Being the victim of a sexual assault can profoundly affect our self esteem.

relationship issues and self esteem

It Can Catch Fire in a Second

Self esteem story about a living in a physically abusive relationship

I am the oldest of four; I have three sisters and a brother. At 24 years of age, I was the last child still living at home, given both of my younger sisters had already married. It was then my military father asked me a very direct question: “What’s wrong with you that some man doesn’t want to marry you?”

The number one man in my life was speaking out loud a question that I had been asking myself time and time again. It sent me spiraling emotionally. I considered myself to be an attractive, intelligent and approachable female; full of energy and life. Yet, despite getting asked out on plenty of dates, for whatever reason, I had no suitors. And believe me when I tell you, this reality affected my self-esteem greatly.

My feelings were compounded because I was the unmarried mother of a young preschooler from a previous relationship. His father had decided that he wasn’t ready for children, much less marriage. Truth be told, neither was I, but I took responsibility and managed to support both myself and my young son. Working at the phone company as a Directory Assistance Operator provided us with just enough to take care of necessities and put me on a path for future independence. However, the lack of a relationship… the love of a man… seemed to validate the perception that I was unworthy of being loved. I didn’t need my father to reinforce the belief that something was indeed wrong with me. I already felt it deep down within myself.

So, when my girlfriend insisted we go out one evening with two young men she knew, I accepted her invitation. The four of us met up at her apartment after work. It was late fall in Chicago, so already a bit too cold to be outdoors. We sipped on warm drinks and ate her amazing spaghetti in the warmth of her home, getting to know one another.

Both Anthony and Tyson were Navy men, which attracted my attention. Back then, I didn’t make the connection that my attraction was likely related to the fact my dad had been in the Air Force for 20 years and I had grown up as a GI Brat living on military bases. The conversation was easy and military life provided subject matter that we could mutually discuss; an icebreaker.

The evening extended well into the next morning; as the other two slept, Anthony and I continued our conversation well beyond daybreak and into the weeks that followed. We went out for pizza, to jazz concerts and plays, while enjoying long phone calls and hanging out together over entire weekends. Once, when my car hit a pothole and dented the wheel, putting it out of commission, Anthony called my father and worked out an arrangement where my dad got it fixed and he covered the cost of the repair. He also made sure the majority of our outings included my son and helped buy basic needs, like new shoes or a new winter coat for him, as well. Anthony seemed to be very mindful of the time I needed for my commitments, not only for my baby boy, but also for my job. I quickly began to see him as my ‘Knight in Shining Armor’!

When I discovered I was pregnant with my second child, his first, I was extremely hesitant to tell him about it. Given I had already been down this road and lost a father-to-be, I initially concluded that it would be best to take care of it privately and keep going without a word.

However, I couldn’t; it’s not my style. Instead, I called him and asked if we could get together that evening, as I had something important to tell him. When we sat down together, I shared the news, along with my intention not to keep the baby. Immediately, he responded as I could have only hoped, with the declaration that he wanted us to not only keep the baby… but get married. And that we did.

Our courthouse wedding was officiated by a Judge, with all of our closest friends and family from both sides in attendance. Both his and my Parents stood with us and my girlfriend and sisters coordinated a very nice brunch reception with champagne mimosas and a cake. What a fairytale ending this was turning out to be. Perhaps my father was wrong; there wasn’t anything wrong with me, I just hadn’t encountered the right man – until now.

Things went well… at first. We built a quiet and stable home in a nice middle-class neighborhood. Three bedrooms, a two car garage, fenced in backyard with a swing set. My now Kindergartener had his own room with a set of bunk beds, put together by my dad and Anthony, and our new son had his crib in the second room.

One weekend we had a cookout and invited many of our friends over; which included his friend, Tyson. I hadn’t thought of Tyson since that that night I had met him at my girlfriend’s place. I treated all of our guests with the same care and hospitality, or so I believed. Apparently, Anthony didn’t see it the same way. At the end of the evening, when I packed up cake to go and went to hand it to his friend, I was struck across my face with such force that it knocked the package out of my hand and to the ground. I was stunned and speechless!

