Child abuse and its effects on self-love and self-esteem: Observations by a Psychotherapist

Child abuse and its effects on self-love and self-esteem: Observations by a Psychotherapist

This paper on child abuse and its effects serves as a window to the observations I have made while providing support to adult victims of child abuse over a number of years in my capacity as a psychotherapist.

From the view of the therapist’s chair, the legacy of child abuse leaves broken and / or dysfunctional attachment bonds which often result in the ‘You’re ok, I’m not ok’, way of functioning in the world.  In some sense, this ‘you are better than me’ complex can be the foundation for abusive adult relationships, especially with regard to intimate partners. It is this view, (be it conscious or unconscious) of others as being ‘superior’, that is endemic of a far deeper-rooted issue.

While this can be an endearing quality, by the time these individuals get to therapy, they have placed such a high priority on fulfilling the needs of others, that the pendulum of giving has swung way too far. As a result, they feel incredibly let down, frustrated, used and manipulated, which consequently feeds into a deep sense of isolation and at times, despair.

Over the years, I have seen the ‘You’re ok, I’m not ok’, manifest itself with child abuse victims from varied classes, cultures and professional backgrounds. From high achievers to unskilled workers and a variety in between, the legacy of child abuse with my adult clients, by and large, tends to be the same, a strong sense of unworthiness.  By the time these individuals come to therapy, their sense of unworthiness is well-rooted, and functioning, to greater and lesser degrees in many aspects of their lives. Child abuse and its effects can be far-reaching.

Steely armour

In addition, I have also witnessed that some victims of child abuse have a steely armour, an image that is strong, resilient and does not need anybody.  Over time, as our therapeutic relationship deepens, a precious fragility unfolds allowing me to be privy to the ‘chinks’ in their armour, and I, therefore, become curious about the legacy of the trauma that they suffered in their formative, most vulnerable years.  I begin to notice patterns and start to detect how the impact of child abuse shapes their thinking, behaviour and experiences in the present day.

Interestingly, it is not always incidences of abuse that brings individuals to therapy. At times, it becomes apparent that there was a significant violation in a client’s timeline, and it is usually my curiosity that paves the way for a deeper exploration. All too often, I find that victims of child abuse will make throwaway comments or minimisation statements about their most traumatic abusive experiences. I have to be alert to the reaction and feelings of sadness within me; this is my only gauge and gives me a sense of the significance of their wounds.  Often, victims of child abuse do not feel their pain, they have little empathy towards themselves and have not grieved for their deep-rooted sadness. It is at times like this that I become acutely aware of how harsh child abuse victims can be to themselves.  Time and time again I have witnessed a deep sense that they consider themselves as unworthy.

I am completely mindful and respectful that exploring the trauma is a place where child abuse victims rarely want to go. Understandably, they do not want to re-experience the pain. However, at an intuitive level, they seem to know that their incubated trauma, the nub of their pain, needs to be explored and ‘lanced’ for true healing to take place. We have to go back, in order to go forward, because ultimately, it is the hope of a better tomorrow that has brought them to my door. This is why it is so important, in fact crucial, that I stay at my client’s pace and be a companion on a delicate, intimate journey.

A deep sense of ‘unworthiness’

Time and time again, when it comes to child abuse and its effects on people, I have witnessed that this deep sense of ‘unworthiness’ manifests itself most significantly in the personal relationships of child abuse victims. Feelings of unworthiness is a factor that paves the way for a dynamic where abuse victims unconsciously become to others, what they have needed the most – a loyal, trustworthy, dependable, reliable, protective, companion. Paradoxically, the quality that they abundantly, freely, willingly give away to others, is the very same qualities that they need to give to themselves. Based on my observations, I have noticed that child abuse victims have a high tolerance for unkindness, a well-oiled way of justifying wrongdoings and a need to be ‘all things’ to significant others. In sum, this is a disastrous recipe for burn out and can lead to depression, anxiety and despair.

The irony of it all is that what is given away so abundantly – empathy, compassion, tolerance and kindness – is not permitted for themselves. A best friend to many, but a lack of kindness to themselves. Repeatedly, I witness child abuse victims regarded themselves as unworthy.

Self-compassion, self-love and self-regard

As a therapist to victims of child abuse I encounter a strong force field when it comes to self-compassion, self-love and self-regard. Such clients often belittle their triumphs, cringe at praise and physically wince when I acknowledge their accolades. Here in the safeness of the therapeutic space, I go toe to toe, with the strength of their greatest of adversaries; their harsh inner critic and the severity of its cruelness. Ultimately, it is these four components that are at interplay in the lives of child abuse victims:

  • A harsh inner critic
  • A sense of unworthiness
  • A need to be ‘all things to significant others’
  • A lack of self-regard

Through the process of therapy, the ways in which the above-mentioned qualities function, hurt and impede the lives of my clients is revealed. As this insight and understanding is absorbed I have been privileged to witness dynamic change within the lives of child abuse victims as they grow to feel that they are a person of worth; worthy of self-compassion, self-protection, self-regard and ultimately self-love.  It is a wonderful healing journey to witness and a true honour to be such a trusted companion.

Does this resonate with you? Is there something you would like to work through? Would you like to discuss child abuse and its effects in more detail. Get in touch by booking a free 15-minute exploration call with me or browse and enrol in one of my events and workshops

Keeley Taverner is a psychotherapist who is a companion to people taking steps to understand and overcome life dilemmas. If you have been inspired by this article, please feel free to contact Keeley or arrange a no-fee fact-finding call.

If you would like to interview Keeley for your publications, please do get in touch. Keeley has recently been featured on the BBC, BBC 1Xtra, The Metro, Daily Express, Therapy Today, Brunel Link magazine and on Radio 1. Keeley is happy to be on radio, TV, podcasts and similar.

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