Domestic violence and abuse can take many forms. On the surface, acts like physical abuse, emotional manipulation, and excessive jealousy seem to be very different things. When we dig deeper, however, we often find there’s one key factor driving all of this abusive behavior: low self-esteem.
To understand why, we’re going to look at four people’s stories as they go beneath the surface to discover the root cause of their actions:
- Alex jealously obsesses over his girlfriend’s movements and who she hangs out with. He scrolls through her phone and even shows up to “check on her” at work or when she’s out with friends.
- Camille puts her husband down, gives him the silent treatment, or heaps guilt on him to get him to do things her way.
- Eduardo and his wife often fight about money, especially when she spends it on something he doesn’t think is necessary. Sometimes he flies into a rage, breaking objects and pushing her.
- Patricia is manipulative and constantly demands attention from her partner. At the same time, she shows little empathy for her partner or others.
What do we mean by self-esteem?
Self-esteem simply means how we see or evaluate ourselves. We can have high self-esteem (a positive view of ourselves) or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, low self-esteem (a negative view). People with high self-esteem believe they are good, worthy, capable, and lovable, and that they have a purpose.
High self-esteem is not the same as being selfish, boastful, or arrogant.
High self-esteem is not the same as being selfish, boastful, or arrogant. In fact, someone who has those traits is likely over-compensating for the opposite. What it really means is having a simple, steady belief in ourselves and our worth. It doesn’t need to be loudly proclaimed to everyone else, because it comes from inside and exists for us alone.
Why low self-esteem and abusive behavior are linked
When our self-esteem is poor, we are extra sensitive to anything that might signal that we’re not good, worthy, capable, or lovable. It’s like walking along a busy road with a headache – most people wouldn’t notice the traffic, but to us, the noise is overwhelming. Signals that other people can brush off feel like an ambulance siren to us.
This causes so much discomfort that we act, usually without realizing, to stop or avoid the signal. In doing so, we can end up behaving in ways that hurt the people around us. To put it simply: hurt people hurt others.
Hurt people hurt others.
This issue is often hidden deep inside, and can surface as something else, as we saw in the examples above. It often takes serious digging to discover the fears and low self-esteem behind our abusive behavior. This is what the four people in our case studies found as they dug deeper:
- Alex is worried his girlfriend will leave him. By keeping her away from other people – especially those she might be attracted to – he’s subconsciously trying to make his fear of being unlovable subside.
- Camille fears that she isn’t good enough, and that others will ridicule or judge her. To ensure people see her favorably, she tries to control her husband’s every move and puts him down to make herself feel better.
- Eduardo has been blowing up over money because he’s subconsciously measuring his success by his bank balance. When he and his wife talk about finances, especially if he thinks she’s spent too much, it triggers his fear of not being capable.
- Patricia’s narcissism comes from a fear that she isn’t worthy. She needs her partner to make her feel like she’s the center of the world. She’s so wrapped up in this that she hardly thinks of anyone else.
Looking for validation in all the wrong places
A clue as to why low self-esteem and abusive behavior are linked comes from the name. There’s a reason why it’s called self-esteem – it comes from ourselves, from the inside. When we don’t have enough of it, we’re forced to look for validation in external things that we have little to no control over.
We tend to seek self-esteem in wealth, success, popularity, and, in particular, our intimate relationships. But it’s neither realistic nor fair to expect our loved one to always make us feel good about ourselves. Nobody is capable of being kind and supportive 100% of the time – it’s inevitable that they will let us down occasionally.
Constantly trying to keep us afloat will leave our partner feeling tired and resentful. Their loving feelings towards us will quickly evaporate if we punish them for failing to do so. What’s more, we’re going to be in a constant state of disappointment and hurt if we give away our power to make ourselves feel better.
Where low self-esteem comes from
How we see ourselves is largely based on the messages we received from our parents or guardians during our early lives. Sadly, too many of us are denied affection, criticized, ridiculed, or worse, rejected, abandoned, neglected, or abused by those who should have cared for us. Let’s go back to our four case studies:
- Alex was raised by a single mom who often left him alone while she went to work. He frequently felt abandoned and subconsciously wondered if he was worthy of love.
- Camille experienced harsh classroom bullying for wearing thick glasses to correct some vision problems. She learned to make decisions based on what people would say, and to put others down to prop up her own value.
- Eduardo’s father constantly told him he would “never amount to anything.” Ever since, he’s tried to convince himself and others that he isn’t a failure by earning and accumulating money.
- Patricia grew up in a large family that rarely gave her the time of day. She learned to win attention and approval by being the biggest personality in the room.
