This post is by Alison Howarth, owner of Penrith Counselling.
Alison has been a counsellor for women in domestic violence for over eighteen years. She believes passionately in women living free and joy-filled lives.
Alison has spoken at National and International Conferences about her research into the impacts of domestic violence, and her research articles can be found at Australian Policy Online. She supports and nurtures women with strengths based counselling, narrative therapy and mindfulness based cognitive therapy. Alison is a member of the Australian Counselling Association.
In this article I’m going to explore how the dynamics of an abusive relationship can severely impact a woman’s self-esteem and self-image. While I am aware that men can experience different forms of domestic violence, my work is with female survivors of domestic violence so my writing is gendered to reflect that.
So what is domestic violence? There seems to be a lot of confusion about that, especially amongst the women who are experiencing it. Heartbreakingly, women have said things to me like “Well, he hasn’t put me in hospital, so I don’t think it’s that serious,” or “I don’t think it’s domestic violence because he hasn’t hit me in years.” In fact, an abusive relationship is a relationship with an intense power imbalance and where you feel unsure, helpless, emotionally unsafe, or trapped. An abusive relationship is one in which you are regularly blamed, ridiculed, or made to feel stupid or fat or ugly or (insert shame-word here).
Of course, these feelings and dynamics take time to develop. The beginning of an abusive relationship will start out like any other. Many women wonder why they didn’t realise from the start that it would turn bad. But, unless you are superwoman with psychic abilities, there is usually no way to tell. An abuser will not come with a warning label! No abuser is going to tell you on the first date: “Oh hi, my name is Harry and within about 6 months I’ll be treating you like crap.” You’d run a mile right? It never, ever happens like that. In the beginning everything is roses and moonbeams. And when the abuse does start, it starts with tiny little steps. The first sign of abuse won’t be a black eye or a screaming tirade. It will be something completely excusable like a flattering jealousy, or a seemingly tender need to track your daily whereabouts or monitor your shopping habits.
When the first barbs do begin sliding in, they too will be phrased in such an ambiguous way that it is very difficult to pinpoint, even with the benefit of hindsight, where or when the abuse actually started. This is a story of manipulation, and manipulation is at the heart and centre of abusive relationships. The most manipulative of abusers will use your own fears and doubts against you, and sadly, it is often these fears and doubts which drive the fluctuations of self-esteem. Indeed, one of the first casualties of an abusive relationship is the woman’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth.
So, what are self-esteem and self-image? I guess we all have slightly different definitions. I believe that self-esteem and self-image are linked at fundamental levels. My self-esteem is influenced by, and does influence, my self-image. There is a core level of self-esteem which is my base line but from that base line my self-esteem is a beastie that can fluctuate up and down, sometimes a little and sometimes an awful lot, depending on what is driving the change. These fluctuations are internally driven by my reactions to something going on in my world.
One of the most damaging influences on our self-esteem is our own inner shame voice. This voice is the one that says to us “You aren’t good enough.” It’s the voice that holds us back from being our best person, scares us from striving to reach outside the box, tells us that we won’t succeed so why try? In an abusive relationship the perpetrator is also the inner shame voice made manifest in your world. The message can be seductive, infuriating and helpless making. And always damaging to your self-esteem.
The three things that help shame thrive are secrecy, silence and judgement – and these are the hallmarks of an abusive relationship. The most common emotion of a woman in domestic violence is shame and shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, anxiety and suicide. All of which makes her more vulnerable to the manipulative tactics of the abuser. It is one of the nastiest vicious cycles in the world.
So if your world is dominated by a partner who shames you, ridicules you, makes you question your decisions and capabilities ….. how robust do you think your self-esteem could be? Particularly when the abuse is coming from a person who will later that day, or week, profess love, support and kindness (while sneaking in a little emphasis of your faults and perhaps planting a seed of doubt that no one else ever would want you.) And if you have a vulnerability such as existing trauma, childhood abuse, mental health issues, or problems with substance abuse then the abuser has a ready-made target to aim for. And no matter how many gains you have made in your life in regard to those vulnerabilities he will hurl them at you as further proof of your imperfection and his amazingness in putting up with you at all. The dynamics of the abusive relationship are such that it is in the abuser’s best interest to keep his partner feeling as worthless and powerless as possible.
