How to Love Yourself After Living With Abuse

Alexandra Tsuneta

How do we unbind the shackles of abuse and extend love to ourselves?
“Among grown-ups who were wounded in childhood, the desire to be loved by uncaring parents persists, even when there is a clear acceptance of the reality that this love will never be forthcoming, — Bell Hooks in ‘All About Love’

What does love mean to you? Everybody has an answer that is different and complex, much of this answer depends on your upbringing. However, people with abusive pasts often don’t understand the true meaning of love; we often equate love with blood, bound by duty and obligation. We believe that love and abuse can coincide, for example, the parent that beats their child will often say that they are doing this for the child’s own good. How often, if you grew up in an abusive household, did you hear, “This hurts me more than it is hurting you,” in regards to physical and aggressive forms of punishment?

In turn, the child will grow to believe that, indeed, their parent did love them, sometimes I would say, “Well, my mother loved me the best that she could,” however, as I grew I realized that love and abuse cannot coexist. To which I will say something widely unpopular: the parent that punishes their child with spanking, hitting, and other means of causing pain, does not love their child. Abuse and love cannot coexist.

By teaching your child that means of punishment causing pain are, in fact, loving means of punishment, you are instilling in them a skewed understanding of love that will last throughout adulthood. Factually, corporal punishment causes life-lasting damage. According to the American Psychological Association, “Many studies have shown that physical punishment — including spanking, hitting and other means of causing pain — can lead to increased aggression, antisocial behavior, physical injury and mental health problems for children.”

In this article, I will continue to relate back to this statement: abuse and love cannot coexist. According to Bell Hooks, “Abuse and neglect negate love,” she continues, “Care and affirmation, the opposite of abuse and humiliation, are the foundation of love. No one can rightfully claim to be loved when behaving abusively. Yet parents do this all the time in our culture. Children are told that they are loved even though they are being abused.”

As we grow older we often accept love from others that reflect the love (or lack thereof) that we were given as children. We accept that abuse is normal and natural in relationships, we accept that when our partner yells at us they still love us. We accept that despite being treated badly, we are still loved. These patterns then reflect how we treat one another, and this is where it becomes extremely complicated.

When a parent hits a child as a form of punishment it is widely accepted, corporal punishment is often practiced, even today. However, if an adult were to hit an adult, a husband was to hit his wife, for example, most everybody would exclaim that this is wrong; this is abuse. Thus, how are we to understand love as something other than coinciding with abusive actions if abuse is so widely accepted in regards to punishing children?

Abuse and love cannot coexist.

How do we love ourselves when the conditioning of love in our lives has told us that abuse can exist with love? If we have thus far in our lives been abused by our parents and loved ones, how are we to break out of those patterns of abuse within our own minds, hearts, bodies, and souls? Before I explain loving ourselves I want to reflect on the question I initially asked: what does love mean to you?

To me, love is willing and nourishing; to love another person you must nourish that person’s growth; to love yourself you must nourish your own growth.

Love may mean something completely different to you, but for now, I want to focus on this definition of love, a willing and nourishing definition of love, in order to explain how we can learn to love ourselves despite being abused in the past (or even, continuing to allow abuse into our lives currently).

“When we can see ourselves as we truly are and accept ourselves, we build the necessary foundation for self-love,” Bell Hooks in ‘All About Love’

People who grew up in abusive households are often conditioned to believe that they are unlovable. Because, as I previously mentioned, we have been conditioned to believe that love and abuse can coexist, we often abuse ourselves.

This abuse comes in many forms not limited to the forms listed below:

  • Negative self-talk
  • Constant dieting, restriction, eating disorders
  • Perfectionism
  • Not believing that we are worthy of love
  • Low self-esteem
  • Abusive relationships
  • Substance abuse
  • Mental health issues

When the abused mind speaks to itself, instead of speaking lovingly, we often abuse ourselves, even in our own heads. We wonder if we are good enough, beautiful enough, skinny enough, worthy enough; because of this we strive for perfection and when we are unable to achieve it (because perfection is, of course, a construct), we implode. Instead of being kind to ourselves, we are continuously abusive to ourselves; the worst part is that this abuse is normalized because this is what we have always experienced.

Nothing seems out of place here, it’s all business as usual.

Learning to practice self-kindness, self-love, and self-appreciation is a hugely difficult task when we have learned that abuse and love can coexist. However, as I have said many times in this article, abuse and love cannot coexist. You cannot practice self-kindness, self-love, and self-appreciation with the mindset that you can also be abusive to yourself. In turn, we have to begin to nourish ourselves for who we are.

Some ideas for self-nourishment are:

  • Speak kindly to yourself, no more hatred, no more negative self-talk. You can do this every day and it doesn’t need to be cheesy or weird, just speak kindly to yourself. Think of the words you say to yourself as what you would say to somebody you love; start with the phrase, “I love you,” would you say to your best friend or your partner, “I hate you,” I certainly hope not, so stop saying it to yourself. Tell yourself that you love yourself. Speak kindly to yourself so that you learn that you are worthy of love. Stop verbally abusing yourself.
  • Use mantras; okay, believe me here, I have questioned mantras my entire life. I’m not a hippy-dippy-spiritual-guru, but man, a positive mantra can change your entire day. Sometimes, I will even repeat my chosen mantra to myself throughout the day. My favorite mantra is, “Ego is the death of creation,” I think about this daily; how am I to thrive if I am so caught up in my ego? Somebody recently said to me, “The thing is not the thing,” as in, what you think is upsetting you may not be what is really upsetting you. Instead, take a look around, what is truly stressing you out? Question your surroundings and experiences. I even use mantras during yoga, my husband sometimes thinks that I have lost the plot, I will be doing my morning yoga and meditation and I’ll whisper to myself, “I am worthy,” instilling these thoughts in oneself truly does make a difference.
  • Move-in ways that you enjoy. Movement is truly medicine, and if you have struggled with body image issues you may be used to moving in ways that are for “changing” your body. Instead, switch that mindset; dance, do yoga, take a walk, or do something that nourishes your body. Don’t focus on how you are changing outwards, focus on inward changes. My daily yoga practice has enabled me to change in ways I have never dreamed of and I’m so thankful for my body for the chance to nourish myself in these ways.

There are many other ways to nourish yourself; find what feels good for you, choose an option that benefits your love, your heart, your mind, soul, and spirit. These are just suggestions that work for me.

Moving forward, a form of self-nourishment is understanding why you have allowed yourself to feel self-hatred, and doing this is one of the hardest parts of self-work. Of course, I always recommend digging deeper with a therapist, however, the underlined books have helped me in so many ways, and in order to not overwhelm you, I will only list five (three are poetry):

  • All About Love’ by Bell Hooks
  • The Body Keeps the Score’ by Bessel van der Kolk
  • Rupi Kaur’s poetry books, ‘Milk and Honey’, The Sun and Her Flowers,’ & ‘Home Body’ | these books have helped me in countless ways, I recommend all three.

I hope that by reading this article you have found something to help you move forward in ways that are self-loving and self-fulfilling. In order to nourish others we must, of course, nourish ourselves, so let this be your first step in self-nourishment. Remember that abuse and love cannot coexist, if you are to love yourself, start with kindness, start with appreciation.

Thank yourself for simply existing, your existence is a miracle.

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digital nomad | queer, Jewish, she/they | ☕️ | degrees in sociology and women’s studies

Bend, OR

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