I’ve been single for almost two years, and it’s mostly okay, but I would love to be in a relationship again. The issue is, my self-esteem is so low. I had a couple of abusive relationships that really just destroyed my confidence. I let myself go and struggled with depression. I’ve lost some friends and I don’t really know where to begin with dating. I’ve tried dating apps, but it hasn’t really worked so far. I either chicken out of meeting someone or pick guys that seem nice online, but we don’t click in real life. Sometimes I’ve gone home in tears after another waste of a date. I feel like I’m going to end up single forever, and I feel stuck in a loop of blaming myself for getting into bad situations and not being able to feel like I love myself. Where do I even start to try to break this cycle and actually care about myself so someone else can love me too?
Dr West replies: What you are describing is extremely common for those who have been through difficult situations such as abusive relationships. It’s not you, it’s the impact of trauma. It’s extremely difficult to keep up self-care and manage our day-to-day when we are trying to recover from trauma — it can take all our mental and physical energy, leaving not much room for non-essentials. Those non-essentials can ironically make us feel better, but since we don’t have the capacity to indulge, we end up feeling guilty for not looking after ourselves. Bingo — a vicious circle is established. A GP is a great first point of contact to see if there is medical help available for mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
I really, really dislike the idea that you can’t love someone else until we love ourselves. For those who have never known what love really feels like, whether from childhood or adult relationships, it’s difficult to know how to really love yourself. We can be working toward being a masterpiece while still being a work in progress — we don’t have to be perfect in order for someone to love us. A loved one can create the space for us to learn to love ourselves, because energy is not being consumed by surviving an abusive situation.
Years of abusive situations can wear people down to very little. They are surviving, but often feel so far, far away from thriving. Perhaps there is a sense of some kind of self-love there, but that feeling is buried under layers of raw pain; an onion of trauma. Should we rely on others to save us? Not totally, but authentic love can create a wraparound sense of safety that empowers victims to pull themselves out of the past.
Even an hour of being present helps withfocus in other areas of life
What we do have to do, however, is take responsibility for beginning to nurture ourselves. It can be small — the big goals can seem so daunting if you are not used to this kind of work, so suddenly flipping a switch and becoming bursting to the brim with self-love is just not realistic. Small pieces turn into a bigger picture, and slow and steady really does win the race. Start small with things such as booking massages, hair appointments, or a spa day. If this is outside your budget, there are home alternatives, and you can learn how to do hair etc through YouTube tutorials. It sounds so small, but take the examples of nails. As a lifelong nail-biter, last year I decided to work on this by booking in regular nail appointments in a salon I felt comfortable in (shoutout to La Bellissima and Monika for being awesome!). I felt proud each time I went and saw the growth in my nails and enjoyed planning what colours I would get through Pinterest boards. It’s an hour out of my day every couple of weeks where I don’t have to focus on work, other people, or an endless to-do list. It means being present, and even an hour of being present helps with focus in other areas of life. Now, my nails are double their stumpy original size, and it brings me joy to get them done and it now feels good looking at my hands instead of feeling annoyed at myself for biting them. That sense of pride is a lovely feeling, and while nails seem like such a small thing, that warm, fuzzy feeling carries over into the rest of my life. The small thing has turned out to actually be a big thing in reality, rippling through so many other aspects of my life. Who knew the power of nail polish!
Nails might not be your thing, but something else might be. Browse Pinterest to see if something catches your eye. Part of the devastation of abusive relationships is that we can lose ourselves in the abuse and awful feelings. Recovery means finding ourselves after the abuse. What hobbies do we like? What do we do to relax? Yoga and mindfulness can be difficult for people with trauma or who are neurodiverse as it can be a challenge to get the brain to just relax for a while, so if it’s not your thing, don’t worry — something will be your thing. You don’t have to force yourself to stick to something that works for others but not for you. We can get caught up in the feeling of ‘this should work for me because it works for others’, which can lead to blaming ourselves. That warm, fuzzy feeling comes in so many different forms.
Part of self-nourishment is to protect ourselves. Unfortunately, some people target vulnerable people like yourself, so part of your recovery process will include learning the signs of unhealthy and healthy relationships, learning how to communicate, establishing boundaries, and identifying what your gut feeling is telling you. This learning journey will help you feel more secure and more comfortable when dating. Be compassionate to yourself while making yourself a priority. Build your peace one tiny step at a time and self-love and love from others will follow.
Dr West is a sex educator and host of the Glow West podcast, which focuses on sex. Send your questions to drwestanswersyourquestions
@independent.ie. Dr West regrets she cannot answer questions privately