Feeling of worthlessness and powerlessness are hugely correlated with depression, anxiety and a low self-esteem. Low self-esteem in the context of domestic violence often translates as the woman feeling ugly, stupid, fat, lazy – body-image is one of the favourite targets of abusers. While a woman may know intellectually that she isn’t fat or ugly or stupid, the driver of body-image is emotions, and in an abusive relationship these are under the manipulative control of the abuser. Self-esteem and body-image become drowned in thoughts and emotions of worthlessness. All of which make it even harder to leave the abusive relationship.
However, when a woman has reached the point where she can’t take the manipulation and abuse anymore she will usually leave the relationship. This is an incredibly difficult and brave thing to do because she must fight not only his psychological tactics of fear and intimidation, but also her inner shame voice which has been reinforced and strengthened by him over the span of the relationship. It is as much a victory over self as it is over the abuser. For many women recovery from the abuse is halting and suffers the setbacks of self-doubt, self-anger and fear of retaliation. It isn’t easy to throw off the chains created by years of psychological harm, but please believe me that it can be done.
You have the strength and power to find your own self again, that inner spark that is so unique and special in this world. You can find your own path, your own light. You can embrace life again; the common place and everyday details that are yours to enjoy in freedom.
If you are struggling with any of the concerns mentioned in this article, contact Alison or a therapist in your area who specialises in domestic violence.
Sydney Soul-Centred Psychotherapist, Eating Psychology Specialist + Transformational Life-Coach, Jodie Gale, is a leading specialist in women’s emotional, psychological and spiritual health and well-being.
This past Saturday, I was fortunate enough to see Brené Brown talking live about The Power of Being Enough. She was extremely funny, engaging and as authentic as they come! Her work allows us to be ourselves and ‘live with more meaning through vulnerability’.
The event was organised through an organisation called The Wake Up Project; a community of 15,000+ people celebrating kindness and wisdom in modern life.
– Authenticity is a practice.
– We can choose courage or comfort, we can’t choose both.
– We cannot live in the light without walking through the darkness.
– Shame needs three things to grow: secrecy, silence, and judgment.
– Our willingness to be wholehearted is as great as our willingness to be broken hearted.
– Vulnerability is the birthplace of everything we’re hungry for—joy, faith, love, spirituality
– Unused creativity metastasizes into grief, rage and unhappiness.
– We desperately try to fit in and when there is no connection, we go away from the encounter feeling shame. Just turn up and be seen. Don’t shrink, don’t puff up, just be yourself.
– Always choose belonging over fitting in.
– We are wired in the brain to believe what we see. We file images away and when we are feeling vulnerable, we use these images to beat ourselves to the punch in the hope that it will prepare us for the worst. Nothing will prepare us for tragedy and suffering. We need to soften into joy and love. Wholehearted people have these moments too but instead of dress-rehearsing tragedy, they practise gratitude.
– It’s about owning our story. We don’t need to hustle for our worthiness.
– Hope is the ability to plan it, be it.
– In the absence of love and belonging, is always suffering.
– We are living in scarcity. If we want change, choose gratitude and joy over scarcity.
– The wholehearted practise gratitude. Do tangible things; keep a journal or a gratitude jar
If you haven’t seen it already, check out Brené Brown’s TED talk on the power of vulnerability – it has been viewed by over ten million people world-wide.
Sydney counsellor, life-coach and psychotherapist Jodie Gale, is a leading specialist in women’s emotional, psychological and spiritual health and well-being. She has a private counselling, life-coaching and psychotherapy practice in Manly and Allambie Heights on the Northern Beaches.
As a therapeutic counsellor, soul-centred life-coach and psychotherapist specialising in women’s emotional, psychological and spiritual health and well-being – there are many books that I recommend over and over again. Many are listed in my bookstore and on my Pinterest page but here are my top 10 recommendations to help women find change as well as adding depth and meaning to their lives.
by Brené Brown
Having taken part in The Gifts of Imperfection Art Journaling Course with Brené Brown – this is my new favourite go-to book for women. Her research focuses on shame, vulnerability, authenticity and belonging. If you have a relentless inner perfectionist and never quite feel enough – this book is for you! You will come away chanting, ‘I’m imperfect and I’m enough. Brené is a wonderful storyteller and that makes this an easy read.
by Dr Christinane Northrup
“By the wisdom of the body I mean that we must learn to trust that the symptoms in the body are often the only way that the soul can get our attention.”
