Leaving the Abusive Relationship

Part 2 of 4: I had no self-esteem

by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.

Copyright 2017

When enormous grief hit me a week or so after I threw out my abusive husband, the only thing I wanted was to put the relationship back together and stop the onslaught of deep grief. I had no idea that the level of anguish had to do with all the unresolved losses of my life.

I crumpled in the chair of my new therapist’s office. I was sobbing and recounting how wrong I was to throw out a man who had assaulted me and terrorized my children and my dog. I was shaking and crying. She let me go on and on and on.  When I finished my hysterical spiel, she looked at me and said, calmly, “What’s wrong with your face?”


I had horrific cystic acne. I had not had a professional haircut in years and my hair fell, stringy and unkempt, into my face. My eyes were sunken from nights of crying and not sleeping. I had lost weight rapidly since he left and my second-hand coat was a few sizes too big for me.

I wanted to put my marriage back together and she was worried about my face.  WHO CARED ABOUT MY FACE? Not. Me.

I was with her for a few years and she was not one to mince or couch words. But that day, when I hardly knew her, she softly and calmly explained said that what sat before her was a woman with no self-esteem. Not LOW self-esteem, but NO self-esteem. Before she even thought about talking about my marriage, she insisted in talking about me. Years before, maybe even just months before, I may have walked out on this conversation. There is a saying when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.  Maybe I was finally ready.

I believe that for as many people — friends, families, therapists — who had tried to reach me prior, I was finally at the bottom. And ready to listen.  

I didn’t know why I had finally had enough. Perhaps it was from being in abusive relationships since the age of 12 and now that I had turned 30, it was way too long. Perhaps it was a family member who had died at the hands of an abuser after serial abusive relationships. I don’t know what it was, but I did the one thing I had refused to do prior, I listened to something I had no interest in listening to. I listened to someone who was isolating me and my issues from my relationships. It was a true first for me.

My therapist said that the abuser will get you, but first he will get you alone. And once they get you alone, they wear you down.  They insult you and criticize you and make you believe that down is up and down is up. I was “gaslighted” for years.

Because I was so insecure about my rapidly deteriorating looks, I stayed home more and more. I was a professional, making more money than he did, yet I was not allowed to spend money on clothes.  I would sneak a few dollars a week out of the grocery money to buy work clothes and leave them at the office. I was highly embarrassed by the old thrift store frocks I was wearing as a young woman in my 20s. 

Maybe some part of me was truly done. I listened to her. People with high self-esteem are not typically abuse victims. It takes constant belittling, put-downs and criticism to wear you down. Even when you do well, it receives no recognition or worse, you hear how it means nothing. I couldn’t remember, in my entire marriage, any time when my husband gave me a compliment.  The family I was raised in was equally critical, so I was very comfortable with never getting credit for anything.  I was very comfortable with everything being my fault.  Even my looks, which seemed to be more horrifying by the day, were obviously my fault. I see photos of myself at this time and I look older than I did 10 years later when I was approaching 40.  

My therapist approached me with a 3-prong method of raising my self-esteem. First came the work to reverse the physical issues. She insisted I get a professional haircut complete with highlights. She insisted I buy NEW clothes in the proper size and she insisted I see a dermatologist. All the while I had to tell myself each and every day that I deserved it.

She told me that on a plane they tell you that if you’re traveling with a small child, put your oxygen mask on first and then tend to the child. She said it was the same thing now. I had to tend to myself first before I could help my children. She insisted that I put myself first so that I would be in a position to help my children who truly needed me. 

She insisted I start journaling and I begin my journal in the morning and end it at night with “I deserve good things in my life.”  It was to become a full blown mantra of mine for the next few years. 

I found a sure-fire way to add powerful affirmations a while later when I started working with Lou Tice of the Pacific Institute, but even in the beginning my therapist insisted that my negative self-talk stop and only good and loving self-talk be in its place. I had to get all the negative people and all the blame and criticism out of my head.

I had to become okay with making mistakes which I never was before. I used to do everything possible to never make a mistake and to try to move mountains. I never received any credit for it. My therapist said, “You’re not responsible for running the universe. It’s a hard job and you’re grossly underpaid.”  It made me laugh but helped me to realize that not everything was my fault, I was not responsible for everything and it was OKAY to make a mistake.

Within 6 months I was ready to say, “Enough.”  When my ex came over my house and was angry because I hadn’t said hello to him, he smacked me in the face. That was it. I filed for a restraining order.  At the trial to make it permanent, he tried everything in the book to intimidate me. I refused to be intimidated. I stood up on the stand and said, “No one has the right to put their hands on me. It stops HERE.” 

I stood there looking pretty in pink. My skin was clear. I had my hair recently layered and highlighted. I had a touch of makeup and small pearl earrings. My new dress fit perfectly and I looked about 10 years younger than I had the day I first fell into my therapist’s office. I was nervous about the show-down, but extremely secure in how I looked and committed to my stance. No one had the right to put their hands on me.

From that day to this one, no one has. No one has called me a name or belittled me. 

It had to do with raising my self-esteem and valuing myself. I sent a message to the world that I was worth something.  The more I valued myself, the more others valued me.

Abusers stayed away from me. I demanded to be treated right and walked away whenever someone wanted me to settle for less.

Abuse wears you down physically, mentally and emotionally. When you have no self-esteem or low self-esteem, you don’t believe you deserve anything better. If you have no self-esteem, you set yourself to be a victim of abuse.

When leaving an abusive relationship, the most important thing is to raise your self-esteem and learn that you are a worthwhile person deserving of loving treatment. 

The abuser will try to convince you otherwise.  Don’t let them. 

It is so important, when leaving the abusive relationship, that you tell yourself each and every day how valuable you are. You are worth more than the relationships you have been in. No one has the right to abuse another. So many of us fall victim to those who think it’s okay because we haven’t known differently.  My ex told me, and I believed, that my abuse was my fault. My abusive mother had said the same thing. It’s a line of thinking that keeps you stuck in a terrible pattern of abuse. No one has the right to put their hands on you for ANY reason. 

Lift yourself up each and every day and tell yourself that you are worthwhile. Do your affirmations each day and continue to affirm that no one has the right to put their hands on you.

Abusers will suddenly back away from the abuse and show “abuser’s remorse” but it’s temporary and fleeting and only designed to make you stay. It’s a complete lie that the abuser will change.  And then when the abuser abuses again, it will – once again – be your own damn fault.  Don’t keep falling for this sick cycle that keeps you powerless.

It’s time to rise up and say NO MORE. It’s time to rise up and say, “I deserve better.” 

Because you do.

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