“You’re prettier when you’re quiet.” When the person I was dating said those words to me, I didn’t know how to process it. At first, I brushed it off because he never spoke to me like that before and I told myself he didn’t mean it. But as the night went on, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and those words played over and over in my head until it began to change the way I saw him— and myself. Although the relationship was short-lived, the aftermath of what was said took me much longer to recover from and, ultimately, find my way back to myself.
I’ve heard and read about women who experienced being talked down to by a man — especially a romantic partner — and how even though their confidence was stripped away, they still decided to stay. I never understood those women until I became one of them. Despite feeling like my opinions didn't matter and what I said had no value, I didn’t want to give up on the relationship. Even though deep down I knew I should. For some reason, I couldn’t let go. I later realized that reason was because of low self-esteem. Looking back, I don’t view the situation or even the person with disdain or regret because it opened my eyes to the ways women are made to feel powerless when men insult them. The experience forced me to rebuild my confidence and know my worth — and understand it's something you have to work on every day.
Until that point, I’ve never experienced being told something so sexist from someone close to me. I remember not being able to sleep that night. And when he tried to talk to me, I hid my face because I didn’t want him to see me cry. It broke my heart in more ways than one — it broke my heart that the person I was with was capable of saying that to me, but most of all, that I started to believe his words.
And yet, the next morning, I told a friend what happened and tried to defend him. I said it was meant as a joke and he apologized afterwards. She asked if I was going to breakup with him — even though I’m pretty sure she already knew the answer. “No.” I could see the disappointment in her eyes and she expressed her fear if I play this off as nothing, what else would I allow? I didn’t have an answer. After he broke up with me a few days later, I unknowingly entered a new phase of my life that included being honest with myself and my actions.
A couple weeks after it ended, I started to notice I was feeling less independent and confident because I was holding onto those words and beginning to internalize them. I became less vocal about my opinions and felt the need to constantly be doing things with people to distract myself from the breakup. The latter ended up being a blessing in disguise. My friends were a great support system and were open to anything I wanted to try: We hiked Muir Woods, played glow-in-the-dark mini golf in the city, saw a Star Wars film with a live symphony, and so much more. And while spending time with those friends meant so much to me, I also realized I needed to step back and spend time with myself — because I knew I needed to learn how to be OK being alone.
To force myself out of my comfort zone and try new things alone, I decided to sign up for a number of different fitness classes. I should mention I'm not the most active person or early riser — which is why it surprised everyone around me when I enrolled in 6:00 a.m. barre classes. Soon after, I tried pilates, spent my afternoons at yoga lessons, and became a regular at the gym. I would leave each workout feeling more confident than the last because I was pushing myself in both physical and emotional ways. In every class, I had a lot of time to be alone with my thoughts, which made me acknowledge them instead of trying to ignore how I was feeling. I also started to volunteer more at my local Humane Society, and if it wasn't obvious already, spending time with dogs truly is the best form of therapy.
With my self-esteem slowly rebuilding itself, I was starting to find my voice again. One night, my roommate and I got into a (respectful) religious debate on a topic where we had strong opposing views. I didn't usually partake in those types of conversations with her, but it was something I couldn't keep quiet on. After a couple hours of questioning and listening to each other's point of view, it felt validating to be able to express my opinions without feeling like they carried no value. I also had a conversation with a friend where she pointed out that maybe I allowed myself to be spoken to like that by him because, sometimes, I would talk about myself in a negative way to people. Suddenly, it clicked. If I wasn't going to treat myself with respect, then that showed people how I would allow them to act around me. That realization was later echoed in a Hollywood Reporter interview I read where Jennifer Lawrence told Oprah Winfrey the best piece of advice she's heard: "You have to teach somebody how to treat you." It's something that's stuck with me ever since.