The power of messages
These kinds of messages have incredible power over us as children, because our brains – and our sense of identity – are still developing. Because of this, we are unable to evaluate what we’re hearing and decide for ourselves whether or not it’s relevant and true. We assume that the signals we receive are about us, and that they are accurate reflections of who we are. We end up forming our identity and sense of self around these early signals.
For example, Alex believed his parents broke up and left him alone because he didn’t deserve their love. Of course this isn’t true, but at the time he assumed it was. Without realizing, he continued to build on that false narrative as he grew up, adding more and more evidence over the years to support it.
Children are not the only ones at risk of developing doubts about their value. Discrimination, addiction, long bouts of unemployment or illness, and losing a relationship can also make us question whether we are good, worthy, lovable, or capable. So, too, can experiencing domestic abuse, which is why some victims go on to cause harm to others.
Building up your self-esteem
The effects of these negative experiences and messages are hard to undo, and cannot be undone quickly. If you spot a connection between abusive behavior and low self-esteem, and want to improve on how you see yourself, start with the below techniques. And remember, building up self-esteem is a process – it doesn’t happen in a day.
Check your self-talk
Would you tell a baby or a young child that they are unworthy, bad, or undeserving of love? Were you unworthy, bad, or undeserving of love when you were born? No and no – of course not. We all arrive in this world as inherently good, worthy, lovable beings. If you regularly tell yourself otherwise, what’s changed between then and now? The answer is: nothing. So why tell yourself any different?
Most of us aren’t standing in front of the mirror and literally spouting verbal abuse at ourselves. But try to notice where your thoughts go when something is upsetting you, or not going your way. You may well find that you’re telling yourself things that are hurtful or even downright hateful.
What you like, value, and love about yourself?
At times like this, it really helps to have written down a list of what is good about you. What you like, value, and love about yourself? Post it on your bathroom mirror, or keep it as a memo in your phone, and look at it often.
Mistakes and imperfections
“What about my mistakes and the bad things I’ve done?” you may be asking. Sure, you’re not that baby anymore. You’ve messed up, more than once. But we all mess up. There is absolutely no logical link between the fact that you’ve made mistakes, and the belief that you are a bad, unworthy, unlovable person. You deserve forgiveness and grace – from yourself, first and foremost.
We’re also all flawed – and there’s a lot of freedom in accepting that. In fact, recognizing the ways we are not perfect (or the best at something) reduces the amount of negative power that information holds over us.
I’m average at golf and terrible at karaoke, but you’ll want me on your team for trivia night. Other people have their own strengths and weaknesses. It doesn’t make them, or me, better or worse: just different.
Forgive and focus
Forgive your parents, or anybody else who wronged you by giving you messages that damaged your self-esteem. They were also flawed humans who made mistakes. In all likelihood they carried their own wounds, which spilled over to affect others around them, including you.
I am truly sorry if you grew up not knowing your worth and goodness. But please know that blame and bitterness will not change that. Only by focusing on ourselves can we heal our wounds and, in the process, become the kind, loving people we were meant to be. Low self-esteem and the resulting abusive behavior are both conditions that can be changed.
Decide what you are going to believe about you
Ask yourself: “What do I believe about myself? Am I a good person? Worthwhile? Lovable? Why do I think these things?” These are not easy questions to answer. We all have to wrestle with them for much of our lives. Here’s a tip: counselors are well-trained to help us do so.
At some level, we have to make a decision about who, or what, we are going to allow to define us. Do we define ourselves, or do we allow other people to do that for us? I hope you’ll answer these important questions for yourself, because you’re the best person for the job – other people are dealing with their own wounds.
Remember, something is only hurtful if we give it the power to hurt us. If we refuse to do that, it’s meaningless. Our partner could say “you’re a piece of you-know-what,” but they could just as well say “the rain in Spain falls mostly on the plain.” Both are just words, and neither has to define us.
Get to know what God thinks about you
While you’re deciding who and what you’re going to listen to about you, consider hearing what God thinks. For me, this was a game-changer. Knowing that a perfect, all-powerful God, the creator of the universe, loves and cares deeply about me, suddenly made other people’s opinions matter far less. In fact, this knowledge is what gave me the strength to turn my abusive behavior and my life around.
What does God say about you? He says you are his creation (Genesis 2:7), made in his image (Genesis 1:27), planned (Psalm 139:16), knit together in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13), and fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14).
In fact, he loves you so much that he sent his son to die so he could have a relationship with you (John 3:16). God doesn’t make junk. Believe what he says about you.
Want to work on re-establishing your self esteem? Consider this excellent resource developed by our friend, Randy Creamer.