I’m one of the world’s most self-conscious people. I really have to struggle.
Emily looked every inch the part of her cheerleader role in high school: pretty, bubbly, and naturally slim and athletic. But it was all a front. She felt anything but attractive and could barely make herself look in the mirror each day. Not liking what she saw, she alternated between binge eating and starving herself to the point that her hair started falling out.
She ate just enough to keep up her performance as a gymnast, maintain appearances, and remain sharp enough to stay on the honor roll in school, but she never loosened the tight control over her diet. It never got to the point at which it was endangering her life, but it’s taken a long-term toll on her overall health and metabolism. Meticulously managing how she looked on the outside was her way of trying to feel better on the inside, not that it ever worked.
“I know I’m not hard on the eyes, but when you look at yourself, your whole perception is skewed. You don’t see what’s there, what other people see. For years I just saw what I thought was there—an ugly little girl who was not loved and didn’t deserve to be happy.”
No matter what we look like, if we believe we truly are guilty, resentful, sad, alone, angry, hopeless, worthless, fearful and unloved—all the lies we’ve been discussing in this book—we can’t help but feel self-conscious. When your cognitive belief system is flawed, it is not possible to feel physically good enough. That we are fundamentally not attractive is a lie that we carry with us. It stems from growing up with domestic violence. We may try to fight the relentlessly negative inner voice with superficial fixes such as clothing or makeup or trading sex in an attempt to feel wanted. Others find forms of self-destructive behavior to soothe themselves: overeating, smoking, overdrinking, taking drugs, or lapsing into anorexia or bulimia.
Of course, they don’t consciously make the connection between their growing up with domestic violence and why they feel unattractive. That fact has simply not been shared with them. They don’t stop and say, “I know that I believe I am unloved because my mother and father constantly insult me and therefore I hate myself, and feel physically unappealing.” They just feel it. And that feeling creates a deep psychic wound. This scar is invisible, but it affects your thoughts and feelings and the actions you take. You feel insecure and self-conscious.
Growing up, Emily never felt secure. At five years old, she remembers being huddled together with her brother in her bedroom while their parents fought downstairs. Two years her junior, her brother often crept into her bed at night. But something about the arguing this night was different. The screams got progressively louder and ended with an audible smack. Emily’s brother ran downstairs to see what was going on while Emily waited frightened upstairs. When her parents saw him the violence stopped but that was the night her parents split. Emily never saw her birth father again while she was growing up.
After the divorce, her father moved away while Emily, her brother and mother had to move to a government-subsidized two-bedroom apartment overrun with cockroaches. After living in a nice suburban neighborhood, the change was a real shock.
Even though their living standards fell, Emily’s mother made sure her kids got the best education possible. She took on extra jobs and saved money so her kids could continue their after-school activities. Emily’s father had never hit her, and she doesn’t recall a long history of violence at home, although her mother “put the fear of our father in us and really freaked us out.”
The family was starting to adjust to this new life when a new man came into their lives.
Ted lived down the hall of their apartment building with his parents, even though he was in his late thirties. Emily felt there was something odd about him. Soon, he’d moved in, and it wasn’t long before the violence started.
Emily’s mother threw him out, but he came back begging for another chance. She asked her kids if she should give it to him. Emily begged her to say no. But her mother took him in again, and so the cycle began.
WE DON’T THINK WE DESERVE ANYTHING MORE
Emily’s mother grew up living with domestic violence, and it left her feeling worthless. She did what she thought was best for her children based on what she knew.
Emily’s mother felt ugly because she too believed all the lies, and it affected her relationship choices. The brain, as we have learned, encodes sexual reproduction. It encodes sociability, so that you can remain a member of the tribe. We meet members of the opposite sex through an emotional and social connection so that we can procreate, but when we don’t feel worthy of love, when we are made to feel unattractive, not only physically but even deep down, we accept partners who reinforce what we learned in those formative years.
This holds particularly true for women and problem solving. According to Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist and author of The Male Brain, we have two emotional systems that work simultaneously—the mirror neuron system (MNS), which is responsible for reading and mirroring emotions of others, emotional empathy, and listening, and the temporal parietal junction system (TPJ), which covers analysis, cognitive emotional processing, cognitive empathy, and problem solving.
