In my work as a clinical psychologist, I often observe successful and accomplished women struggling with issues surrounding feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. My patients, many of whom are young adults, often express unwarranted feelings of doubt and insecurity that conflict with reality. Common invalidating phrases that my clients regularly share include “I don’t know but…” or “I know this is silly but…”
Why do so many women feel the need to put themselves down and invalidate themselves? I’d like to examine this tendency and suggest some practical behavioral changes that will help develop new, more empowering habits.
On a macro level, there has been some recent progress in championing women’s rights as demonstrated by the Women’s March and the #metoo and #timesup movements. However, this progress can give us the illusion that we are further along the path to true empowerment than we actually are. On a micro level, that progress is slower when translated to individual women as they try to reverse the messages women have internalized for decades. To what degree are women internalizing the messages behind these movements? It’s time to pick up the pace.
There has been an increasing amount of research examining self-confidence and gender differences that observe the effects of messages woman receive on a daily basis from childhood through adulthood, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy especially when 74% of girls say they are under pressure to please everyone. Damaging messages start from a very young age. A 2017 study in the Journal of Science found that by six years old(!), girls attribute being very smart as a male trait. According to a research study conducted by the Dove Campaign, “7 in 10 girls believe that they are not good enough or don’t measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school, and relationships with friends and family members.” Issues surrounding disempowerment affect the workplace as well. A comprehensive 2015 KPMG Women’s Leadership study found that, 67% of women said they needed more support building confidence to feel like they could become leaders.
Oftentimes, women speak as though they are justifying themselves and automatically assume the defensive position as reflected in the compulsion to apologize for taking up others’ space, time and listening ears. Other times, disempowerment is reflected more through women’s behavior, which often stems from questioning their ideas or opinions, or not valuing their minds and intuition.
Empowerment comes through many different channels and even if you were not blessed with a strong support system, it is something you can create for yourself. This is achievable and accessible if you are willing to try. So as long as you have “you” on your side, you can begin taking steps towards becoming a stronger, more confident person, comfortable in your own skin. Here are a few practical steps to begin implementing today:
Do One Thing Every Day to Recharge
Many women tend to put others first and are not necessarily cognizant of the mental and emotional drain this takes. It is easy to fall into the routine of focusing on everyone and everything but yourself. By taking a proactive approach and reserving some time to recharge everyday (it can be a few minutes) you can go a long way by preventing a state of depletion and enabling yourself to be more aware and in touch with your own needs resulting in more energy and focus. “Me time” can vary from taking a 20-minute walk, enjoying an overpriced latte, meditating (can be a two-minute guided meditation — not a major commitment and easy to find for free online), watching a funny YouTube clip, chatting with a close friend or listening to a song you enjoy (bonus points if you combine music with physical activity)!
It’s Okay to Say “No”
When someone asks you a question, remember it is a question, not a command or an order. You have the option of saying yes or no. I often hear stories of women agreeing to things they don’t want to do because they have trouble saying no and instead feel it’s expected of them. Tune into any discomfort you might be feeling and ask yourself “why?” Give yourself permission to PAUSE and THINK about if it’s what you actually want before you make a commitment. Let’s reframe… rather than feeling bad saying no, I want you to feel good respecting your boundaries, thereby respecting yourself. That’s something to be proud of. If you develop proper boundaries for yourself that are respectful of your time, energy, and finances, others will have no choice but to follow your lead. The people in your life who get angry or have a negative reaction to you establishing boundaries are likely people who benefited from you not having any.
Invest in a Planner (Or App)
In this day and age where most of us are running from one thing to another it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by “to do” lists. We can feel like bystanders in our own life going through a stream of obligatory personal and professional commitments. Prioritizing and choosing how you spend your time will empower you; sometimes this involves saying “no” to others (see above).
Engage in Positive Reality-Based Self-Talk
Tell yourself you are enough… because you are. I encourage patients to write a script. Scripts can be as specific (used before public speaking) or general (morning affirmation) as warranted. As cheesy or uncomfortable as this may feel when starting to incorporate this practice, the fact is that we are constantly speaking to ourselves. Why not tap into our already existing self-talk and use it to empower and build us up?
Challenge Your Thoughts
A thought only has as much power as you give it. For example, you may have a tendency to compare yourself to others, “They can do it better,” or “I’m not the person for the job/opportunity/honor (fill in the blank)” and that’s fine. Have the thoughts flood your head and observe. Then challenge them. Why are you a good candidate? What are reasons you were given recognition? It’s fine to think it as long as you don’t immediately act on it. When you have an anxious, negative or threatening thought, it is important to challenge it or simply observe it, like a bubble floating towards the sky then popping or an airplane passing by, rather than latching on to it and believing it simply because it entered your mind. There are several wonderful visualization exercises that are helpful to incorporate for not “sticking” to thoughts.