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What Is the Connection between Abuse and Self-Esteem?

By Tara Barnett
Updated Jan 24, 2024
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Abuse and self-esteem are linked in many ways, but the most common connection is that abuse can cause low self-esteem. The actual connection between abuse and self-esteem can manifest in a number of ways, and there is often an intermediate level of causation involved. Unfortunately, resolving the abusive situation does not always return self-esteem to positive levels, as the effects of abuse can be permanent. Depending on the kind of abuse, various therapies may be appropriate to reduce the ties between the abuse and self-esteem.

One of the most common ways in which abuse and self-esteem are related involves children. Abused children typically have low self-esteem and may never have had the opportunity to develop the personal skills required to maintain a positive self-image. Low self-esteem can be a way of identifying abuse, although this quality alone is not sufficient to point to abuse. Unfortunately, abuse and self-esteem can be linked for the rest of the child's life, to the degree that the child will subconsciously seek out abusive situations as an adult due to low self-esteem.

For abused adults, self-esteem can be lower when in an abusive relationship. Physical abuse can cause low self-esteem, but emotional abuse is often much more damaging to a person's personal value. Emotional abuse often occurs over long periods of time, and the victim may not even know that he or she is being abused. The patterns caused by emotional abuse can be much harder to identify and remedy than those caused by physical abuse because they are more subtle.

When abuse has occurred in a person’s life but he or she does not recognize or remember that abuse, the damaging effects can still cause low self-esteem. Patterns that are developed during the period of abuse can continue even if the abuse is not remembered. Therapy is essential to developing the skills to regain normal self-esteem, and seeking therapeutic help for low self-esteem may even reveal a history of abuse or current abusive patterns.

Sometimes this connection between abuse and self-esteem is reversed, and some people claim that people with high self-esteem are less vulnerable to abuse than those who have low self-esteem. This may be true, but the reasons why it is true are often highly complex. For example, abusers tend to prey on people with low self-esteem, but people with low self-esteem also tend to believe that they do not deserve to be in a loving relationship. Combating low self-esteem is important to health and can prevent a person from experiencing abuse at all.

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Discussion Comments
By bear78 — On Mar 13, 2014

The connection between abuse and self esteem seems to go both ways. Abuse can cause low self esteem and low self esteem can lead to abuse. In fact, many abusers suffer from low self esteem themselves.

By SteamLouis — On Mar 13, 2014

@fBoyle-- You're a great example.

I disagree that people with self esteem always seek abusive relationships. I agree that bullies and abusers seek out people with low self esteem. But people who have suffered from esteem issues because of abuse are not stuck in a vicious cycle. In fact, I think that such people are better able to identify abusive relationships and people and are less likely to put up with it.

Victims of abuse, even if they are not aware of it, are well versed in the signs that someone may be a bully. I think they can use this to their advantage and better protect themselves.

By fBoyle — On Mar 13, 2014

Although it is difficult to remedy low self esteem due to abuse in childhood, I don't think it's impossible. In fact, I think that most of the work has to be done by the individual although the support of a professional should be sought as well.

I think that if an abused child can develop a healthy viewpoint of his or her past experiences while growing up, it becomes easier to work on self esteem. For example, I was emotionally abused by my father growing up. As I got older however, and also because I was able to distance myself from my father, I realized that I have an inaccurate view about myself and the world. I used to blame myself for everything as a child. Now I know that my bad childhood experiences were not my fault. I also know that my father had an unhealthy psychology and did what he did unintentionally.

Coming to these realizations has helped me work on my self esteem and today I know that I'm valuable and successful.

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