(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 12 December 2010)
(The following is a combination of my thoughts and excerpts from “Women & Self-Esteem” by Linda Tschirhart Sanford and Mary Ellen Donovan, a great book I recommend for all women.)
Self-esteem is something probably everyone wants and which everyone definitely needs. We want self-esteem because it increases our chance of finding happiness in life and makes it possible to cope with life’s disappointments and changes. We need self-esteem because nothing is as important to psychological well-being.
Our level of self-esteem affects virtually everything we think, say and do. It affects how we see the world and our place in it. It affects how others in the world see and treat us. It affects the choices we make – choices about what we will do with our lives and with whom we will be involved. It affects our ability to both give and receive love. And it affects our ability to take action to change things that need to be changed.
If a woman has an insufficient amount of self-esteem, she will not be able to act in her own best interest. And if a woman has no self-esteem at all, she will become overwhelmed, immobile and eventually will “give up.” Many women unfortunately have gone through life with a minimum of self-esteem – just enough to enable their survival, but not enough to enable them to live as fully and to be as happy as they might have been.
According to the age-old double standard, high self-esteem is an exclusively male prerogative. In men it is seen as a moral good, and a man who likes and values himself and lets the world know is considered normal, and is said to be demonstrating a healthy self-interest. But a woman who likes and values herself and lets the world know is condemned for being vain, arrogant and conceited.
In fact, if a woman walks by with a confident stride, other females are likely to look at her and say, “Who does she think she is?” instead of being content to see a female with self-confidence. However, if a male walks by with that same confident stride, it is seen as normal, healthy and even attractive.
Many women accept their low self-esteem as a seemingly unalterable fact of life. Many, taught as most women are, that a good woman is humble and self-effacing, go so far as to maintain that there is something noble and virtuous, something appealing and feminine about self-hatred and self-denigration.
Moreover, other than having the capacity to achieve personal happiness, another reason self-esteem is an especially important issue for women is that individual levels of self-esteem also have political implications, affecting our actions and status as a group.
Women in a male-dominated world face many formidable obstacles men do not face. These obstacles are not going to magically disappear. Women must bring them down by standing up against them. Every gain women have made in obtaining greater equality in the workplace, in the eyes of the law, in religious institutions, in the media, in the professions and in the inter-personal sphere, has been at the cost of enormous struggle on the part of individual women working together. Sustaining that sort of struggle, and mounting new struggles, requires that women value themselves.
When one woman suffers the unhappiness of feeling that she is not worth much, nor capable of much either, it is easy to say hers is an individual problem. But when thousands of women suffer from lack of self-worth and have limited views of their capabilities, then what we are talking about is a group problem of enormous political implications. Only by raising ourselves in our own estimation can we bring all women up.
What is self-esteem? Self-esteem is the reputation you have with yourself. On the other hand, self-image is the set of beliefs and images we all have of ourselves.
For example, our self-image can include easily verifiable aspects of ourselves like: I am a woman, I am tall or short, I am a mother, I am poor, etc. And it can include aspects not so easily verifiable, like: I am smart, I am ugly, I am sexy, I am unlovable, I am worthless, I am incompetent. Self-esteem is the measure of how much we like and approve of our self-image.
Women are so hard on themselves because of a distorted view of themselves. Women’s self-esteem is impacted negatively by feelings that we do not measure up to what society expects us to be. I have long struggled with the fact that women are supposed to be compliant and quiet because I am a fighter and opinionated. In fact, I seldom fit into any of the traditional roles set out for women.
I believe every woman struggles like I did – to some extent or another – to fit into that small box society has placed us. But I think it is time we break that box to pieces and redefine ourselves as the women we want to be.
When this happens, when we can find the courage to be the women we want to be, that is when we will start to see healthy female self-esteem – and healthy, happy women.