This is the ultimate bible for women’s health. It covers topics such as the body, menstruation, infertility, motherhood, menopause, sexuality, intuition, wisdom and self-nourishment. Dr Northrup takes a holistic approach towards healing physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual concerns.
by Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estés
This deep, soulful and inner life enhancing book has been described as ‘vitamins for the soul’, ‘a gift of profound insight’, ‘fertile and life-giving’, ‘a bible for women interested in doing deep work’.
Jungian analyst, Dr Estés uses intercultural myths, dream symbols, fairy tales and stories, to help women reconnect with the fierce, wild woman and instinctual self within.
by Robin Norwood
Along with ‘Codependent No More’ by Melody Beattie, this is one of my most recommended books to women who suffer with a fear of abandonment, controlling behaviours, co-dependency, love addiction and relationship problems such as choosing unavailable or abusive men.
by Geneen Roth
Geneen Roth suggests that food, diet and weight related issues are an attempt to fix something that has never been broken. We are already good and whole; our journey is to awaken to our goodness and wholeness. She writes,
“It’s never been true, not anywhere at any time, that the value of a soul, of a human spirit, is dependent on a number on a scale. We are unrepeatable beings of light and space and water who need these physical vehicles to get around. When we start defining ourselves by that which can be measured or weighed, something deep within us rebels…We don’t want to EAT hot fudge sundaes as much as we want our lives to BE hot fudge sundaes. We want to come home to ourselves.”
by Sarah Napthali
Along with ‘Attachment Focused Parenting’ by Daniel Hughes – this book is my bible for parenting in a calm and peaceful way. Napthali applies Buddhist teachings such as mindfulness, presence, acceptance and compassion to the everyday challenges and stresses of raising children. Rather than focusing on the child’s behaviour, this book focuses on the inner self of the mother.
by Rachel Clyne
‘What matters is that we stop hating ourselves; when we do so what has to replace it is Love!’
At the heart of addiction, food related issues, depression and other modern day concerns – working to increase self-esteem and self-worth is always at the core of the healing process. Psychosynthesis psychotherapist Rachel Clyne gives very practical suggestions in each chapter for developing a healthier and more loving sense of self.
by Dr Christopher K. Germer
This is one of the best books out there for healing a toxic, harsh, punitive and critical inner voice. With practical mindfulness techniques for living in the present moment, this book teaches us how to nourish the spirit, reconnect and show kindness, compassion and empathy towards ourselves. Germer shows us that through self-compassion, we can heal pain and suffering.
by Stephanie Sorrell
This book is rigorously researched and takes a well-balanced view. Psychosynthesis practitioner Stephanie Sorrell explores indepth – the medical, psychological and spiritual aspects of depression. She writes poetically about suffering and depression as a ‘Dark Night of the Soul’. Sorrell shows us that it is possible to find value, meaning and purpose out of our suffering.
by Thomas Moore
This life affirming and soothing read illustrates how to add spirituality, depth, and meaning to modern-day life by nurturing the soul. Moore uses myths, stories and dreams to help us understand everyday concerns such as depression, anxiety, death, low self-worth, envy and narcissistic wounding.
by Dr Viktor E. Frankl
‘If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”
This moving book was named one of the 10 most influential books in America. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl spent time in four Nazi death camps. He survived his pregnant wife, parents and brother. Man’s search for meaning is based on Frankl’s own life experience as well as those he worked with in private practice. His ultimate message is that we cannot avoid all suffering in life but we can choose how we respond to it and ultimately, we can find meaning and purpose in it.
Jodie Gale is a leading specialist in women’s emotional, psychological and spiritual health and well-being. She is a therapeutic counsellor, life-coach and psychotherapist practising in Manly and Allambie Heights on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, Australia.
54% of women would rather be hit by a truck than be fat.
81% of 10 year old girls fear being fat.
10 million women in the US are suffering with anorexia and bulimia. This is more than with breast cancer.
1 in 3 Australian females cite body image as their major concern (Mission Australia Youth Survey, 2010).
I remember the first time I fat talked – I was 5. For the school photo, I stood next to the ‘fat’ boy so that no-one would notice how fat I was. The next fat talk etched in my memory was at 8 when I put a t-shirt on to go swimming in our backyard pool – I didn’t want anyone to see my fat body. I wasn’t even fat. On both occasions, I was a normal weighted young girl. 20 years of food issues, yo-yo dieting and body/self-hatred followed.
