Self-esteem is a hot topic. Poured over and analysed by countless psychologists – its most literal translation is ‘a confidence in one’s own worth or abilities; self-respect’. We all have a level of self-esteem, too much of it can make you cocky, too confident, even narcissistic and too little of it can make you negative or someone who focuses entirely on their weaknesses. Unfortunately experiencing low self-esteem is deep-rooted in being female, and we’re our own harshest critics.
Starting off on the right foot
Self-doubt is often ingrained from an early age; anyone who was ever told at school they were useless at something, were bullied, belittled or made to feel inferior to boys for example, will have the seeds of low self-esteem sown right there.
Conversely, being part of a loving family, being praised and regularly encouraged can be a self-esteem booster. For parents reading this, it’s hard to get it right – on one hand giving too much praise can result in a child growing up thinking they’re the best at everything, that they’re always right and can never fail (we all encounter work colleagues like this!)
Keep these three simple messages in mind to help boost children’s self-esteem:
- Keep away from negative labels, i.e. never call your child lazy, slow, bully or naughty for example. Instead remind them how you’d like things to be done: ‘Let’s see how fast you can put your shoes on,’ rather than, ‘you always put your shoes on so slowly.
- Don’t just celebrate their big achievements, remember it’s the little actions in life that send big messages, such as telling them you noticed how polite they were when your friends came to visit.
- Tell children it’s ok to get things wrong. Use examples of times you’ve made mistakes: ‘We painted the living room the wrong colour and it looked awful, but that’s ok, it helped us work out what would look right’.
Self-esteem at work
Your workplace is probably a breeding ground for issues with self-esteem. Lots of us work demanding jobs with little or no praise, which not only knocks your confidence but can take you away from friends and family. There’s also the threat of job security/redundancy/being looked over for promotion, which makes us work ridiculous hours for fear of seeming inadequate in our jobs.
Then there’s the gender pay gap, reinforcing playground ideals that boys are better than girls. Nina, 35 agrees: ‘My boss accidently left a folder on a shared drive which showed what everyone was being paid,” she explains. “I discovered three men in the same role as me were being paid almost twice what I was. It crushed my self-esteem, made me look negatively at a job I loved and because I felt so rubbish it took me eight months to speak up about it.”
Building self-esteem at work
Nina isn’t alone in lacking the confidence to speak up about issues at work and we’ve all encountered toxic bosses in our time – the remedy is to look at your job and ask yourself what you expected to get from it when you started. Despite any issues, can you still see a path forwards which fulfils you?
Try writing a list of all the projects you’ve worked on and group them (colour coded, if that’s your thing) into projects you were proud of, projects you did well on but didn’t receive praise, or projects where you didn’t reach your full potential.
If you marked mostly the first option – your self-esteem looks pretty good. The second is largely to do with your boss and can sometimes be resolved with HR. Success at work is driven by motivation, so if you’ve lost your drive because of your boss, it could be time to move to a different department or even a job-change where you feel appreciated and valued.
If you mostly identified with the third option – where you rarely reach your potential, it could indicate your self-esteem has already taken a bit of a battering.
Try some positive Self-Esteem changes:
- Find something that you really love doing outside of work. Maybe it’s joining a local netball team or art club. Perhaps it’s learning a language at an evening class. Whatever you decide, make sure it’s well away from anyone at work, and that you really love it. You’ll be surprised at how having a new passion can boost confidence at work and in all aspects of your life.
- Look at training options – is there an area you are less confident in that you can train up on? Ask to shadow a colleague who has the skills you desire; or mention to your boss it’s an area you’d like to improve on.
- Fake it. Seriously, if you look smart, walk with your head high, you’re friendly and helpful to work colleagues (rather than sullen and bitter), you’ll shine with confidence even if you feel rubbish.
Only 4% of women around the world describe themselves as beautiful – but 80% agree that every woman has something about her that is beautiful, but do not see their own beauty – Real Girls, Real Pressure: National Report on the State of Self-Esteem, Dove Self-Esteem Fund
Our self-esteem is strongly associated with how we view our bodies, so it’s no surprise confidence will be low if we’re not happy with the way we look. There are many outside factors that determine this – how the media portray women and weight, which country we live in (thinness is not seen as desirable in every country), social media, our friends and also genetics!
Generation is also a factor; I spent my teenage years being embarrassed by how tall I was (5ft11”at 16) but when I reached my twenties, I learnt to love my height. The irony is not lost on me that my teenage daughter is average height and is desperate to be taller.
Self-Esteem and Real Women
Luckily, there has been a shift in the last ten years in how the media portrays women – Older women are being chosen to appear in ad campaigns, plus size models and curvy ranges are in most shops, as are Tall and Petite ranges.