As our friends politely exited, my husband shared the reason for my ‘punishment’ with me; He said I was flirting. I took it as a personal failing and that I had made him unhappy.

The fighting began… and continued for the remaining few years of our eight-year marriage. Until one day, after I had arrive home from work, eight weeks pregnant with my third child, his second, excited to share the news that I had received a 25 cent per-hour raise on my job. Anthony got angry and accused me of flaunting that I made more money than he did; acting as if I were better than him. His response was to pick me up and physically throw me across the room.

I don’t remember much about the rest of what happened that night, beyond the feeling of blood flowing between my legs. I wouldn’t even be able to tell you how I got to the ER. But, I do remember waking up that next morning in a hospital bed, as my gynecologist tried to explain to me that the baby had detached and that (in her words) “sometimes these things happen”. I never told her what had actually happened; not then, nor after the dilation and curettage procedure (D&C) that I had to undergo in order to remove the remaining tissue in my uterus from the miscarriage to prevent any infection or complications with the bleeding.

I was released the following day and spent the next three months away from Anthony. And, although he never apologized for what he had done, he also never put his hands on me in anger again. We divorced five years later.

Now in my fifties, I’ve lived an equal amount of years beyond that time. And, although the memory of it now seems like just a momentary crisis in my life, I realize that it was a crossroad; would I continue to go down the road of allowing my esteem to be defined by someone else’s idea of my worth and value; to be validated as a woman because there’s a man in my life? Or, would I begin to honor and appreciate who I knew myself to be… or who I could be… even if I never have it confirmed by a man’s love?

I choose the latter.

Hustling for self esteem

The Hustle

Self esteem story about a model trying to define herself in terms of more than her looks

I was tired. I was depleted. I was sick. I could not clear the fog that shrouded my every waking moment, from class to work, to my boyfriend’s house. I wanted to figure out who I was separate from my looks, my grades, my job as a fashion model, my pre-med coursework, and sexual prowess. Oh my sexual prowess. Sexual powers? Sexual promiscuity. My vagina was the one thing in my life that I felt I had control over that no one else could stake claim to. I didn’t know that I struggled with my self-esteem until I hit rock bottom—several times over. At that present moment, I was in my car contemplating driving it into the median. I was driving on the main street in the college town I’d called home for the past two years, wondering, “How fast would I need to accelerate in order to hurt myself badly enough to end up in the hospital but not kill myself.” I just needed time out long enough to find myself again. This was rock bottom moment number one.

I was exceptionally beautiful, talented and smart. At least that’s what I’d been told my whole life by my mother, who was enthralled by my looks, so much so that she didn’t realize how her incessant pressure to look “just right” when I would so much as go to the grocery store, planted the seed for what would grow into a decade-long bout of clinical depression. This seed was watered by the fashion industry, which I entered into at the age of 14, which told me I could make it big—even as a black American girl—if I could just lose 15-20lbs (especially from my butt and hips) and sign control of my body over to my agent in the form of a contract. I tried to grow my hair out once during this period of my life, go natural, relaxer-free, and was quickly reminded by my manager that I no longer had a say over what was done to my hair. I was to be a blank canvas, a clothes hanger, ready at a moment’s notice to become who or whatever the client wanted me to become. I could become anything but white. After 5 years, my inability to transform myself and body to fit the required aesthetic of the day, which was dominated by girls from Eastern Europe whose last names ended in –ova, limited how far I could climb here at home, so I was told I’d need to go abroad to hit it big.

I did not have a strong foundation of self-worth instilled in me by my parents. I wasn’t born with an innate sense of worth like my sister, who is three years younger and seemed to naturally have a strong sense of her inherent fabulousness. I, on the other hand, started to believe that I was only as good as my outfit, my makeup, the meal I cooked, and any other performance metric I was able to measure myself against. I believed I had to be the “total package” in order to be worthy of the things I wanted in life. And what I wanted more than anything was a loving husband and strong family. A happy marriage, free of the drama, threats, and the bullying I witnessed between my own married parents. I wanted to create a family free of the dysfunction that characterized my own in which my mother threatened to kill me (more than once), utilized verbal abuse (sometimes in public), picked fights, and belittled me in order to vent her own unresolved pain at the hands of her mother. I would never call my daughter a “stupid, fucking bitch.” There would be family traditions and holiday celebrations and me and my siblings would be close.