“For reasons, that scientists don’t yet understand, men switch out of the MNS within seconds of an emotional problem. Women stay in the MNS much longer,” Brizendine explains.1 The end result is women have a greater muscle memory for emotions. They record not only facts and figures but also every detail of the emotion they are feeling. So when women recall fights, for example, they not only remember the facts, but they also reexperience the sadness, anger, and fear all over again. So that ache of sadness and worthlessness, feeling unattractive, and being self-conscious lingers and informs choices. The way Emily’s mother was “programmed” to accept such feelings directed the decisions she made about the men in her life, her potential mates. At some unconscious level, she believed she could not do any better.
AS CHILDREN WE HEAR IT ALL
Even though Emily and her brother were rarely hit, her mother had no idea how her choice affected her children. Often when the violence started, Emily and her brother would jump out from their bedroom window on the second floor and run to a nearby park. “I’ve heard some say in the past that they stayed in the relationship for the children and they thought the children were asleep and didn’t hear any of it,” says Emily. “Guess what? Children are great at playing possum when in situations like that. We huddle under our blankets with our stuffed animals, shedding silent tears of total anguish. We hear it all, and deep inside we are torn apart by the violence; it changes us forever. I tried to put it in a dark closet somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind, hoping it would eventually go away, but it never did. It eats at me, silently.”
Eventually things got to a point at which the violence was so bad that Emily’s mother ended the relationship. While the violence stopped, what remained was a profound sadness, which Emily’s mom tried to relieve through alcohol. The family was then living on a welfare allowance that was supplemented with her mother’s income as a crossing guard. There wasn’t enough to eat, and Emily had to suffer the taunts of other kids because poverty forced her to wear the same clothes to school five days in a row. It reinforced that self-conscious feeling and fed those impulses that led to her eating disorder, but it also made her more determined to succeed.
Academically, Emily was an achiever. She was determined to make it off the government assistance her family had lived on for most of her life.
But socially and emotionally, she was repeating the cycle. During her college years, Emily started drinking and “going home with someone different every night.” Her sense of herself, that ugly feeling inside, was so all-consuming that she tried to alleviate it with the wrong kind of attention and acceptance, responding to any guy who noticed her, whether she was attracted to him or not. She didn’t realize it at the time and excused her behavior to “just being a college kid.” But looking back, Emily now understands the truth.
“It’s textbook, what I went through,” says Emily. “I slipped into a pattern.”
Emily didn’t like to be on her own for long. She kept seeking affirmation, replacing one man with another in order to feel desired. She had two children along the way with different men. The lower her self-esteem, the lower her standards became.
Many women and men alike may accept the first person who comes along and says, “Oh, you are all right,” or who simply satisfies a biological need because they don’t think they’re going to get anyone better.
It wasn’t until she began repeating the pattern of violence in her relationships that Emily made a real change. That was the line she could not cross. Emily was not going to allow her own children to be children of domestic violence.
UNDERSTANDING WHY WE FEEL SELF-CONSCIOUS
Today, Emily is fully aware of the connection between her relationship choices and her childhood. And awareness here is the key. Her whole perception of what a relationship is and her view of herself, her sense of her own attractiveness, has been distorted by what she experienced.
“Growing up with domestic violence robs us of our childhood and destroys our sense of what a healthy relationship should be like in the future,” she says. “I’ve never had a healthy relationship, I repeated the cycle of violence in which I grew up. What I witnessed as a child destroyed my perceptions of what a healthy relationship should be.
“Looking back I was with those men because I didn’t think I deserved anything more. Based on what I knew growing up, I didn’t believe I could do any better than what I had.”
Emily finally reached out for help and got involved with a support group that helps those in situations like hers. Meeting other people like her made Emily realize she wasn’t alone and that she was strong and compassionate enough to help others whose circumstances were worse than hers. “Until then I never knew the meaning of real friendship; of total acceptance,” says Emily. “It is so simple, so liberating, to be able to relate to other people.”
Now she helps others get the same opportunity by working with nonprofits, getting involved in leadership training for the organizations, and writing on her blog, which has thousands of followers from all over the world. The women with whom she’s in contact, both face-to-face and through social media, have shared their own stories and helped her unlearn the lies.
