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4 Ways Childhood Abuse and Neglect Affected My Self-Esteem


Editor's Note

If you have experienced emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

I’m only just beginning to figure out the ways childhood neglect and abuse are affecting my self-esteem and self-perception in my adult life. Some of the connections are obvious and some aren’t, but it’s only as I’m starting to come to terms with my past that I’m starting to see these links.

1. Feeling “not good enough.”

Growing up, there wasn’t much I could do to earn praise at home. It didn’t matter how many times I got top grades in my exams, or how much I threw myself into extracurricular activities. I was never in detention, I never broke curfew, or drank alcohol or smoked a cigarette or tried illegal drugs. Despite all this, the focus was always on my flaws. Sometimes, these flaws were imagined. Sometimes they were real and overexaggerated. And sometimes, my mother managed to prize out of me the very worst things I thought about myself and hurled them at me over and over again. As an adult, my self-worth is still strongly tied to the things I do; no matter how hard I try, I still feel like a bad person because nothing I do is ever enough.

2. Constantly needing to justify myself.

I’m always on the defense and jumping in to explain my actions in situations where it’s really not warranted. As a child, one form the psychological abuse took was a stream of untrue and ridiculous accusations. If my bus was late and I was 10 minutes late home, I’d be accused of being off somewhere having a sexual relationship with multiple older men. If I was too quiet, I was clearly shooting up heroin on the way home from school. Too loud; stealing bottles of vodka from supermarkets and getting drunk. The list goes on. I was constantly firefighting these attacks. Now, if the grocery shop costs a little more than usual, I immediately start panicking. My first words to my husband as I come through the door are a meticulous breakdown of each extra penny spent. It doesn’t matter how many times he assures me he trusts me, that I don’t have to justify myself to him; the instinct is stubborn and ingrained.

3. Feeling like a fraud compared to my friends and peers.

When someone tells you “you’re nothing,” “you’re trash” over and over again, in lots of different ways during your formative years, you can’t really help but start to believe it. Especially if that person was a parent. The concept of being no better than dirt on the street takes root somewhere deep in your personality, and as yet, I’ve haven’t figured out a way to weed it out. I constantly have a lingering sense that those around me don’t actually know the real me; at any moment, they’ll realize I’m fundamentally the bad person I was always told I was and run for the hills. Then they’ll hate me for deceiving them and pretending I was in any way on an equal level with them.

4. Not being able to step out of the shadow of the grubby, neglected teenager I was.

Right now, I am an objectively successful 24-year-old. I am happily married. I am educated to degree level where I graduated with first-class honors. I have a stable job that is my vocation and my calling. I have a fantastic group of friends.

But alongside all of that, I was also that kid in the class with a shabby uniform, too-small shoes, hair and schoolbooks reeking of my mother’s cigarette smoke. My school equipment was mostly gained through sifting through lost property at the end of term. Nails dirty, hair greasy, because doing my best to run a house and look after a 7-year-old at the age of 13 meant there wasn’t always time for personal care, and there certainly wasn’t anyone checking up on me. We were “that family” — whispered about and taken pity of. That kind of thing sticks to you, fundamentally forms part of who you are and how you see yourself. So much of our sense of self comes from who we are told we are as adolescents. When I describe myself, I can verbalize my successes and current situation. But inside, I’ve not really escaped the hopeless, downtrodden teenager I once was.

Photo by Julia Caesar on Unsplash