ASK ABDI: HOW DO I LOVE MYSELF AFTER AN ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP?

QUESTION: I so want to learn to love myself (or at least be able to look in the mirror and not be sick at my own sight). I have recently left a very abusive relationship, which lasted close to 27 years. It was very "kind of" abuse, the kind that leaves you berated physically. I finally got up the courage to tell him: enough is enough - I'm not putting up with your abuse, control, and manipulations anymore. I am in my own little apartment now. However, the damage that was done is so intense. I can’t look at my own reflection in any mirror. I have lost so much weight from the stress, like 40 pounds. I know I need to gain self-esteem and confidence, and I have to learn to love myself before I can move forward with my life. I don’t know how I am supposed to love myself. It’s so needed for me to learn to love myself, so that I can learn to receive love from others. How can I love myself? I’ve had so much pain and sadness in my life that it is sad to think that a woman in her mid 40s hasn’t been able to make a better go at being happy… whatever advice you can share, I’d be very grateful.

ANSWER: This is a courageous thing you have done after so many years of abuse: to stand up and say enough, to be brave enough to move out and have your own apartment. These are huge steps; you can start by giving yourself credit for that. Understand that many people who are in the situation you were do not have the ability to do what you did. The things that you state you are looking for (self-esteem and confidence) are already budding in you, as you would not have been able to take such a momentous step without them. Our egos are always in the “what have you done for me today” state. You already are moving towards what you desire, keep that as a daily reminder.

Your clarity about needing to love yourself, instead of looking for it externally, is also exceptional. Most of us run around trying to heal these deep inner wounds externally, instead of internally. Something that never works. So again, take inventory of your clarity and give yourself the credit you are due.

There are no shortcuts here, nor magic cures. You have to roll up your sleeves and continue on this path that you have started. Many times, when we remove ourselves from a situation that was traumatic, we actually start feeling the symptoms brought on by the abuse. Working with a trauma specialist is critical at this juncture. You need someone solid in your corner to help you release this pattern. Look up EMDR, a powerful technique for healing trauma. Working with a therapist that does EMDR, and is therefore versed in trauma or one that deals with abuse, will help immensely. Obviously, there is a lot of trauma in your body, so address that. Any kind of bodywork is helpful; things like deep tissue work or Rolfing are great for moving the deep trauma from the physical body. The stress piece also needs to be addressed, so some deep breathing or calming meditation practice will help as well. Journaling is important and helpful. Get a notebook and start writing in it every day. It’s a good way to make friends with yourself. Write down all of your feelings and fears. Make room for that part of you that had no room for so many decades. 

Truly all journeys start with the first step, and yours was gigantic. One foot in front of the other. Constantly keep an eye on the part of you that does not see how you are already on your path. Understand that most of us not only do not fully love or accept ourselves, but at best have a tenuous relationship with self. Learning how not to hate ourselves is the first step. The work ahead is and will not be easy, but you have no choice but to press on. Your intention is clear, the rest is just work.