Women and Self-Esteem, by Mary Ragan, PhD, LCSW

It was Vita Sackville-West who once wrote:

“I worshipped dead men for their strength,
Forgetting I was strong.”

This may be an important couplet to remember as we consider the topic of women and self-esteem, a topic which seems to me to be at the heart of so many of the other problems that women face in this culture, a culture which is both sexist and patriarchal.

Nathaniel Brandon has called self-esteem the “immune system of consciousness.” He explains, “Just as a healthy immune system does not guarantee that one will never become ill, but makes one less vulnerable to disease and better equipped to overcome it, so a healthy self-esteem does not guarantee that one will never suffer anxiety or depression in the face of life’s difficulties, but makes one less susceptible and better equipped to cope, rebound and transcend. (Brandon, 1994, p. 18).”

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the primary definition of self-esteem as a “favorable appreciation or opinion of oneself.” One of the most widely publicized definitions of self-esteem is given in Toward a State of Esteem: The Final Report of the California Task Force to Promote Self and Personal and Social Responsibility. “Self-esteem is defined as appreciating my own worth and importance and having the character to be accountable for myself and to act responsibly toward others” (1990.)

A description of self-esteem put forth by Brandon (1994) consists of two dimensions: 1) confidence in our ability to think, confidence in our ability to cope with the basic challenges of life, and 2) confidence in our right to be successful and happy, the feeling of being worthy, deserving, entitled to assert our needs and wants, achieve our values, and enjoy the fruits of our efforts (p.4). Brandon’s description I think, becomes particularly problematic for women since our socialization has not been in the direction of asserting our needs, feeling “entitled” to the pursuit of happiness, and feeling confident in our ability to cope. In fact, much of female socialization has been around the concept of “waiting,” i.e. a girl waits to become a woman and the woman waits to be chosen by the man who will give her a life and make her feel important and valued because she is married to him. Admittedly, this notion of what it means to be a woman is slowly breaking down, but since these formative powers of socialization are so strong and deeply imbedded, I think much conscious attention must be given to the issue of female self-esteem. Carol Gilligan and her colleagues have been doing this for many years now in their research on latency age girls and the ways in which they lose their “voice” once they enter puberty. This work and research like it provides a hopeful sign of better things to come for girls and women.

The importance of self-esteem cannot be under-estimated. It has profound consequences for every aspect of our existence: how we operate in the workplace, how we deal with people, how high we are likely to rise, how much we are likely to achieve. And in a more personal realm, the level of self-esteem influences our choice of the one with whom we fall in love, how we interact with our partner, children, and friends, and what level of personal happiness we attain.

Recent research on self esteem shows a positive correlation between healthy self-esteem and the following qualities: realism, intuitiveness, creativity, independence, flexibility, ability to manage change, willingness to admit mistakes, benevolence, and cooperativeness. Poor self-esteem correlates with: blindness to reality, rigidity, fear of the new and unfamiliar, inappropriate conformity or inappropriate rebelliousness, defensiveness, over-controlling behavior, hostility towards others (Brandon, 199, p. 5).

The question arises, then, whether dealing with men or with women: How is healthy self-esteem nurtured and developed? Brandon (1994), citing Stanley Coopersmith’s important study The Antecedents of Self-Esteem, reminds us that there is no significant correlation between positive self-esteem and such factors as family wealth, education, geographic living area, social class, father’s occupation, or always having mother at home. What Coopersmith did find to be significant was the quality of the relationship between the child and the important adults in his/her life (p. 172). More specifically, Coopersmith found five correlations associated with high self-esteem in children:

1. the child experiences total acceptance of thoughts, feelings and the value of his/her person;
2. the child operates in a context of clearly defined limits that are fair, non-oppressive and negotiable;
3. the child experiences respect for his/her dignity as a human person. The parents do not use violence or humiliation to ridicule or control or manipulate. The parents are willing to negotiate family rules within limits;
4. the parents uphold high expectations in terms of behavior and performance; the child is challenged to be the best he or she can be;
5. the parents themselves tend to enjoy a high level of self-esteem. They model self-efficacy and self-respect.

One quality characteristic of those with high self-esteem is appropriate risk-taking. This quality of risk-taking, and how it informs self-esteem, is especially important in women’s development since female socialization often does not reward risk. Cantor and Benay (1992) in their study of Women in Power: The Secrets of Leadership speak of risk as involving a search for opportunities that will bring a greater sense of purpose as well as more joy, zest, and love into our lives (p 165). This sense of internal liveliness enables us to accomplish tasks more easily and in the process to feel more satisfied, more competent, more confident, and have greater self-esteem.

James Masterson (1985) in his work on the “real self,” puts the same idea this way: “The real self emerges and develops under a combination of nature/nurture forces: a combination of constitutional endowment, genetic biological pressure, and the mother’s and father’s capacity to acknowledge, respond and give emotional support to the unique characteristics of the emerging self during those important first three years of life (p 29).”

It is this mirroring process which is vital to the development of the real self. Psychotherapy, at its best, provides both women and men an opportunity to regain access to the “real self” in the context of a therapeutic relationship which is both genuine and authentic. Healthy self-esteem means honoring, not suppressing, one’s true self.

Mary Ragan, LCSW, is Community Education Director of the Psychotherapy & Spirituality Institute and Area Director of PSI at Trinity Church, Wall Street.

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