I was fortunate enough at 27 to find a psychotherapist who specialised in disordered eating and body image issues. Over time, I worked through my chronic low self-worth and self-loathing. It was a long journey back to health and well-being. It was also the start of my journey to become a psychotherapist and what Jung called, a ‘wounded healer’. Through my own experience, I now help women transform the way they feel and think about body and self.
Nowadays, I practise being compassionate and kind to myself. I no longer excessively exercise to burn calories as I did for most of my 20s and 30s. Rather, I swim regularly because I enjoy being held by the water. I have redirected my focus from a torturous longing to be skinny to being healthy and accepting of every size.
Recently I went Christmas shopping online for a doll for my 3 year old daughter. I felt overwhelmed with fear as I searched for one that did not have insect sized legs and a size 0 waist. Although I don’t subscribe to measuring BMIs, from a medical perspective – if Barbie were a human being, her BMI would be 16.24 and would therefore fit the weight criteria for medically diagnosed anorexia.
Internalized images from children’s dolls and the media are in no way solely responsible for society’s eating and body image issues. But…they do make up part of our critical inner voice. What hope do women and girls have when the majority of dolls on the market and the images we are bombarded with, mirror such distorted and unhealthy body sizes. Fat talk reinforces these unrealistic beauty ideals.
Fat talking to ourselves and with friends and family doesn’t just affect women and girls suffering with eating disorders. Unfortunately, fat talk has become a part of our everyday lives. Due to the widespread use of technology, even third world countries are no longer immune.
If we are stuck in fat talk, it frequently starts on waking as we look in the mirror and get ready for the day. The mirror and/or the scales become a harsh critic that determines what kind of day we will have. A single pound can start a tirade of punitive, self-abuse that can torment us until the next weigh in when hopefully we have lost it again.
The crazy thing is, ‘I am fat’ cannot even be; Roberto Assagioli suggests that this is psychologically, grammatically incorrect. ‘I’ (self) cannot be fat! The ‘I’ is the essence of who we are. At the core – we are whole, unbroken, beauty, love and ultimately, a spark of the Divine (or nature, goodness, oneness if that fits better for you!). Our work is to realise this.
If you are willing, close your eyes and imagine yourself standing with a young child, perhaps 7 or 8 years old. Now say to her in your best fat talk tone,
‘You are fat’
‘You are disgusting’
‘You can’t wear that’
‘No you can’t go to the party because you look too fat’
How do you feel when you talk to the child in this way? You wouldn’t dare say this to a child. Yet…every time you fat talk to yourself, you are being self-critical and hard on yourself. Often what follows is a binge, a starvation diet or excessive exercise to soothe or punish yourself even further.
Now try this version in a loving and compassionate tone,
‘I love and accept you just as you are’
‘You have so many wonderful qualities’
‘Your body is sacred and you keep it in balance’
‘What does your body need right now – sleep, food, to dance, a swim?’
Now how do you feel? Can you feel the difference? If not, keep practising, it takes some time to shift a strong inner critical voice.
Fat talk free week was conceived by Tri Delta. Check out their 2012 youtube clip about Fat Talk Free Week.
Following are some suggestions to help you on your journey. Start with small steps…
Stop Dieting & Weighing
Since writing this article yesterday, I have just seen this article via the Butterfly Foundation’s FB page about realistic dolls for children
‘MOVE over Barbie, a new range of fashion dolls has been launched in Australia to address growing concerns about the impact on young girls of negative body image issues associated with dolls such as Barbie, Bratz and Monster High.
Unlike her now 53-year-old counterpart Barbie, the new Lottie doll has a childlike form, modelled on the average nine-year-old girl’s body shape and has practical clothes, realistic hair and healthy outdoor hobbies.’
Read more: http://bit.ly/Vff4UM
Jodie is a leading specialist in women’s emotional, psychological and spiritual health and wellbeing. She has a wealth of personal and professional experience and knowledge in the field of addiction and eating disorders. Her experience includes a Master’s thesis on eating disorders titled ‘Call off the Search: Eating Disorders a Symptom of Psychospiritual Crisis’, post graduate training in addiction and ‘women’s business’, work experience in the ‘Eating Disorder Unit’ at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London, the Eating Disorders Foundation (now part of The Butterfly Foundation) and Women’s Health NSW. She is an ‘approved service provider’ for South Pacific Private Addiction, Eating and Mood Disorder Treatment Centre and works in private practice on the Northern Beaches of Sydney.