The Pantene #PowerofGrey campaign shows beautiful grey hair and the Dove campaign for Real Women championed all shapes and sizes. Mothercare featured women post-birth with c-section scars and stretch marks and Barbie is now curvier, and an astronaut. It should make us more confident, braver, less body conscious, but it’s still falling short:
“I’m surrounded by positive images of women looking fabulous despite their size, but I still look in the mirror and feel I don’t measure up to conventional beauty,” admits Sheena, 39. “The problem is, unconventional women in ads are still selling perfect eyebrows, manicured nails, glossy hair and chic clothes, so I feel I have to spend a fortune to have any kind of confidence in how I look.”
In Sheena’s case, spending vast amounts of money on how she looks externally, does little to placate how she feels internally. The term ‘true beauty comes from within’, really does start with you learning to love yourself – stretch marks and wobbly bits included.
Start with changing how you view yourself:
- Is how you look criticised by anyone apart from yourself? It’s really important to understand that other people can have a skewed perception of what is normal, what is attractive and what is healthy. Lily, 27, agrees: “I spent my university years struggling to keep up with my friend, trailing her around intense gym classes and being on every fad diet out there,” she explains. “It wasn’t until after Uni, when she admitted she had an eating disorder, that I realised I’d been trying to keep up with her extreme body ideals for three years.”
- Remember, if someone else has a problem with your body, a partner for instance – but you are happy and healthy, the problem is theirs not yours.
- Can you list all the things your body has given you? From miraculously transitioning from girlhood to womanhood, growing babies and childbirth, recovering from illnesses and managing to do the crow pose in yoga. Try to see stretch marks as battle scars, blemishes as part of your skin’s journey and your weight as a work in progress.
Changing how you feel about your body can dramatically affect your outlook on life and the trick here is to try to accept the way you are. There’s a lot we can’t change about our bodies; bone structure, height, face shape and freckles for example. So, first steps are to love what we’re stuck with.
Look at old pictures of family members to see what you’ve inherited. I used to hate my feet until I saw a photograph of my grandmother standing on the beach and realised where I’d inherited them from! Secondly, make a list of what you can realistically change – hair colour, muscle tone, flabby bits – Would giving these areas of your body some attention boost your confidence? Make sure your goals are realistic and you’re changing things because you’ve decided too, not because of outside influence.
All forms of exercise can boost your self-esteem, by triggering endorphins which help you feel positive. Try free yoga and Pilates classes designed for specific reasons; if you have back problems, you are overweight, knee problems, post-pregnancy, recovering from surgery – find an online session and practice in the comfort of your home until you feel confident enough to join a class.
Friendships and self-esteem
Friendships are based on mutual respect, appreciation and a balance between praising, encouraging and having a laugh together. Throw in low self-esteem and it upsets that balance by making one friend negative in their outlook. Don’t forget toxic friends also exist, who put you down/leave you out/criticise you, to make themselves feel better.
“One of my friends used every opportunity to belittle me in public,” explains Liz, 28. “She’d laugh at my job, my clothes, even my food choices if we were eating out. It took years of feeling deflated in her company to realise it was her low self-esteem driving the nastiness towards me, and nothing to do with how I was living my life.”
True friends accept you for who you are, as singer Adele says: “I have insecurities of course, but I don’t hang out with anyone who points them out to me.”
Adele has hit the nail on the head; if you come away from seeing a friend feeling flat or like she has seeped all the energy from you, it’s time to put some distance between you and that friend. Surround yourself with people who make you feel good and who encourage and appreciate you for who you are. See: The 15 things you only get from good friends, for a reminder on what good friendships look like.
Learning to love yourself
Whether it’s work issues, friend complications or body image – learning to accept yourself is fundamental to topping up your self-esteem. Read through this list when you’re having a low moment:
- Stop overthinking past mistakes. It’s OK to make mistakes. It’s how we learn.
- Try not to compare yourself to others – social media paints a highly-edited rose-tinted version of people’s lives, but so do people in the real world. You never really know what’s going on in the background and even your most ‘perfect’ friends have their secret flaws.
- Deal with old wounds – text the friend you argued with, or the family member you need to have words with. For anything deeper, talk to a professional. Healing old wounds can do wonders to your self-esteem.
- Try to accept the body you have – you’re unique and special. If you can’t, make changes with realistic goals.
- Care for yourself. Look after your body, eat healthily and choose exercise you love rather than seeing it as punishment. Have a haircut, but only if it makes you feel good. Don’t do things to please others if it doesn’t make you happy.
Designer Diane Von Furstenberg elegantly sums it up: “You’re always with yourself, so you might as well enjoy the company.”