I usually ignore statements in articles that assert abused women can be characterised as having low self-esteem, because the articles are otherwise championing justice for abuse survivors. I believe such assertions are ill-advised, however. Not all articles make such generalizations, but I have come across it numerous times, and think it is worth mentioning.
In an age of striving to avoid stereotyping and discrimination, such generalised statements lump every abused woman into a category irrespective of her individual story. This is disrespectful to women who have been abused who do not have low self-esteem.
Generally advocates for victims of abuse are calling for an end to heaping further injustice onto abuse survivors through not believing them, not supporting them, not addressing their abusers’ behaviour through prosecution or church discipline, and so forth. We would do well to be careful we do not cause any further injustice by assuming abuse survivors are suffering from low self-esteem when they may in fact have a healthy self-esteem.
A survivor with a truly healthy self-esteem will likely recognise with equanimity the mistake, but could certainly do without any further burden of self-evaluation regarding her level of self-esteem. She has perhaps already been faced with constant self-evaluation and use of positive self-talk and other coping strategies, due to her abuser’s constant reproaches, in order to maintain her self-value and her mental health. Abusers storing up material for later use could also use such categorizations against their victims, by taunting them from an additional angle, ‘If you’re a victim of abuse you have low-self esteem and need to see a psychiatrist’.
If we categorise abuse victims as having low self-esteem, are we not categorizing them according to their abusers’ behaviour, and not seeking to hear the survivors’ own stories? That is, the woman’s partner’s behaviour is abusive, therefore she must have low-self esteem?? That’s equally as unjust as the relationship counselling scenarios where blame is levelled through a ‘no blame’ focus for both parties, inadvertently making the abused spouse as responsible for the abusive spouse’s behaviour as the abuser is.
I have read articles about the type of women that abusers target, and women in these categories do not necessarily have low self-esteem. At the blog, A Cry For Justice (ACFJ) we read in the Don Hennessy Digest that abusers target kind, loyal, dedicated and truthful women¹. Who is prepared to say all kind, loyal, dedicated and truthful women are going to have low self-esteem? In an article about covert narcissists2, who specialise in abusing people through manipulation tactics to achieve their own ends at the other person’s expense, we find those abusers target highly empathetic people3. Who wants to deny they are highly empathetic to avoid being pigeon-holed as having low self-esteem?
Plenty of kind, loyal, dedicated, truthful and highly empathetic people also have healthy self-esteem, not to mention courage and the capacity to investigate the confusion they are experiencing.
I know that not all abuse victims have low self-esteem because I have been abused, and I don’t consider I have low-self esteem. I have known both what it is like to have had low self-esteem and what it is like to have healthy self-esteem. I had low self-esteem as a teenager, but worked through it into my early 20’s before I was ever married. It was only because I saw my value in how God values me (priceless – He sent His own Son to die for my redemption!), that I later survived as long as I did in an abusive marriage. I was caught up in extra-biblical traditions and biblical truths that have been separated out from scripture, rather than viewed within it as a balanced whole. I was unable to recognize for some time what I was truly dealing with, in order to act sooner. It wasn’t because I had low self-esteem.
Rather than low self-esteem, or ‘co-dependency’4 (another term misapplied to victims of abuse, see ACFJ tag for codependency) another aspect of who I am contributed both to my surviving abuse with my healthy self-esteem intact (though it was a battle to keep it that way because of my abuser’s attempts to erode it), and to my remaining in the abuse for as long as I did. My style of loving is an authentic altruistic style of loving that is sustained because of my relationship with God as the filler of my love ‘bucket’, and the source of my self-value.
“There are atruistic lovers, who may be somewhat other-centred and very willing to meet the needs of the other person. Carried to the extreme, the altruistic lover may become a martyr, trying to meet his or her own “empty-bucket” needs. There is, however, an authentic altruistic lover: a person who has a full bucket and enough inner strength to be able to love another person in a very unselfish manner. Many altruistic lovers have strong religious beliefs, and find a relationship with a Supreme Being keeps their own buckets full.”5 (Fisher & Alberti, 2014, pp. 184)
The following are some comments I inserted in an earlier draft of this post, in response to quotes that contained statements such as ‘every woman in an emotionally abusive relationship can be characterized as having low self-esteem’. I don’t wish to reference the quotes as they came from an otherwise awesome article, so I have removed them. I think my comments give some perspective of my concerns on their own.
I looked to God’s acceptance as the measure of my worth [not my husband’s acceptance], and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I think the prevailing Christian traditions regarding marriage and divorce contribute heavily to some women being vulnerable to the controlling tactics of the abuser, not necessarily or always, low self-esteem.
I did not develop feelings of guilt and inadequacy for not meeting his [my husband’s] standards and needs. I believed he had serious personal issues, prayed for him and did everything I reasonably could to get help for the marriage, and to encourage him to seek help for himself personally.
I saw God as the fulfiller of my needs [not the marital relationship], and when faced with many questions about the reality of my experiences, and the beliefs held by Christian’s about marriage and divorce, I prayed, contemplated, and researched the confusing issues. Eventually I felt God spoke directly to me that it was time to leave my husband in his hands, and I separated from my husband.
In closing, abused women have in common that they are women who have encountered abusive behaviour from their intimate partners. As to the factors that caused them to remain in an abusive relationship for varied amounts of time, those factors can be equally varied among them.