What is self-esteem or self-worth?
Self-esteem is how you feel about yourself. It’s similar to the concept of self-worth (and I will use the terms interchangeably in this article).
Our goal is to have high self-esteem, meaning we feel good about ourselves most of the time. We know we have intrinsic value. And we know we are still good and worthwhile people even when we’re imperfect and make mistakes.
Self-esteem isn’t conceited. It doesn’t mean that you think you’re the best or better than others.
People with high self-esteem recognize their strengths and good qualities—and also their weaknesses or areas in need of improvement. They generally feel confident, capable, and worthwhile, but know they aren’t perfect.
Unfortunately, lots of people don’t feel good about themselves. This is especially true for people who’ve experienced abuse or relational traumas (such as betrayal, infidelity, child abuse, or abandonment).
How does narcissistic abuse affect self-esteem?
People with narcissistic traits can be manipulative.
They blame and criticize, and need to be the center of attention. They shift the blame, making you think you’ve done something wrong. They rarely acknowledge their shortcomings and instead convince you that you are the problem; you’re wrong, incapable, or stupid.
As a result, we second-guess ourselves and don’t trust our own judgment or perceptions.
People with narcissistic traits can be volatile.
They are quick to anger and sometimes make irrational or unrealistic demands. They are unwilling to compromise and always have to be right.
So, we learn to walk on eggshells. We focus on keeping the person with narcissistic traits happy or calm by minimizing or denying our needs and feelings.
We discount our needs and wants and think they don’t matter or are wrong.
We stop asserting ourselves and become passive or passive-aggressive.
People with narcissistic traits can be cruel.
They are critical and harsh.
This leads us to feel inferior and defective. And because we don’t feel worthwhile, we don’t take care of ourselves. We become focused on keeping the peace and making others happy.
We don’t want to be called selfish, so we don’t do anything for ourselves or ask for much.
After narcissistic abuse, people often feel:
- Defective or like there is something fundamentally wrong with them.
- Useless, like they can’t do anything right and have no value.
- Disconnected from themselves.
- Afraid to assert themselves. They may become people-pleasers and pushovers.
- Self-doubt. They have difficulty trusting themselves and making decisions.
How to rebuild self-esteem after narcissistic abuse
Rebuilding self-esteem is a process. It’s something that you’ll need to work on consistently for an extended period of time. Bit by bit you will start to feel better about yourself and it will be reflected in the way you treat yourself, the people you choose to spend time with, your dreams and goals for the future, and so forth.
A note for those still experiencing narcissistic abuse:
The strategies below are suggested for those who are recovering from previous abuse. It is very difficult to build self-esteem while you are still experiencing narcissistic abuse (or any form of abuse). It’s like swimming against the tide. If you are in an abusive relationship with anyone (partner, sibling, parent, etc.), I encourage you to reach out for help from one of the support resources at the bottom of this article.
Below are 5 strategies for building self-esteem after experiencing narcissistic abuse.
Not only is self-care essential for your health, but it also demonstrates that you care about yourself. When you brush your teeth, spend time with friends, or eat healthfully, you are saying to yourself, “I am worth taking care of. I deserve to be healthy and happy.”
Most people who have experienced abuse or relational trauma don’t feel worthy of self-care—but don’t let that stop you from practicing self-care! Through consistent acts of self-care, you are building a sense of worthiness.
Start by asking yourself what you need throughout the day. Do your best to meet your needs. For example, if you feel hungry, eat. If you feel tired, rest. If you feel lonely, connect with others.
Focus on acts of self-care and the feelings of worthiness will follow.
Connect with Your Authentic Self
It’s hard to think highly of yourself if you don’t know who you are!
In abusive, codependent, or “lopsided” relationships, the focus is on meeting one person’s needs rather than what both people need. And when you focus so much of your time and energy on someone else, you can lose sight of who you are, what matters to you, what you like to do, and so forth. So, it’s likely that you need to reconnect with your authentic self.
I encourage you to take some time every day to connect with yourself. This might include journaling, a spiritual practice, trying something new to see if you like it, or getting back to something you used to enjoy or participate in to see if it’s still of interest.
These 26 Questions to Know Yourself Better are also a great place to start.
It’s important that you know you can count on yourself.
You can build self-trust much in the same way that you build trust with others. Start by keeping your word to yourself. When you tell yourself you’re going to do something, do it.
It’s important that the goals or commitments you make to yourself are doable. Start with a commitment that you absolutely know you can accomplish—because this builds self-trust. This isn’t the time to set lofty goals that are out of reach. Keep it simple and realistic. For example, if you want to reduce the time you spend on social media, you might start by setting a goal to reduce your usage by 15 minutes rather than trying to give it up cold turkey. When you follow through and cut back by 15 minutes, you are building self-trust, a sense that you can count on yourself not just when it comes to this goal, but you can trust your judgment and decisions regarding the important things in your life.
Listen to Your Feelings
Feelings provide valuable information. For example, feeling scared or uncomfortable alerts you to danger, while feeling resentful lets you know you are being taken advantage of. It’s important to pay attention to your feelings so you can act accordingly to take care of yourself.
One way we cope with abuse is to suppress our feelings; we stop paying attention to them, or we notice them, but don’t take action to meet our needs and feel better. So, you will probably need to intentionally practice noticing your feeling.
A great way to tune into your feelings is to pay attention to the bodily sensations that accompany them. How does your body feel when you’re tired? What are the bodily sensations that let you know you’re hungry? What are the physical signs that you feel anxious or worried?
You can read more about noticing your feelings in this article.
Standing up for yourself is another way to build self-esteem. Being assertive, such as setting boundaries, protects you from being mistreated. And like self-care, assertiveness is necessary for your health and wellbeing, and it reinforces that your opinions and needs matter.
Being assertive can feel very uncomfortable, even scary, for many abuse survivors. Practice being assertive with “safe people”. These are people who respect you, are interested in your opinions and wellbeing, and can tolerate disagreements. And start by speaking up about small things and then work your way up to setting more important boundaries. Perhaps, to start, speak up about which movie you want to watch or practice saying no to small requests. This will help you build confidence in your boundary-setting skills.
Support resources in the U.S.
- Thehotline.org 1-800-799-SAFE
- 988 (national crisis/suicide line, 24/7)
- 211 (a free referral service available in many communities)
- Therapy (search online, in your insurance provider directory, or ask your physician for a referral)
©2022 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com.
The Better Boundaries Workbook
Your step-by-step guide to setting boundaries in all areas of your life.
Get your copy today — wherever books are sold!
This site is for informational purposes only. It provides general information and is not intended to nor should it be used to diagnose or treat any mental health or medical issues or advise you on your particular issues, questions, or decisions. You are solely responsible for how you use the information provided on this website and the consequences of your actions.