“For so many years I couldn’t be happy with what I saw in the mirror. But now I know the truth that I have a heart of gold and would do anything to help other people, and that makes me feel beautiful, inside and out.”
Emily finally learned the truth: that affirmation or approval from others or starving herself to become thin wasn’t going to fix the hurt or relieve the sense of worthlessness and unimportance she felt inside. But when she discovered the truths that counter the lies, everything changed.
Emily’s childhood experiences gave her a deep insight into the suffering of others and an ability to understand. Even as a little girl, she’d always instinctively understood the lies that were hurting her mother and felt gratitude for all that her mother tried to do despite her circumstances. Emily recognized her mother’s attractiveness, worth, and importance, even when her mother didn’t. Eventually Emily learned to embrace that truth in herself.
WE WEAR OUR PAIN ON THE OUTSIDE
Your face and body reflect how you feel about yourself. When you look in the mirror and see someone who believes he or she is worthless, sad, alone, or angry, that’s what you’ll be showing to others. It’s the kind of thinking that makes you feel like you don’t deserve any better. But that’s the lie that has been encoded into the minds of the almost one billion people alive today who grew up living with domestic violence.
Overwhelmed parents in a violent mood may even hurl insults at their children—calling them ugly, repulsive, worthless, or bad.
These harsh words and unfair put-downs are emotionally deadly, causing an impressionable child unbearable pain and leaving behind invisible scars carried into adulthood. Verbal violence wrecks a child’s self-confidence. It humiliates them and leads them to believing that they’re unattractive and undeserving of love.
After all, if Mom or Dad says so, it must be true. “Then I am ugly.”
Conditioned to believe these lies, cute little kids feel flawed and imperfect, crying themselves to sleep, confused and discouraged. They ask themselves, “What’s wrong with me?”
Even as adults, we berate ourselves, convinced we are unappealing, that our physicality is fatally flawed. We are simply not enough. And we certainly can’t compare to the images we see in magazines and on TV.
Even if we could, it would make no difference. The degrading comments we have heard override reality. The insults actually hurt more than the physical blows. One woman who was a child of domestic violence recently told me: “You know, I could handle the beatings. But I couldn’t stand being called fat or ugly one more time.”
These words leave you feeling damaged and diminished. You don’t believe in yourself. And your negative self-image affects everything. It becomes impossible for you to be objective about your looks.
As one thirteen-year-old girl recently confessed: “I’m so insecure about my physical appearance that all I want to do is wear big sweatshirts and pants so no one can see my body. I do fifty jumping jacks, thirty crunches, twenty-five leg lifts, and run every night. Do you think by doing this I’ll lose weight? Please give me advice on what to do.”
Feeling intense body shame, these young people often avoid social interactions because they feel inadequate. By the time they’re young adults, their distorted self-image has already wreaked havoc.
Cloé Madanes, a therapist and founder of Strategic Family Therapy, explains how low self-esteem can quickly create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Body language starts to reflect the insults that echo inside the mind: slouching bodies and downcast faces that give an air of depression, sadness, or shyness. Everything seems drained of energy.
WHEN NONPHYSICAL VIOLENCE CAUSES THE GREATEST PAIN
Suzanne grew up in a small housing development in the Midwest, where she witnessed a decade of violent arguments. When Suzanne was ten, her father divorced her mother. “My dad was miserable, and I can’t blame him. My mother was constantly verbally abusive toward him. He was a real estate attorney, and a great guy. I’m not really sure what was wrong between them, but my mother made his life a living hell. So of course he left, and I was left with my mother.”
Soon after the split, Suzanne’s mother, Pat, began dating Guy, “who was basically a professional sponge,” says Suzanne. “He started off as the most wonderful man in the world—so much fun, a great cook, very attentive—and he totally charmed his way into our lives. I wanted them to get married right away.”
But after a few months, her mother was drinking heavily and acting verbally abusive with him. Then Guy began doing the same, and things escalated quickly.
Suzanne’s mother would then take it out on her: “Anything he said to her, she’d say to me, like her stomach was too big and to ‘suck it in, suck it in!’” To relieve herself from her own pain, she piled it onto her daughter, making her feel worthless. “Putting me down made her feel powerful and better about herself. But I just ended up hating myself.”
In reality, Suzanne was an attractive, normal-weight young girl. She loved the outdoors and had a natural exuberance, but under the barrage of her mother’s insults, she felt that she was unlovable and ugly. “I was by no means fat. In fact, my mother was so busy paying Guy’s bills and buying cigarettes and alcohol with my dad’s child support payments that she wasn’t feeding me properly.”
But because it was her mother saying these things, Suzanne took everything she said to heart and lost her self-confidence. “I did feel ugly,” she says. “And I hated myself. I didn’t feel like I was worth anything unless a guy liked me.”
Seeing how her mother defined her self-worth by having a boyfriend, Suzanne quickly learned to do the same. By the time she was thirteen, she had a nineteen-year-old boyfriend.
“I was always attracted to powerhouses—boys who were controlling, who would tell me what to wear, what to do, how to fix my hair, and where I was going. I’d let them walk all over me.”
As Suzanne hit her teenage years, she began having nightmares and panic attacks. She couldn’t concentrate at school, and she began starving herself, desperate to become thinner. When the symptoms of anorexia became unmistakable, Suzanne’s mom got her daughter into a treatment facility, where she admitted that: “I want to live in a tomb filled with gold. There will be no other people to look at me, especially no boys or men. I don’t want to get married. I just want to be so rich that people leave me alone.” She was ready to commit a kind of emotional suicide in order to escape the negative judgment of others.
And yet she was so physically attractive that, at twenty-one, she competed in a state beauty pageant, but even then, “I felt I had to wear a ton of stage makeup to try to cover up and improve myself,” she says.
For children of domestic violence, feeling attractive has nothing to do with vanity. We didn’t get the positive reinforcement that we deserved, the compliments and validation that every child needs. Because of our environment we were conditioned to feel defective, physically flawed, and inferior, and that profoundly altered the way we see ourselves. Even if we did not bear the brunt of insults, we either bore the brunt of silence or came to our own negative conclusions because we didn’t have the developed brain to rationally come to any other conclusion.
As Professor Sandra Graham-Bermann reflected in our interview: “Children need to hear things like: ‘Aren’t you a cutie? You’re so sweet. What a nice strong boy you are. Wow, you can really hit that ball well.’ But when that doesn’t happen, they conclude that they’re just not valuable because they’re so inept and unattractive.”
TRANSFORMING THE LIE OF BEING SELF-CONSCIOUS
Transforming the lie of being self-conscious begins with awareness, with unlearning the lies. Only through awareness and understanding combined can children of domestic violence realize the truth—that feeling self-conscious is more based on how you feel about yourself than how you look physically.
Of course, you may want to make physical changes to your body. If we’ve lived these lies for a long time, our bodies may reflect that pain. Maybe we’ve spent years overeating, overdrinking, smoking, or watching way too much television in an attempt to bring some comfort to a life that had none in childhood.
Suzanne only recently started on a journey of self-acceptance. Her eating disorder was getting so out of hand that she was checked into a facility; nearly dying from the condition was the turning point. As soon as she moved out of the house and away from her mother’s influence, she made a decision to eat better. She walks for forty-five minutes every day and eats healthy foods. She’s learning to care much less about what she sees in the mirror and focuses instead on living her truths and unlearning the lies. She also found a boyfriend who respects her and doesn’t treat her like an object. “I used to think that I had to be like a model or something. Now I don’t even care. I look good like I am.”
Most of us are not actors, models, or beauty pageant winners. And it’s not appropriate to hold ourselves up to that standard of being in the top tenth of 1 percent on the beauty scale. What makes us attractive are the inner qualities that we project into the world; the confidence reflected in our body language draws people toward us.
When we know the truths, our bodies become the reflection. We can stand up straight, look people in the eye, and walk with confidence. When we know the truths, we know we don’t require plastic surgery, designer clothes, or stage makeup for people to notice.