So I started hustling to be worthy. I avoided appearing weak, asking questions, or developing close relationships. I overachieved constantly which gained me acceptance into all 11 of the universities I applied to including my dream school, University of Chicago. I soon felt another blow to my self-concept, which made me angry at God, an anger I carried with me through the next few years of my life. I thought God would’ve recognized my hustle and rewarded me with the financial ability to go to Chicago. A place where I could reinvent myself and be far away from the family and the self I wanted to leave behind. But He hadn’t. In spite of having just won a national beauty pageant (and the car I was about to wreck), finishing in the top 10% of my class, getting my medical research published as a 16-year-old, I would end up staying in-state going to the University of Florida. This was the institution that recognized my hustle more than the others and was willing to give me a full free-ride with a little left over to prove it. Just 2 hours away from my parent’s house, I was pissed.

I erroneously believed that the hustle there would be just as easy for me as it had always been, that grades and accolades would fall into place with little effort, and that in spite of it not being my first, or even 10th choice, my college experience would be just like the movies, “the best years of your life.” Actually, they were the worst.

My first semester in college I got involved with “Dee” a 24-year-old “super senior” working to finish his degree. I was 17, lonely (I knew no one at my school), and angry. The relationship with Dee was abusive sexually, physically, and emotionally. It wasn’t until recently that I have been able to say “I was raped” because my low-self-worth “demons” had me believing for so long that the relationship, and the things that happened in it, were my fault. After I told Dee once and for all that I was done with him he started to stalk me. I’d be driving down the street on my way to class and look in my rearview mirror and he would be there in his car following me. Another time, I was at another guy’s apartment who lived on the other side of town and looked out my window to see his car there. I woke up the next morning to mysteriously flat tires. But hey, this is what college was all about. I deserved it, right?

At that point, sex, which I’d always esteemed as an experience to be shared with my future husband, and still did deep down inside, became my drug of choice for numbing the pain of the experiences with Dee, the failed grades I’d earned during my first tumultuous semester (which was another blow to the image of myself I’d carefully curated for so long), the lack of family support, and most acutely, the lack of love in my life which I believed was a direct symptom of me not being “good enough”.

My second rock bottom moment involved me laying in the trunk of a car waiting for my “friends” to make the drive back home from homecoming weekend at a neighboring college. These friends had, the night before, lain in bed in the room where I was having sex with one of the guys whose apartment we were staying at for the weekend. They continued to lay there while the roommate of the guy I was sleeping with came in the room and sexually assaulted me. I was so drunk that I couldn’t remember the next day whether it was a bad dream or if it had really happened. It wasn’t until I got up and walked into the room where all four of these friends and the two guys were already gathered laughing and joking about what had happened that I realized it was for real. One of them made sure to remind me later, “I told you not to sleep with him.” I guess in my drunkenness I hadn’t heeded her good advice. I lay in the trunk of the car until they were ready to go, thinking about how I’d gotten to this place, what had happened, and wondering if my life would always be this painful. Sadly, not only did I believe I deserved it; I got a sort of sick release from these painful moments. It was my own form of self-harm.

Well what I know now is that I didn’t deserve it. That those experiences, regardless of how tragically common they might be, are not par for the course, and that worthiness is not something you have to hustle for. Through those experiences I was able to see glimmers of my true self, the fun-loving, lover of life, inquisitive little girl who craves connectedness and close, loving relationships. That is the self that decided not to drive my car into the median that day, to finish my degree, to seek help for my depression, to drop modeling and pre-med, and go into higher education and become a counselor. That self is my new self. The self who understands that a lack of self-esteem was both the cause and effect of my self-destructive behaviors that dug me deeper and deeper into the hole of shame where I encountered rock bottom moments number three and four.

