Some women may find themselves speaking harshly to themselves or even blaming themselves for things that have gone wrong. They might enter into a vicious circle of self-criticism and be uncomfortable with their looks or figure.
Sometimes they may feel unworthy of compliments they are offered. They may stay silent in crowded gatherings out of shyness or to avoid criticism.
In their book The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance, US authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman explain that they have met many clever women who do not actively participate in meetings due to feeling anxious about speaking up in public. They claim that the problem that faces many women is not believing enough in themselves and not their inability to reach success whether on the personal or the professional levels. Some women may feel that they do not deserve success due to a low level of self-esteem.
Psychologist and founder of Inside Out Counseling in Egypt Najla Najib explains that suffering from low self-esteem is a common problem that many women worldwide experience. “However, if the problem is common in European countries, its magnitude is doubled in Arab societies,” she said.
“To begin with, we need to know that self-esteem is the ability of a woman, or any person, to feel that she is not dependent on anyone else to feel good about herself. She should be satisfied with the way she is and perfectly aware of her abilities and comfortable to share them with others. Problems of self-esteem are problems that come from the inside out,” Najib said.
“In counselling sessions, when we give a questionnaire to women to fill out some of the questions are related to listing what a woman likes about herself and what she is proud of. Sometimes, we notice that many women do not feel comfortable answering those kinds of questions, or they are clueless about what to write down. This is an indicator that they have a problem with self-esteem. Self-esteem is a core identity issue, and it affects a person’s ability to experience joy,” she added.
There are indicators that signify that a woman is experiencing low self-esteem commonly seen in therapy sessions, Najib said. They include a “difficulty in speaking up, a recurrent feeling of guilt about some behaviours, a feeling of anxiety about rocking the boat, meaning avoiding being a leader or an initiator and preferring to follow the crowd,” she said.
They also include a feeling of being undeserving, “which is why some women might dwell in the vicious circle of catering for others, especially for children and husband. They may have the feeling that they are not doing enough, as well as difficulties in making personal choices, like career shifts, getting married or quitting a job.”
There may be difficulties in having clear boundaries in relationships and having the tendency to walk the extra mile to please others. These can all be signs that a woman is experiencing low self-esteem and suffering from negative self-perceptions and a negative internal dialogue.
Relating to the roots of low self-esteem among women, Najib explains that during adolescent years, teenagers often face a spilt identity, meaning that they are seeking a path through the transitional phase of puberty to adulthood. They can get confused about the biological and physical changes they are undergoing, and for girls this can be related to the idea that the changes that a boy undergoes usually have a positive impact, unlike those experienced by girls.
A boy may become more muscular and start to feel stronger, for example, whereas for a girl as her body starts to change she may start to feel shy and this might affect her self-image and how she sees herself. Negative statements can be very damaging, and the impact of bullying at school and between peers also cannot be underestimated.
“There is also the burden that social media puts on teenagers nowadays. Being heavy users of social media, they are pressured by competition, which can leave them anxious. Their identity can be shaken, which can lead to social isolation. The focus on the glamour of the perfect look on social media can also have a negative effect on girls and even turn into an obsession,” Najib said.
An additional problem, she said, is that Egyptian culture tends to ostracise people who go against the flow or stand out too much, especially women. “The Egyptian women’s football team have experienced verbal harassment from some people, and there is a need to revise irrational stereotypes. The problem is that women who tend to be different can be mocked, while others who are just obsessed with a glamorous look are admired, and this makes it easier for many young people to follow the crowd,” she added.
“Harassment and blaming women definitely affect women’s level of self-esteem. Women have multiple roles to play in the family and at work, and this is less the case for their husbands. Our culture put a lot of pressure on girls who don’t get married, and some may end up feeling frustrated,” Najib said.
However, gender differences in self-esteem can start to increase as we grow older. A study done by Cornell University in the US found that men tend to overestimate their abilities, while women underestimate theirs, even though there may be no difference in quality.
“This is called imposter syndrome,” Najib said, “meaning that many women may feel they do not deserve their job or what they have or that they are not good enough in the eyes of others. I have seen this myself in sessions, where clients perceive themselves as unsuccessful and not good enough.”
“Another report has found that when men apply for a job they meet 60 per cent of the qualifications, while women only apply when they meet 100 per cent. Other studies have found that women worry about being disliked or appearing unattractive or grabbing too much attention, whereas men do not doubt themselves as much.”
Fortunately, the good news is that the mind can always revise itself and change any negative pattern of thinking. Najib describes an eight-step programme of how to do it.
The first step is to change your mindset by focusing on your strengths. You need to discover your skills and develop them even more, she said.
The second step is optimism. Women tend to ruminate more about past negative experiences than men. So, they should focus on the present moment instead.
The third step is to be calmer and warmer with others, which will strengthen relationships.
The fourth step is to take good care of health, figure and looks. Women in the Arab world may tend to neglect their looks after getting married and having children, Najib said. But this is a mistake, particularly as they should take care of themselves for their own sake and not for others. They should aim to do things they want to do but have been postponing, including playing sports, finding a new job or learning a new language.
The fifth step is to take care of posture and body language. “When you feel good about yourself and walk tall, it sends signals to the brain that you feel more confident. How you carry yourself is very important. Once you look good, you feel good,” Najib said.
The sixth step is to maintain eye contact with others and to watch body language and make it consistent. “Remember that 80 per cent of communication is non-verbal,” she added.
The seventh step is to speak up and to interact more in gatherings and meetings. “Talk and people will listen. Be an active participant and initiate contact with others.”
The eighth step is to enrich your life by reading more and joining various activities like cultural groups or art classes that can give you interesting topics to talk about in gatherings.
“The mind was trained to send us signals of low self-esteem and negative labelling, and it can be retrained to do the opposite. How we define ourselves is the result of changes in our brains, including things that relate to our attitudes and emotional constructs. No matter how old we are, we can change ourselves for the better by changing our thoughts,” Najib concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly