How to Overcome Low Self Esteem as an Abuse Survivor

Three Methods:Building a Social Support NetworkRebuilding Your Self-IdentityRebuilding Your Self-Esteem and Self-Worth

When you are a survivor of any kind of abuse, it is very common to internalize negative thoughts about yourself. You may experience feelings of helplessness, low self-worth, shame, guilt, and fear. Even after the immediate danger or trauma is over, you may continue to experience these feelings, especially low self-esteem, since abusive situations eat away at your self-worth.[1] Surviving abuse and rebuilding your self-esteem is a not an easy journey, but it can be done.

Method 1
Building a Social Support Network

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    Seek out friends and family. Surround yourself with people that make you feel safe and cared for; hang out with friends that make you laugh and feel good. Find those individuals who can be your cheerleaders when you need them to be. In general, being around other people who make you happy can have a positive effect on how you feel about yourself and how you cope with your situation.[2] Research has consistently shown a positive relationship between perceived social support and self-esteem.[3][4]
    • At first you may find it difficult to tell your close friends or family about what has happened to you. You might think that you're burdening them by telling them or that they'll judge or blame you. While these are totally normal feelings to have, you'll find actually find most people jump to help and support you however they can and that they will be glad you confided in them. and in fact, preparing to tell people about your chronic illness is usually harder than actually telling them.
    • Be sure to set boundaries and tell your friends and family what you need and don't need as you rebuild yourself and your life. Having a concrete support system that is clear and organized will help aid in the process of healing.
    • Allow your support group to care for you and love you. Remember that you are worthy of their support, kindness, and love, so let all those good things in.
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    Join a support group. Consider joining a support group made up of people who have also experienced abusive situations. Talking to people who have or are currently facing similar challenges can help you cope with your own struggles. Support groups can ease loneliness and feelings of isolation, provide perspective, help you manage your healing journey with advice and support offered by other people who can relate to your situation.[5]
    • If you feel anxiety about having to talk to someone face-to-face, you can also stay connected with family and friends or meet new people via social media, video chats, and email.[6]
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    Consult a mental health professional. Embarking on the healing journey from abuse to self-confidence can be very challenging and bring up difficult memories and emotions. If the abuse you have experienced has left you feeling like you cannot cope effectively, it is a good idea to seek professional help. Therapy has been shown to have a significant effect on raising self-esteem and quality of life. Allowing yourself to let someone else help you is another way to become your own protector and showing yourself that you will care for and protect yourself. A therapist can help you develop useful strategies to improve your self-image.[7][8]
    • If your find yourself using alcohol or drugs to cope with and escape from your pain or you notice yourself having thoughts about hurting yourself, you should consult a doctor or mental health professional immediately. Give yourself the chance to get the help you deserve.
    • Be aware as well that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is also common for people who have survived abuse. PTSD is the body’s heightened response to trauma that doesn’t stop even after the trauma is over. Symptoms of PTSD include nightmares, sleeping problems, hypervigilance, feelings of being disconnected or disassociated, and flashbacks or experiences of reliving the trauma. If you notice any of these symptoms, make sure to get help sooner, rather than later.[9]