My self-esteem journey is far from over. It is a constant battle to control my thoughts and uproot old beliefs that pop up and say “You’re not good enough!” I never took the anti-depressants I was prescribed years ago for my depression. Instead, I completed nearly two years of weekly counseling sessions and I monitor my depression closely from both physiological and mental/spiritual angles. It is hard; the fight of my life. However, I am whole and I know who I am and who I am not. I am worthy of happiness, of love and belonging. I know that the family I want is mine to create, not something I have to hustle for. And these things, I am sure, I deserve.

Healing quote by Paulo Coelho

Healing: the Other Side of the Trauma Coin

Self esteem story about carrying the trauma of being sexually assaulted as a young woman and subsequent healing

By Caroline Southwell

I was 22 years old and drunk, partying on the dance floor of my local university hangout. I spotted him across the crowd. We locked eyes and before I knew it we were walking out the door, hand in hand, headed for his place.

I woke in the middle of the night. He was inside me. I was surprised but still too drunk to be shocked. Some sensible voice inside me—that still existed despite the excessive alcohol—asked him if he was wearing a condom. When the answer was “no”, I told him to put one on. Thankfully, he complied, then came back to finish his business and thereafter, promptly fell back asleep.

I woke in the morning, alone and the shock started to settle in. “What happened? Did I dream that,” I asked myself as I pulled on my clothes in my very hungover state. I walked out to find him in the lounge room, sitting with his flatmate in front of the TV. He replied to my hello, with no care, no affection or concern.

I caught a cab home and washed away my experience as best I could. I couldn’t scrub the thoughts away though. Did I ask for this? Was I somehow responsible for this happening to me? One thing was for sure, I certainly didn’t want to drink that much again anytime soon.


That was a decade ago, and as I took a long train ride back into the city, I reflected on my rather unpleasant experience earlier the night before with a man who I did not want to be in bed with. Finally after exhausting an endless repetition of thoughts, I realised I hadn’t had very healthy or loving relationships with men since that drunken university night. Rather, I’d been repeating patterns. I could do friendship with men easily. As long as it didn’t include sex, it was great; it was easy. As soon as there was a sexual attraction, it got ugly, misguided, disrespectful, hurtful even.

I had been studying acceptance over the last year and knew what I had to do. I wanted to deal with this ghost and be done with it so it would stop haunting me. I hoped that in pulling out the memory files from the first event and dealing with it, all the other dominos would fall. At 32, I was ready to learn how to have healthy relationships with men, ideally one man, who I could be with for more than just a couple of months.

I needed a quiet place to think, to be alone, to cry… as I knew this was going to be hard. I waited until my flatmate went to work on Monday and called into the office sick (which wasn’t far from the truth). I then sat on my lounge room floor with a big piece of paper and started a list.

Having done this process before on other, less confronting issues, I didn’t find it as terrifying as I might have otherwise been. “The benefits of being sexually assaulted.” I wrote that down as my heading, so when my mind wanted to distract me with less painful, less challenging thoughts, I would remember and focus on what I was doing. And then I started to list them out.

These were just a few to start with, but more came out when I allowed myself to really sink into it…

Immediate: It has led to an improvement in my health as I am drinking less alcohol. I’ve started going out with friends more and am focussing on socialising rather than drinking, building friendships over ‘picking up.’ I am connecting better with and understanding my girlfriends who have also been sexually assaulted. I can now empathise with them whereas I struggled to understand how they felt before. It’s helped me realise that I have an issue with boundaries and that I can learn to communicate these much better going forward (and that it’s much easier to do when sober!). It’s given me the opportunity to realise how brave I can be. For example, I presented a project to my entire sport psychology class the week after he assaulted me and I totally aced it–even though he was in the room.

Medium-term: The next man I dated was 15 years older than me (the guy who had assaulted me was younger) and that brought all sorts of different lessons I wouldn’t have got from having a boyfriend my own age. These lessons made me wiser and introduced me to psychology, which I find useful in better understanding people and how they work. I’ve had a lot of sex with a lot of men as I avoided the intimacy and vulnerability of being with one partner, and this has helped me get really clear on what I love and what I can’t stand when it comes to sex. My independence has grown and I have travelled to amazing places around the world, not wanting to rely on someone else, and therefore having opportunities and experiences I would likely never have had. I’ve also made new friends I would likely never have met, had I been in a loving, healthy relationship.

