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My girlfriend and I have been dating for a little over a year now, and while I consider her to be an amazing person, she has an extremely low opinion of herself, calling herself "worthless" or the likes.

I think it's important here to give a little context to the situation :

What happened:

Since middle school, she has been the target of severe bullying. To give a few examples of how severe it was, she's got a few scars on both of her forearms which were inflicted upon her by her bullies. As well as several burns. There have also been cases of her getting locked up (purposefully) in a cellar for literal hours. But what seems to have hurt her the most was the verbal abuse she had to deal with for those years.

As one might expect, she's been subject to depression, as well as self-harming, and she even attempted suicide once, but with professional help, it seems like it's behind her now.

But in her last year of High School, things got a lot worse for her, and the bullying became much, much worse. Which led to her becoming a shut-in.

The situation now:

With the help of a professional we were able to convince her to get out of the house at least once or twice a week (though she won't go alone, or for more that or 2 hours). Due to her hometown being fairly small, we would happen to stumble upon some of her old bullies every now and then. While they would usually not do anything if she is not alone, there have been instances of them trying to start something, so we decided to move out.

Now that we moved out, she is able to get outside much more often than before, and for longer periods, too, so all in all, it's much better than before.

The problem

Though her situation is much better now than before, she now has an extremely low self-esteem. While we are seeing a professional to help her with that, I would like to be able to help her gain some confidence back.

My Question:

What should I do, as a boyfriend, to help her get some confidence back?

closed as off-topic by Tinkeringbell, HDE 226868 Sep 18 '17 at 18:41

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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is a situation that requires professional help. You as OP already stated that there is a therapist involved, that also gives you advise. What more are you expecting from random internet people? The advice you will get here (most likely) won't be professional, and may do more harm than good. – Tinkeringbell Sep 18 '17 at 18:37
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    Comments deleted. Comments are for comments, not answers. – HDE 226868 Sep 18 '17 at 18:41
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    I don't see why this question was voted as off-topic - there's plenty that OP could do to help that goes beyond seeking professional therapy. – Zibbobz Sep 18 '17 at 18:50
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    @Zibbobz: The point isn't that there is plenty he could do. This is about another person's mental health, that OP wants to influence. If OP gets advice that doesn't take the entire condition of his girlfriend into account (and only a professional can do that, by carefully monitoring a patient), OP follows up on it and it might end up damaging his girlfriends already fragile mental health condition, we have consequences on our hand that go beyond feeling awkward or embarrassed. – Tinkeringbell Sep 18 '17 at 19:02
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    @Tinkeringbell : I don't think OP wants to influence, OP wants to help. OP is asking for tips that wouldn't go against the professional help they're already having. They've made the 1st important step: professional help. I think he's seeking advice on how not to mess with the psy help. Nothing can be really wrong just being on her side, showing love and support, don't you think? – OldPadawan Sep 18 '17 at 19:41
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The seeds of confidence need a breeding ground. Be the potting soil she needs.

As you already have help from a profesional, I would just recommand that you:

  1. Tell her you love her.
  2. Show her you love her.
  3. Be supportive (i.g. by listening to her when she needs to talk).
  4. Reassure and encourage. Mark every little victory she has in the everyday life. Underline her achievements (last sentence: credit to @Noldor).
  5. Be a physical defensive rempart (stand with her if someone comes to bully her, so she feels protected, so she feels in you the strength she needs). To be clear, it's not about you fighting, but about her feeling that you are here.

I did just that with someone I love and that had been through the same kind of troubles and nasty behavior (though it was less than that, the mental wounds and scars were as bad...).

It took nearly 4 years before it gets better.

Be here for her, and give her some time. It will take time...

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    This is basically what I am doing, but knowing that it worked for someone else is really reassuring. thanks for the answer – user3399 Sep 18 '17 at 12:57
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    The 4. especially. Mark every little victory she has in the everyday life. Underline her achievements. @user3399 That makes 3 of us. – Noldor130884 Sep 18 '17 at 12:57
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    Point 5 . is walking on a razor's edge. I am not a professional psychologist (is that the word? Not native english speaker, sorry) but I can imagine that at some point it could be counter-productive to be overly protective. Maybe if OP is "officially" accomanying her therapy, this should be discussed with the professional. – Fildor Sep 18 '17 at 13:03
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    @Fildor psychologist without the professional :) – Tycho's Nose Sep 18 '17 at 13:07
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    @Fildor for the 5th point, I'd say it all comes down to how I do it, her therapeutist advised me on some way to protect her without being overprotective : when we come across one of her old bully I stand closer to her, I don't let the bully come too close from her, and if I feel that my girlfriend is starting to feel distressed, I disimiss the conversation and we move away. Something he advised me NOT to do, is to intervene in a conversation (unless needed), because that woul be fighting her battle in her place. – user3399 Sep 18 '17 at 13:18
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When I was younger I went through a really rough time. My self-esteem was in the toilet and I wasn't coping very well. One thing that someone told me helped tremendously:

You gain self-esteem through esteemable acts.

It seemed stupidly obvious, but I gave it a shot and it helped a lot.

Esteemable acts are different for different people. Some people climb mountains, some people run marathons, some people make art. What I found that worked for me was doing community service. Basically I felt worthless, but helping people who had it worse helped me to feel less worthless.