Method 2
Rebuilding Your Self-Identity

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    Celebrate your survival. This may be difficult to do but the first step to rebuilding your identity and self-esteem is to celebrate that you made it, that you survived. Celebrate the fact that although you went through something extremely painful, you have come out the other side with endless possibilities, both within yourself and the life you choose to create. The dismantling and rebuilding of identity is extraordinarily challenging and takes courage, perseverance, and strength, so celebrate your bravery in confronting your past experience and making changes for the better.[10]
    • Celebrating yourself is a wonderful way to boost your self-esteem and feel empowered. Be proud of yourself for making it through. Feel your power, and if it is still difficult to feel your power, celebrate the fact that it is there, regardless. Celebrate getting back to who you really are, celebrate that person that never deserved what happened to them, and celebrate that the fact that you are own protector and that you have the power to treat yourself with love and keep yourself safe.
    • You can celebrate in any number of ways, from treating yourself to your favorite dessert to making a card that you dedicate to yourself and your strength. You could also make a collage that reminds you of all of your positive, brave, and strong qualities.
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    Rediscover yourself. Try to figure out your core identity, which is a set of beliefs that you have about yourself based on your life experiences. The trauma that results from abusive situations can break down positive feelings of self-esteem by causing you to feel unworthy, helpless, ashamed, and constantly at risk and in danger.[11] Your abuser(s) may have whittled away at your self-esteem through hurt, pain, anger, and violence, but you have the power to challenge these negative messages and reconstruct a positive and healthy self-identity.
    • To reconnect with yourself, try writing in a journal. Research has found journaling to be a great way to become more self-aware and reflective. In particular, writing helps you turn your cognitive focus inwards, on yourself and your day-to-day life. It's also a helpful strategy that can help you cope with negative emotions and mental conditions like depression. Try journaling every single day, even for 10-20 minutes. Note that the most important part of the writing is not the form it takes but the act of doing it.[12]
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    Attempt empathy with yourself. Think of someone you love, whether it is a child, a family member, a dear friend, or anyone that you respect and love. Think of all the reasons that person deserves safety, love, and care. Ask yourself, does this person I love deserve to be hurt? No. Well, then why do I feel that I deserve to be hurt and that I deserve what happened to me and that I am responsible for it to some degree? Begin to put the human back in yourself. Begin to see yourself as just as valid and worthy as those you love.[13]
    • Showing yourself some empathy and humanity can be very helpful in identifying some of the harmful beliefs we hold about ourselves that we may not even be aware of. You may be surprised to find how much negativity you are holding on to from your experiences of being abused. Once you are aware, you can begin the process of rebuilding your self-worth and changing your perspective on your past experiences of abuse.
    • Be patient with yourself as well. After all, you wouldn't tell a best friend who'd been through a similar situation to just "get over it." Show yourself understanding.[14]
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    Embrace acceptance. Perfection is an artificial notion created and proliferated by society and the media and it does a great disservice to most of us by suggesting that perfection IS attainable and the problem is simply that we're not up to snuff. Understanding that you are not perfect and are not expected to be perfect. Honoring that your imperfections are just as much a part of you as everything else is also essential to rebuilding your self-esteem. Accepting yourself just as you are is an important step in healing and learning feel self worth.[15]
    • You will have to accept that you cannot change the past or go back in time. You have to accept yourself as you are today, right now.
    • Acceptance involves acknowledging difficulty and showing awareness that you are able to withstand painful feelings in the present moment. For example, say, "I know I feel bad now, but I can accept it because I know emotions come and go, and I won't feel this way forever. I can take positive action to resolve my feelings."