A few months after balancing alone time and outings with friends, I finally started to feel like myself. I went on dates with a few great guys and noticed one thing in particular: I didn’t hold back on my opinions. And there wasn’t one time where I was made to feel small or insignificant, which, honestly, surprised me. What also surprised me were the stories I heard from other women who experienced previous relationships where their significant other treated them in disrespectful ways. I had known some of these friends for years and knew about these past relationships, but not those details. It wasn’t until I shared my experience that friends felt comfortable talking about what they went through, as well. It made me feel less alone, but I also wished they felt like they could have talked about it earlier, regardless of my situation.
Still, I’m grateful my friends opened up to me. And in today’s era of #MeToo and the Time's Up movement, I also appreciate the prominent women in the media using their platform to share their stories and explain the effect words can have on your self-esteem. During an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Amy Schumer talked about the revelation she had in response to her ex’s emotional abuse: "It hit me like a ton of bricks one day: 'Oh, I'm not this awful, ugly, stupid person he's trying to make me feel like I am. He's saying that because he's afraid of losing me.' So that was a lesson.” The actress continued to share another important piece of wisdom she gained from the experience, “The other lesson was about loving myself and the package I come in. I have had real battles with self-esteem over the years. You learn it over and over again. But I learned that I am proud of how I’m living my life. And how the people I love, love me.”
Earlier this year, Mandy Moore revealed she was psychologically abused by her ex-husband in a piece published by the New York Times. The actress shared the damaging ways her ex would speak to her, “He would always tell me, ‘You’re not a real musician, because you don’t play an instrument,’” she said. Thankfully, Moore was able to get out of the toxic relationship, and with her willingness to open up about what she went through, was able to connect with and relate to more women. “So many women reached out to me, echoing… the idea that psychological and emotional [abuse] is often swept under the rug, or not addressed or not talked about, or not considered in the same category of just general abuse. I’ve just been really emboldened by the support that, I think, myself and the other women that have spoken out in this particular situation have received. It’s really heartening. And heartening to know that other women can look to it as an example as well. Like, ‘You’re not alone. You’re seen. You’re heard. You’re acknowledged. It’s real. And I’m so sorry,’” the actress told Us Weekly.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “48.4% of women and 48.8% of men have experienced at least one psychologically aggressive behavior by an intimate partner.” The NCADV also notes a few traits of emotional abuse, including: humiliation, undermining confidence, and controlling behavior. Researchers have also described the ways in which a psychologically abusive relationship can affect your mental health, “Emotionally abused women can be more lonely and despairing than physically abused women. Emotional abuse and neglect may be contributing factors to the development and/or severity of illnesses such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.” What’s not surprising is the same study found emotional and physical abuse were contributing factors to depression and low self-esteem in women. Their research also stated a few reasons why women feel compelled to stay in an unhealthy relationship: “Becoming ‘lost’ within the relationship is a common reason women remain in abusive entanglements, along with the fear of being alone.” The impact someone’s words can have on your mental health is not something that should be taken lightly. It may seem frightening to be single, but in the end it will be much better than staying in a toxic relationship.
From the stories of the women in Hollywood to what I’ve proven to myself, there are ways to recover from an unhealthy mindset. Reaching out to your community of friends and family to find a support system, becoming physically active and incorporating exercise into your daily life, and seeking professional help are just a few ways a person can heal themselves and get back to who they once were — or even stronger. I found talking about my emotions with friends instead of keeping them bottled up helped in so many ways. And acknowledging even though I’m in a much better place, I’m still going to have days where I second-guess myself and experience low self-esteem. The difference is, I know I'm growing to become the best version of myself.
Towards the end of the relationship, I wasn’t ready to let go. Now, I know I’ll never let myself get to that place of not recognizing who I was and allowing my confidence to reach a low point. As I mentioned, practicing self-respect is an everyday thing, and while this experience helped me become more secure with myself in many ways, it’s something I’m constantly working on. Through this, I’ve also deepened my relationship not only with myself, but with those close to me. By learning it's OK to open up and realizing my worth, I know I've only grown stronger from this experience. I also know without being told to be quiet, my voice wouldn’t have gotten louder.