Six years ago, I found myself caught in the throes of an abusive relationship. It was barely half a year in, and the violence culminated on a night when my ex-boyfriend hit me so hard, I was hospitalised for three weeks.

I had a brain haemorrhage from him strangling me and slamming my skull against the wall; my left-hand bone snapped into two when I tried to block his torrential punches; my nose, eye socket and facial bones were smashed and I required reconstructive surgery, including a plate for my broken eye socket to hold my eyeball in place.

Now, most people have already formed impressions of the characteristics of abused women; that is, these women are meek, subservient to and dependent on the abusive men they choose to be with. What else could explain their decision to remain in such a toxic relationship? In my case, I was not even married to my abuser. It’s often unfathomable why anyone would willingly stay in a violent relationship not bound by legalities or children, especially after multiple incidents of physical abuse.

When my therapist first pointed out that I had low self-esteem, I was taken aback. I felt confident at work and social settings, had no qualms about voicing my opinion in public spheres, and had no lack of suitors as well. How then, can I possibly suffer from low self-esteem?

It took a long while for me to agree with my therapist’s statement. Subconsciously, in my younger years, I had built a front of being capable and high-functioning. I juggled multiple jobs since I was 17 years old, funded my tertiary education, and have paid my own rent since I moved out of an unhealthy home environment at 21 years old. While fiercely independent and unrelenting in these aspects, I somehow put up with psychological, emotional and physical degradation in my private life.

Shame is a power silencer

My insecurities prevented me from sharing my suffering with anyone, for I feared being judged as helpless. I did not want people around me to think that I was weak, inept at life or incapable of taking care of myself.

So every time my ex struck me, I kept to myself or downplayed his abuse. Whenever there were bruises on my face, a split lip, or a swollen and black eye, I simply patched my injuries up with a trusty tube of concealer to hide the fact that I was a battered woman. I remained in denial, refusing to believe that I was a victim of any sort.

I now understand that a woman with high self-worth will never allow anyone to treat her with disrespect, and still choose to stay in a situation where she is let down by the same person, again and again. Awareness of my cognitive distortions was the first step towards a path of self-love and healing. And perhaps, the ability to be gentle with oneself is one of the greatest hallmarks of self-love.

A friend remarked, “Why do you need to keep talking about the same bad thing that happened to you?”

Once again, I was reminded of how shame is such a powerful silencer, for it was precisely shame that prevented me from reaching out for help six years ago.

Since then, I like to think I’ve developed the courage to ask for assistance, as well as the maturity to disengage and draw healthier boundaries for myself. Conflicts and disagreements are natural in any type of relationship, but to what extent do we tolerate something that feels bad for us? I don’t have rigid rules to assess all interpersonal relationships equally, but with more experience and discernment, I’ve learnt to pick up on red flags better. The ability to leave unhealthy situations has also gotten much easier the moment I discovered how to enjoy my own company.

Previously, I had plenty of capacity for bad behaviour, because I rationalised that all humans possess innate goodness. Every time my ex was violent towards me, I assured myself that he was suffering in his own way too. I had so much compassion for my abuser, but none for myself. Until I committed to therapy, I did not see that I was someone deserving of basic respect and better treatment.

Finding strength in empathy

Today, after years of healing, postgraduate education and dedication towards uncovering my blindspots, I find myself back in the therapy room, but with a different role: I am currently a psychotherapy trainee undergoing clinical supervision. Every week, I see clients – men and women – from all walks of life facing different issues. And with the therapeutic modalities I was trained in, coupled with clearer insights about human nature, I am able to nudge my clients towards healthier relationships with themselves and others.

Empathy, formerly misplaced in the wrong people, is now my greatest strength.

Saraswati Rachel is a psychotherapist-in-training at a private psychology clinic, as well as a content strategist specialising in mental health and psychology-related topics. She is also a relentless advocate of mental wellbeing.

HAIR Angel Gwee, using Davines
MAKEUP Benedict Choo, using Tarte Cosmetics