Method 3
Rebuilding Your Self-Esteem and Self-Worth

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    Make yourself feel safe. You must become your own protector, and you have to prove to yourself that you will and can make choices within your control to allow yourself to feel safe.[16]
    • Begin to reconnect with what feels safe to you. How do you feel safe in your home? Who are the people in your life who make you feel safe? What are things you do that make you feel safe? This can even simple things like curling up with your favorite blanket, or familiar movies that comfort you, cuddling with your pet or places like the library, a museum or a favorite coffee shop?
    • You have the power to shape your life around safety, and once you start to intentionally create safety in your life, it will be easier to ingrain messages of healthy self esteem into your identity.
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    Be assertive. Survivors of abuse often have poor boundaries when it comes to their personal and professional lives. If you are a survivor, it can be difficult to learn to stand up for yourself. However, you deserve to have your needs met in a healthy, safe way just like every other human being. Begin to tune in to the new wants and needs of your self-esteem and nurture yourself as you let go of the negative thoughts that have been ingrained in you. For example, become comfortable saying "no" if someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do. Give yourself permission to be assertive and make your opinion, wants, and desires known.[17]
    • Some research has shown that assertiveness training can have positive implications for the survivors of some types of abuse and assault. Acting assertively can also help you feel better about yourself and heighten your self confidence.[18][19]
    • Try reading books about co-dependency to get a feel of what healthy boundaries feel like. Relationships should be mutually reinforcing and beneficial, not purely "give" on one side and "take" on the others. Take time for yourself to do whatever YOU want to do, like watch a movie or going to your favorite restaurant.
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    Focus on the positive. Focus on all of your accomplishments and achievements. You'll see that you have lots to be proud of and that you offer real value to the world and to yourself.[20][21]
    • Consider writing down your achievements, positive attributes or things you value about yourself, and the ways in which you have helped others. You can write in a freestyle manner or create a list of different categories. See this exercise as never-ending; always add to the list as you do new things, such as graduate from school, rescue a puppy, or win an award. Also draw attention to things that make you happy with yourself; maybe you like that you are goal-directed or are good at making people laugh.[22]
    • Return to your list whenever you have doubts or feel that you are not measuring up. Recalling all of the things that you have done and continue to do will help you build a more positive self-image. This is an exercise in retraining your thought patterns and it will not happen overnight.[23]
    • Remind yourself that you are worthy of love regardless of your positive attributes, successes, and achievements. All of these things are fantastic, and you should be proud, but even if these things faded away, you would still be worthy of love because of who you are as a person. Your abuser’s mistreatment of you does not dictate your value.
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    Combat negative thoughts. You will have to take a firm stance in combating negative thoughts. One of the most powerful statements to tell yourself is "I will not continue the legacy of my abuser."[24] This sentence gives the power back to you. It enables you to make the decision to move forward even though you have been hurt and abused. It takes the power away from your abuser. Make this one of your mantras. Use that pledge like your shield and sword against negative thoughts that reduce your self-esteem.
    • For example, when negative thoughts arise, you can say “I will not continue the legacy of my abuser” either softly to yourself or in your head. You could also write down the statement on a piece of paper that you keep in your wallet or purse. You deserve to live a free and healthy life of your own choosing. You have survived and no one can take that away from you.
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    Actively replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts. Transforming the negative things you think about yourself into positives is one method to fight back against negativity. Confronting and challenging your negative belief patterns as a survivor of abuse is a key step in regaining your power and self esteem. Once you can dispute the messages of abuse that you have internalized, you can begin to free yourself from endless cycle of feeling helpless.[25]
    • For example, if you tell yourself you are ugly, you could tell yourself that you look nice today. If you tell yourself you never do anything right, tell yourself that you do lots of things right and give some specific examples. Instead of focusing on how stupid you are because you forgot your phone/keys/wallet, tell yourself that you're just a normal person who makes mistakes. Consider doing this exercise in a journal to keep track of your positive thoughts. Read them before you go to bed and when you get up.
    • Alternatively, make signs on post-it notes with these positive statements and put them where you can see them, such as on the bathroom mirror. This can help reinforce these statements and ingrain them in your mind. Over time, the positive thoughts will supplant the negative ones.
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    Take care of yourself. Some of us feel so bad about ourselves, particularly after experiencing a trauma, that we think it's pointless to put time and effort into caring for ourselves. Ultimately, taking care of yourself can also help improve your self-esteem. The healthier you are in mind and body, the better the possibility that you will be satisfied with yourself. Make healthy changes to your life, like diet and exercise.