Anyone can be a hero to someone, and believe it or not it doesn't always take much. A sandwich and a kind word can turn someone's whole day around. It's a small thing, but it makes a huge difference for the person who needed that sandwich and a bigger difference for someone who needed to feel like life had a purpose.

Service has a way of making people feel useful and capable. It's worth trying.

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    You gain self-esteem through esteemable acts. Exactly! And, btw, that's the difference between confidence and cockiness. Cockiness is the outward appearance of self-esteem which has no estimable act(s) as its basis – TheCatWhisperer Nov 3 '17 at 14:40
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There is great advice in both answers above. This is a kind of concrete answer to fill in the gaps.

This has been said already, but bears repeating: Therapy. Therapists are not all created equally. Get a good one and if there doesn't seem to be a good connection between the therapist and your gf, offer to help her find another.

Self-compassion is different from self esteem. Her low self esteem is reinforced by the negative self-talk that she's incorporated, and it's difficult to argue with those voices. While she's working on the negative messages of her inner dialogue ("I'm worthless"), encourage her to think of herself as deserving of compassion. It's pretty hard to deny that one is worthy of compassion, and easier to tackle than self esteem.

Results from [five studies] showed that self-compassion predicted emotional and cognitive reactions to negative events in everyday life, ...buffered people against negative self-feelings when imagining distressing social events, ...moderated negative emotions after receiving ambivalent feedback, particularly for participants who were low in self-esteem. ...self-compassion leads people to acknowledge their role in negative events without feeling overwhelmed with negative emotions. In general, these studies suggest that self-compassion attenuates people's reactions to negative events in ways that are distinct from and, in some cases, more beneficial than self-esteem.

Self-compassion is a kind of non-judgementalism, of treating oneself as one treats others.

Self-compassion entails three main components: (a) self-kindness—being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical, (b) common humanity—perceiving one's experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as separating and isolating, and (c) mindfulness — holding painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them. Self-compassion is an emotionally positive self-attitude that should protect against the negative consequences of self-judgment, isolation, and rumination (such as depression).

One way to start practicing self-compassion is to journal. Journaling will reveal some of the negative self-talk that reinforces low self-esteem. When she later reads what she has journaled, she can pick out the negatives and try to evaluate their "validity" as if someone else in her shoes were speaking. Would she agree with their assessment? If yes, why; if no, why not? Would she have compassion for that person? How would she advise that compassion be manifested?

You can't be her therapist, but you can help her to have compassion on herself, not because she is "a good person" (she doesn't feel like one), but because she deserves as much compassion as does any other human being trying to live. Then help her to find a compassionate response when she expresses negativity towards herself.

One of the most important aspects of this is that she not judge herself for doing this "wrong" or "badly". Don't tell her she's wrong to feel the way she feels. Facts can be wrong ("You aren't worthless/You are kind/you are intelligent"; those are facts.) Feelings aren't facts; they aren't right or wrong. They just are.

If you need concrete help, I'd advise a journaling guide called The Self-Esteem Guided Journal: A 10-Week Program (New Harbinger Guided Journal). Though it is labeled "self-esteem", I would put it in the self-compassion category.

Another powerful resource is a book called "Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life" by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It teaches how to practice mindfulness and gratitude, both important to feeling better about life. Zinn is no fly-by-night psychologist; he has a PhD from MIT in Molecular Biology, but has made stress reduction his life's work.

You can't fix your girlfriend, but you can encourage her to treat herself with the same kindness with which she treats others. That's incredibly powerful.

Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: The implications of treating oneself kindly.
Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself
10 Journaling Tips to Help You Heal, Grow and Thrive

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I'd say achieving things helps create confidence.

So, she needs an activity she likes and can be proud to be good at. Can be anything: gardening, programming, any kind of sports or martial arts, playing music, drawing, writing, cooking, being a know-it-all about a topic, home decoration... anything. She should choose, you can suggest.

What I'm hinting at is that you shouldn't be proud of her just for existing. You should help her find it in herself to do things that she's proud of, and that you are proud of, so you can find more opportunities for compliments and other little words of positive reinforcement.

Not MMORPG gaming, or other stuff that will keep her inside the house, though.

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First of all, all the steps you've taken so far have been very good - getting her away from a situation where she had no autonomy, and bringing her into one where she does, is a huge step for anyone who lacks self-confidence.

The next big step for you to take with her is this - give her something to be proud of - to find things she can accomplish for herself.

It doesn't have to be big - in fact to start off, it should be small things you know she can accomplish. If she can help out around the house/apartment doing chores, then you should encourage her to, and thank her for doing so afterwards. Reward her for it, whether it's some of her favorite candy or just a kiss on the cheek, let her know she's appreciated, and that her efforts lead to good things.

Next, of course, should be getting her something to do outside of your living quarters - helping her look for a job or even volunteer work (I highly recommend Habitat for Humanity, but anything local is good) helps build confidence by giving her a sense of duty and something to do during the day.

Of course, if she's already employed and helping out around the house, then all you really need to do is remind her of what she is already accomplishing - don't flood her with praise, but let her know that you appreciate what she does and how much she helps you out.

I know there's an urge to try to be there for them all the time, to help build their confidence directly - but from personal experience, the best way for her to build confidence is for her to build a sense of self-worth, and the best way to do that is for her to have something to accomplish for herself.

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