Women & the Importance of Self-Esteem
- By Dr. Elaine Kindle -
Tina (all names changed for anonymity) is 40, a housewife and mother of three. She is the "team mom" for her son's Little League, the room mother for her first grade daughter, and takes her older daughter to dance class three times a week. Her friends look to her for tips on her organization. They think she is amazing. But Tina feels incompetent and overwhelmed. In spite of her good image, she has to ask her husband for every dime and for permission to go out. She struggles with his lack of cooperation around the house. After dinner he naps while she does the dishes and checks the children's homework. On weekends he plays golf, leaving her alone with the children. He tells her she should be grateful for having a husband who doesn't "fool around" and that she should stop complaining. He has hit her twice when angry. Her friends would be surprised to find out how unhappy she is, and that she feels worthless and trapped.
Sara, age 22, grew up constantly hearing her parents tell her, "You're do dumb. You'll never amount to anything." Consequently, Sara believes these messages and her life reflects it. She barely finished high school and has a minimum wage job. Although she dreams of being married, she has difficulty maintaining a relationship. She is unhappy, and feels she has no real future.
Rita graduated from college despite growing up hearing that she was "selfish and lazy". She has spent her 38 years trying to prove she is a good person. She has worked for the same company for 17 years. She gets good work evaluations, but not the raises she deserves. She has been bypassed for promotion several times. Her boss "teases" her by calling her derogatory names, and when she reacts, tells her she can't take a joke. Rita is unhappy, and doesn't know what to do about her situation.**
Tina, Sara, Rita and many women like them, receive critical, false, and harmful messages about themselves from people who are significant in their lives. As a result, they believe that "ungrateful", "dumb", "selfish", or other pejoratives designed to shame them into compliance are true. Consequently, each feels unhappy and helpless, blames herself and feels unable to change. They are living out their lives according to the negative messages they have heard about themselves. They fail to understand that these messages are not accurate, but rather are harmful and are used to control them, to "keep them in line". So each suffers from low self-esteem. In turn, this low self-esteem further limits personal awareness, growth, and the possibility to have a better life. Change is possible, and each of them deserves better. Increasing their self-esteem can be the catalyst to such positive change.
What is self-esteem and why is it so important? Can you do anything to improve your self-esteem?
Self-esteem is one of the most essential ingredients of life. Your level of self-esteem affects everything you do, whether in work or in any of your relationships.
William James, one of the early researchers of self-esteem (1892) explained that our self-esteem improves when we are successful in areas of life that are important to us. A few years later, another researcher, C. H. Cooley (1902) added that the social forces in our lives affect our self-esteem either positively or negatively.
Linda Sanford and Mary Donovan in Women & Self-Esteem (1984) define self-esteem as part of the self-concept. They reflect the definition of major self-esteem researcher, Rosenberg (1965), when they comment, "The self-concept or self-image is the set of beliefs and images we all have and hold to be true of ourselves. By contrast, our level of self-esteem (or self-respect, self-love or self-worth) is the measure of how much we like and approve our self-concept" (p. 7).
Nathaniel Branden, in the Power of Self-Esteem (1974), echoed the voice Coopersmith (1967), another major contemporary researchers on self-esteem. Branden says self-esteem is "confidence in our ability to think and to cope with the basic challenges of life; it is confidence in our right to be happy, the feeling of being worthy, deserving, entitled to assert our needs and wants and to enjoy the fruits of our efforts" (p. vii).
Self-esteem is more than just a self-concept. It reflects the society in which we live, and the value that society puts on individuals in general and women in particular.
Historically, women have been considered as less important than men. It is no wonder, then, that many women suffer from lower-self-esteem than men. The 20th century, perhaps more than at any other time, has illustrated this fact. Two major women-oriented social movements underscored women's lack of importance and introduced needed change. Through the first, the Women's Suffrage Movement, women received the right to vote on August 26, 1920. As a result of the second movement in the 1960's - 70's, the Women's Movement, women gained more status and rights. For example, many women remember the difficulty they had obtaining a credit card in their own names, or buying a home as a single female. Now their daughters take it as a given. However, women as a group still suffer from injustices that affect they self-esteem. Gradually some of these inequities are being corrected as we recognize and identify these problems and speak up.
Recent events may point out some of these problems more clearly than ever before. Chief among these concerns are those related to variations of sexual abuse. In particular, sexual harassment in the workplace and spousal abuse have been brought to public attention though high-profile events in the media.
Debates about these events illustrate differing opinions and even confusion about abusive and violent behaviors. Some people still tend to blame the victim, to think she may be exaggerating or may have "asked for it" so the abuse is therefore somehow justified. However, others are recognizing and addressing the depth of the problem and are taking action to bring about change.
As these problems are corrected, and as women are able to contribute more equitably and to be taken more seriously, their self-esteem will improve. Meanwhile, Tina, Sara, and Rita are learning that their lives are important and meaningful, that their concerns are valid, and that they have a right to be heard and to have their needs met.
Tina's growing unhappiness led her husband to understand that some change was necessary if their relationship was going to survive. They went to a couples' relationship group which helped them to recognized some of their difficulties and to communicate more openly about their problems. They are working to improve their relationship and to make it not only survive, but thrive.
Rita finally had enough. She had to face the fact that the treatment she received at work was contributing to a deepening depression. She knew that she had to get out, even though she had no idea how marketable she was or not. Although afraid, she did leave. It was not easy. She had to recover from her depression and look for new work. Meanwhile, she sought counseling and learned to challenge the false, negative messages she had grown up hearing about herself. She now understands that she is a person of worth with a talent for helping people. At age 43, she is enjoying a new life as a teacher. Her spirits have never been better. Her self-esteem is soaring. "What a difference," she says, "I didn't know I could be so happy."
Sara still doubts herself, but she is working on it. She is taking classes at the local junior college and is surprised to find out that she can do the work, and that she even gets good grades.
It is possible to change, to raise your level of self-esteem, and in doing so, to open the doors for a better life.
* Reprint of an article published in the magazine, "Your Family's Health" (June 1995)
** The names and some details of the women's lives in this story have been changed to protect their anonymity and to retain confidentiality.