    • Research has shown that exercise can give a real boost to self-esteem. This is because exercise causes the body to release the "happy chemicals" called endorphins. This feeling of euphoria can be accompanied by increased positivity and energy. Try to get up to at least 30 minutes of vigorous exercise at least three times a week. At the very least, set aside time for a brisk walk every day.[26][27]
    • Try to incorporate more fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet. Eat at least three meals a day that are based on healthy and nutrient-rich foods, such as whole grains, poultry and fish, and fresh vegetables to keep yourself energized and nourished.[28]
    • Taking care of yourself can help to remind your body and mind that you are in charge, that you are taking care of yourself, and that you are treating yourself the way you deserve.
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    Do things you enjoy. Set aside time to do something that makes you happy every day, whether that means cooking, reading, exercising, gardening, or spending an hour just talking on the phone with a friend.[29]
    • Experiment with new activities; you might learn about talents or skills you didn't know you possessed. Maybe you take up running track and discover that you are really good at long-distance running, something you'd never thought of before. This can help increase your self-esteem.[30]
    • Consider taking up artistic activities such as painting, music, poetry, and dance. Artistic endeavors often help people learn how to express themselves and attain a sense of 'mastery' of a subject or skill. Lots of community sentences offer free or reasonably-priced classes.
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    Help others and give back. Consider "paying it forward" and helping other people. There is significant research indicating that people who actively help others or volunteer have higher self-esteem and feel happier than those who do not. As an added bonus, not only will you be happier, but someone else might also be as well.[31][32]
    • There are so many ways to get involved with others and make a real difference. Consider volunteering at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Offer to coach a children's sports team or your local chapter of girl guides. Volunteer at your local animal shelter or other non-profit organization.
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    Engage in relaxation techniques. Deep breathing relaxes the mind and body. If you begin to feel scared or anxious, place your hands on your belly, plant your feet firmly on the floor and breath all the way down to through your belly to your feet. Imagine your breath to be like a wave coursing through your body. Do this ten times.
    • As you breathe, remind yourself you are safe. Imagine someone, something, or even a place that makes you feel safe. This will be your "safe place" that you can go to when a flashback or memory floods your brain. Imagine that safety, that feeling of relaxation and warmth all around you.
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    Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is a technique that helps you observe your emotions without heightened emotions, like judgement or shame. The principle of mindfulness is that you need to acknowledge and experience all of your emotions - even the negative ones - before you can let them go. Mindfulness is not easy because it means becoming aware of your negative self-talk. However, the task is to acknowledge and recognize those negative thoughts without getting caught up in or giving power to them Research shows that mindfulness-based therapy can facilitate self-acceptance.[33]
    • Try to find a quiet space to practice mindfulness. Sit in a relaxed position and focus on your breathing. Count the inhales and exhales. Your mind will wander. Let it. Take note of what you are feeling. Don't judge it; just be aware of it.[34]
    • By acknowledging but de-centering your thoughts and not letting them take over, you are learning how to cope with negative feelings without actually trying to change them. In other words, you are changing your relationship to your thoughts and feelings. Some people have found that in doing this, eventually the content of their thoughts and emotions changes (for the better) too.[35]
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    Be kind to yourself. Be generous with yourself as you navigate your way through changing your perspective on who you are and boosting your self-esteem. Research has suggested that self-compassion has numerous benefits, including mental well-being, increase life satisfaction, and decreased self-criticism, among others. The road to transformation, particularly after a trauma, is not a straight, perfect path. You will have good days and bad days. Remember that doing your best does not mean being perfect, feeling perfect, or acting perfectly. Doing your best means doing the best you can in context of how you are feeling in that moment.[36]
    • Healing is a process that has ups and downs. If you are having a difficult moment or day, then acknowledge it without shame or guilt. Engage in some gentle self-care. Give yourself a break, lay on the couch, watch TV or read a book, rest your body and mind by taking a soothing bath, doing gentle stretching or yoga, getting extra sleep, and nurturing yourself.
    • Come up with a mantra or habit that you can draw on when you feel an emotional spiral about to happen. Try putting your hand on your heart and saying, "May I be safe and kind to myself. May I have ease of both mind and heart."


  • Remember that rebuilding your self-esteem after an abusive experience can take time. You'll have to work on it daily, just as you would have to rehabilitate your body slowly after an injury. Rebuilding confidence is a process and journey, not a just something you achieve.[37]

Sources and Citations

  1. The PTSD Workbook, 2nd Edition, M.B. Williams, Soili Poijula, 2013.
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Article Info

Categories: Assertiveness & Self Esteem | Abuse