Over the course of the last few weeks online, there’s been a surge in women coming together and openly speaking about their experiences with sexism, harassment, and abusive relationships and how to heal from it. These are absolutely necessary conversations to be having, and I’m in awe at the strength of these women – after all, the internet is an unforgiving place for women as it is, never mind women who are tackling and confronting their experiences with misogyny openly and honestly.
With this in mind, I wanted to delve deeper into something which I feel is often left behind in this conversation: that is, how women recover and heal from these experiences. So, I reached out to some women who were happy to discuss their recovery journey along with myself. As they opened up about all things healing, from therapy to self-love practice to allowing yourself to be angry, it soon became clear that recovery is neither a universal nor a linear journey.
*All names have been changed for the purpose of this article.
Q: Would you say your experiences changed the way you look at yourself? For me, I had a long time accepting the things which happened to me. Also, my self-esteem definitely took a massive knock because I was made to feel as if nothing belonged to me, not even myself anymore. Did any of you feel similar to this?
CASSIE: Absolutely. For me, the abuse [and subsequent shame I experienced due to this] still lives in my head. I found that my abusers were really good at manipulating me and making me believe that it was me who was a horrible person. Sometimes I even felt so low that I felt like I didn’t even exist at all.
EM: In a similar way, my self-esteem took a knock. I would let the people mistreating me talk over me, and I’d just let them. Giving people power over me was definitely a problem in the wake of these experiences. This probably altered my perception of trust too. For example, when I was around 14, a man grabbed me all over at a festival. This caused me a lot of anxiety, and I became really scared of people in case they did something similar.
KATE: I think my experiences are pretty similar to Em’s. My self esteem was left damaged after my experiences, and even now I have a pretty tough time being around guys, trusting them or letting them hug me or whatever.
ALICE: I think that rather than feeling a knock in my self-esteem, I really did feel a loss of my sense of self. Like Cassie said, your experiences can really start to make you feel like it’s you who is the horrible person. I started having cognitive distortions [a common post-trauma symptom], I didn’t know which one of us was telling the truth. I think this contributed to me not knowing who I was anymore. Some days my anxiety was so high that I felt like I was having an out of body experience. I also think I was struggling with some symptoms of BPD after my experiences, although I didn’t seek out a formal diagnosis. Either way, my mental health suffered.
Q: Yeah, lots of those symptoms are associated with people healing from trauma. Having your self esteem impacted of course can have detrimental effects on your mental health. Does anyone else have anything to add about suffering from mental health issues in the wake of your trauma?
KATE: Oh, absolutely. My experiences caused me to suffer from anxiety and also was a contributing factor to my disordered eating because these incidents caused me to become hyper-aware of my body. I felt like I had to hide my body to make other people comfortable too. All of that just had further detrimental effects on my self-esteem.
Q: I want to go back on what Kate said about having a hard time trusting people, especially men. For me, this has definitely been something I’ve struggled with the most. It’s sad, but your experiences can make you feel as if every man is a potential threat, and this is something I personally struggle to get over, just as Kate said. Do any of you have experiences of healing from this?
ALICE: I think valuing the positive experiences that I do have has helped me regain trust. Like, I did go on to have a healthy sexual experience with a guy for a few months [after an abusive relationship]. He was respectful of my boundaries, 100%. He let me go at my own pace. He made me feel safe. Although our time together was brief, I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. So I think that valuing people or valuing the good in people at least, it’s helped me regain trust.
CASSIE: I don’t know about that, but I’ve definitely found a new power within myself, which has lessened my anxieties a little.
There is a generally positive response to this, so I wanted to hear about the ways that these women have been rebuilding their self esteems.
Q: I know lots of people go to therapy to help themselves heal, and we can talk about that later on. However, does anyone have any techniques or any kind of self-help methods to aid you in your healing journey?
EM: Honestly, I’ve just been trying to reclaim the power that people had over me, which I mentioned earlier. I now make people stop if they talk over me. I’ll confront them. Also, in terms of healing her self esteem, I’ve been trying not to ask people how they perceive me. Instead, I just focus on how much I know myself and my own thoughts. It’s hard. But it’s also something I’m getting better at. I suppose its also been a necessary step in rebuilding my self-confidence again.
CASSIE: I like to talk to myself and write in a diary as if I were talking to a friend who went through the things I have. It’s all about treating myself kindly as if I were a friend who went through abuse. Also, sometimes you have to do things which scare you. I’ve been with men who told me I shouldn’t take up my passion for boxing because I’m a woman. So I took it up. It’s all about giving the middle finger to those who put me down.
Q: That sounds like you’ve definitely regained a lot of power back for yourself. I’m guessing this wasn’t an overnight journey?
CASSIE: Yeah, it’s been a process. Something that helped me get there was talking to myself in the mirror and using mantras to boost myself and to learn to trust myself and my judgment again. I learned abuse and toxicity, but I also have the power to unlearn it. That’s something that I constantly remind myself of.
While Cassie highlights the importance of speaking and becoming close to oneself, Alice went on to discuss the healing power of relationships with fellow survivors.
ALICE: However, instead of talking to myself, I spoke to other women who’ve gone through the same journey as me. That’s been a huge healer for me. I made a very good friend soon after a bad relationship. She had been through a lot of similar things in her life, and it was the closest I had ever truly felt to a friend. We laughed together; we cried together…I’ll forever be grateful for that.
Q: Thanks so much for sharing that! It’s clear that both self-love and loving others can be cathartic and have great healing effects. Kate, I know you’ve mentioned therapy as opposed to self-based help before. Do you have anything to add to these ideas, as someone who has taken a slightly different route to heal?
Of course! So, for me, therapy has definitely helped me find my way back to myself again. It’s helped me realize that my clothes and body don’t define me, and that’s a message that I make clear to myself when anyone has something negative or insulting to say about my looks or if they subject me to unwanted sexualization. Also, my therapist told me
‘instead of ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now” and ask yourself how you can comfort and care for yourself in that moment?’.
This mindset changed my life, I have a long way to go still to heal, but I’m finally in a good place with myself. I feel ready to have a healthy relationship with a man, whereas before I wouldn’t have had the patience or love for myself to get into one.
Whether you choose therapy, self-love, or seeking out people with similar experiences to you, it is clear that healing from ill-experiences is definitely possible. However, if one thing has become clear from this conversation, it’s that being patient with yourself and others who are healing is central to healing. So seek help if you feel it will benefit you, but always remember the power of being kind to yourself.