FEAR OF BEING REJECTED
As we’ve seen from the stories of Emily and Suzanne, poor body image is a huge part of the lie of self-consciousness that affects many women who grew up living with domestic violence, but men feel it too. In fact, many of the men I’ve talked to for this book, including Martin, Jeremy, and Roger (whom you will meet in the next chapter), have disliked certain physical attributes they have and have tried to change them, whether it was a self-perception of physical weakness or, in my case, weight. Growing up, I was always comparing myself to others and coming up short. I found proof that someone didn’t like me in the smallest things—a glance or a momentary pause—and imagined that kids were constantly talking behind my back.
One weekend when I was around twelve, I was swimming at the local pool, horsing around with my friends, and a girl that I liked started making fun of my swimsuit. It was too small, and, seeing my waist spill out over the sides, she joked that “Brian has love handles!”
I was mortified. Sure, I was a little chunky, but a crack like that should have slid right off. Instead, that comment stuck with me, and I replayed it over and over in my mind to the point where I felt like I had to fix myself. I became obsessed.
That was the year that I started making some real money, working at a jewelry store in Newark, buying and selling whatever came through the store, no questions asked. But instead of buying a stereo or a bike with the money, I took it to a cheap plastic surgeon, who performed liposuction on me. I was wide awake and vividly remember that skinny rod being stuck into my side and seeing the fat being sucked out through the hose. It was disgusting.
Looking back, I cannot believe that my self-esteem was so fragile and that the surgeon actually took my money and performed liposuction on a twelve-year-old boy. I was so ashamed; I tried to keep that secret my entire life. But now I just see it as a perfect example of the lengths that I would go to feel better about myself. If anything, that drastic step of liposuction made me feel worse about myself.
THE KEY TO BEING ATTRACTIVE
It was only as I began to unlearn my own lies that I became less self-conscious and began to notice how people responded to me as someone who is attractive. It is easy to generate a thought that creates a feeling of being self-conscious when you believe you are guilty, resentful, sad, alone, angry, hopeless, worthless, fearful, self-conscious, and unloved. It’s also hard to lose weight and have the body you want, for example, because the lie of guilt kills willpower. Even when you are physically beautiful, it’s not something you can see when you look in the mirror because years of emotional hurt have left you feeling worthless. So feeling attractive is all tied up with undoing the lies we’ve talked about in this book.
Now that you know the tight interrelationship between inner feelings and outward appearances, you can take inventory of all those strengths that helped you get through the emotional pain of your childhood. If you believe the truth, that you truly are confident, accomplished, passionate, grateful, guided, compassionate, trusting, free, and loved, then it is difficult to feel self-conscious. As you remind yourself of these truths each day, you will begin to feel more comfortable in your own skin. So cultivate these emotions on a daily basis.
From the Lie to the Truth
You are unattractive and flawed and everyone is judging you so. You are self-conscious and feel not good enough. You rely on affirmations from others and look to external fixes to make you feel attractive.
When you believe you are guilty, resentful, sad, alone, angry, hopeless, worthless, fearful, and unlovable, when that is your identity, it is not possible to feel physically good enough. Harsh criticisms and put-downs early in life left behind these lies that have been carried into adulthood. Nonphysical violence wrecks children’s self-confidence. It humiliates them and leads them to believe that they’re unattractive and undeserving of love and it carries into adulthood.
I am attractive. When I act as though I am free, compassionate, grateful, guided, trusting, accomplished, confident, and lovable I am more attractive and I feel more attractive. I enjoy doing things each day that make me feel more healthy and vital. Whenever I doubt that I am free, compassionate, grateful, guided, trusting, accomplished, confident, and lovable, I act as though I am, even if it feels unnatural, and I am mindful of the positive feeling that doing so creates in me and in others.
1. Pick one of your new truths: that you no longer feel guilty but are free or that you are no longer resentful but compassionate, for example. Focus on it for the next three days.
2. Read the “Truth” section from the chapter that covers that truth right before you go to bed, and again in the morning. See and feel yourself acting asthe truth describes.
3. At the end of the day, write down the occasions when you embodied this truth and relive those moments in your mind. It is also OK to momentarily acknowledge where perhaps you did not live up to the truth; that simple recognition helps you move closer to the truth and further away from the lie. But focus most on the positive, the times when you lived your new truth, even if those moments were few.