Long-term: I’ve become exceptional at turning most men I’ve met into friends. I’ve learnt lessons from my male friends that would never come out of a woman’s mouth. I’ve learnt to be rougher, tougher and swear more than most women I know, and this has both gained me a level of protection (from seeming tough/untouchable) and a level of respect (from appearing to have it altogether) that helped me cope until I was ready to change. It’s ultimately led me to want to better understand how human beings work, so I can do life ‘better’ and from there began the joyful role of teaching people what I’ve learnt.

Had I not had this painful experience, I wouldn’t have become a life coach and wouldn’t be doing the work I do now! This is the most meaningful work I could possibly spend my days doing!

To dig into the memories and the emotions that came with this experience was by no means fun. It was downright painful. It felt gross and I asked myself several times did I really need to be doing this. Having already made the commitment to finish the process before I began, regardless of what thoughts came up, I persevered through every part of this ugly memory and every challenging thought my mind threw up. It took what felt like hours, but was probably less than one, and as I added each new benefit to the list I felt grateful knowing I was one step closer to finishing and letting go of this story for good.

I took a deep breath and re-read what had come out of me in a stop-start fashion. Fuck! I sat there amazed at the long list. Realising how much this experience had led to the person I had become, I continued on until I had listed over 50 different positives. In doing so, I understood how that one emotional experience so long ago had helped me to grow and become the wise woman I am today. I began to cry as I realised that if I saw him in the street, I would no longer feel the pain of this story, instead I would be curious how his life had evolved. I cried some more as I felt the relief of knowing that I could finally let this story go; I no longer felt anger, hatred or even resentment towards him. The painful emotions were all gone.

Now in saying that, doing this exercise obviously didn’t make what he did “right” or even O.K. By societies standards as well as our legal and moral code, it was and is still absolutely “wrong”. I wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone and genuinely hope that he found reason to change his own behaviour after that night.

But acceptance isn’t about judgement. It isn’t about upholding and repeating a story about him being the ‘perpetrator’ and me being the ‘victim.’ In fact, I’d been there, done that and it simply kept me stuck. It had also kept me single. It meant that I kept unconsciously attracting more of the same and I was sick of it!

Acceptance is about transformation. It’s about realising what’s in the past is in the past and consciously choosing to let it be; to stop telling the story; to stop bringing the past into the present moment; to stop defining yourself by old stories–particularly the painful ones.

Soon after doing this exercise, I started growing my hair long again. I started wearing dresses and lace and loving flowers again. I hadn’t done any of this since my early university days and before that fateful incident. I began to see that I had been judging those very feminine women around me as “weak”, yet I hadn’t consciously caught those judgements until after I did this acceptance exercise.

I wondered where this judgement came from, and realised that in the split second where I woke up with this man inside me all those years ago, I had perceived him as powerful and me, as the woman, weak and powerless. I now realised I had made an unconscious decision to become masculine, to be powerful, so I could protect myself. (Clearly that strategy did not really work, as is the case for many of our perceived “protection mechanisms.”)

I didn’t realise how much I had lost myself to this unbalanced, highly masculine form of me until I started freely wearing dresses and jewellery again. Of course, in doing this exercise and releasing this story, it wasn’t like I completely changed. In reality the masculine part of me still loves climbing trees, it’s just that the feminine part of me is back to having bubble baths!! So there’s a balance that I used to have before the age of 22 that finally came back.

As I reflect on this process, and what it took to let go, I ask myself whether it was worth it. And as I look now in the mirror at my long curly hair, wearing beautiful jewellery and a long flowing skirt, I realise that I’m now loving and appreciating myself as a woman like never before. With the wisdom of these life experiences I can see that this self-love, in its own good time, will lead to having a loving, intimate relationship with a man once again. And the way I now feel about myself made the pain absolutely worth it.


Caroline Southwell is a personal coach and inspirational speaker, who helps people remember how amazing they truly are. Learn more about her at