaming down His face as well.
There is a lovely prayer in the workbook that I would like to close with. It is from the book's authors, Cynthia and James. "God, grant these readers the experience of knowing Your love, Your freedom from undeserved guilt, from self-blame and from shame. May they know that they can love and respect themselves. Help them to believe, to accept, and to feel the truth of Romans 8:1, that there is "now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.