Why It's Hard for Women to Feel Good About Themselves
An expert on self-esteem discusses equality and the myth of "having it all."
Posted December 5, 2018
I often hear people describe how poorly they think of themselves in my work as a psychotherapist. For some reason we tend to be overly critical of ourselves, and harsh in our internal speech. We probably never tell the people we love, "You're such an idiot," but most of us wouldn't hesitate to say the same thing to ourselves.
Women and men face unique challenges to having a positive view of themselves. I recently spoke with licensed professional counselor and author Megan MacCutcheon, who's well acquainted with these challenges. She's been writing and teaching about self-esteem for years, and recently wrote The Self-Esteem Workbook for Women.
What Is Self-Esteem?
First I thought it was important to define what we mean by "self-esteem." There's been a somewhat predictable backlash against the concept in the past couple of decades, for a variety of reasons. One of the main reasons is that high self-esteem is sometimes portrayed as thinking we're one hundred percent amazing and flawless, and yet we know that thinking too highly of oneself isn't a good thing—especially when a high self-image is out of line with the reality of one's actions. We can all think of people whose admiration of themselves doesn't do anyone else any favors.
So I started my discussion with Megan by asking her what self-esteem is, and how it's different from something like narcissism.
Seth J. Gillihan: There are a lot of ways we use the term "self-esteem," and people have different concepts of what that means. How do you define self-esteem—what is it, and what is it not?
Megan MacCutcheon: Self-esteem is how you think about yourself as a person, how you treat yourself, and believing that you are a good and worthy person no matter what setbacks you face in life. So it's not necessarily about being perfect, or having everything go exactly how you want. It's just about being OK with yourself no matter what happens, or where you're starting out, and being able to accept everything about you—both your strengths and your weaknesses.
SJG: When someone objects to the idea, what might they be including in the definition that you would not include as part of self-esteem?
MM: Sometimes people are talking about how we have to be accountable for our actions, and we have to look at our behaviors, and I think that's true. How we feel about ourselves has so many components—our thoughts, our actions, our inactions, the comparisons we make to others. And it has to do with everything we've learned, experienced, and interpreted throughout our lives. So I think we do have to look at our behaviors. We have to take responsibility for our actions, and we can't let poor self-esteem be an excuse for poor actions. We're responsible for ourselves.
SJG: It sounds like you're not denying that we have limitations, but really embracing them as part of who you are.
MM: Right, and we often treat ourselves so much worse than we would someone we love, and we have such higher expectations for ourselves. But perfection isn't achievable.
SJG: It feels like you're avoiding the possibility of thinking that the higher self-esteem, the better, which could get into the concern people have about high self-esteem verging toward narcissism.
MM: Right, and the difference between healthy self-esteem and narcissism is that the narcissistic person really doesn't have high self-esteem. Narcissism is just a defense for low self-esteem. So a narcissistic person is busy making sure that nobody knows how badly they feel about themselves, and they do it by taking advantage of other people and putting other people down. But with healthy self-esteem, you're feeling good about yourself, you're liking who you are, you're content with you who are, and you also can feel that way about other people. And you don't have to disrespect them to make yourself feel better.
The Myth of "Having It All"
One of the sections that stood out to me in Megan's book addressed the effects of women's growing opportunities on their well-being, and whether these advances have had wholly positive outcomes.
SJG: You address this societal myth of "having it all," of being "Superwoman"—having a high-powered job, being a perfect spouse, being a great mother.... How has that image of this "perfect woman" affected women's chances of having healthy self-esteem?
MM: I think there are just so many unrealistic standards out there. By nature we tend to make comparisons, so of course when a woman's comparing herself to what she sees in advertising or the media, she's going to wind up coming up short. She's going to feel like a failure. And if her self-esteem is already low, she's going to blame herself, and feel like she's the reason she isn't living up to this image of the perfect woman who never yells at the kids and has this high-powered job and does everything perfectly and balances the chores and the house work and all that. If you're not doing that, you're going to feel flawed and inadequate, and think it's about you, rather than recognizing that we're bombarded with some seriously flawed and unrealistic advertising.
SJG: You talk about how despite the advances that women have made in their representation in the workforce and politics, it hasn't necessarily led to higher self-esteem on average. And you ask in your book: "Is it possible that the pursuit of gender equality in our society may be challenging, rather than helping, women in their quest for positive self-esteem?" I think that's a really interesting and provocative question. What are your thoughts?
MM: It's complicated. There's been such a push for gender equality, which is a great thing, but in some ways I think it sets women up for—maybe not failure, but certainly a ton of stress. I think the way we look at gender roles in the workplace has really changed, as women are working more and they're holding higher positions than they did in the past. And that's great. But they're still the ones dealing with pregnancy, dealing with childbirth, and traditionally being the caretakers. I'm not saying that men don't deal with that, too, but it puts a lot on women's plates. At the end of the day it's just not possible to do it all, so something has to give. So sometimes this idea that women can be equal to men fails to highlight the fine print: Yes, they can be, but they will also need to find ways to make it all work. They'll need to figure out child care, maybe get help with the house work, because it's really just not humanly possible to do it all.
SJG: It makes me wonder if this idea of equality may have been too male-centric, or maybe it didn't respect women's preferences enough—with "equal" defined very much as men setting the bar and women having the opportunity, but in a way also the expectation, that you should be doing the same kind of work.
MM: Right, and then also keeping up with the traditional gender roles at home.
SJG: It does seem like a perfect setup to feel like you're not measuring up. And tragically so many women feel like they're the only ones who aren't living up to this ideal.
MM: We don't talk about the need that we all have for support, whether it's going to therapy or having girlfriends to talk to about it. People don't always show their vulnerabilities or talk about the negatives. We feel the negatives, and we focus on them in our own minds, but we're not always talking about how hard it is. So I think when we see things out there about how you're supposed to have this job and keep it all together and balance it all, we're not really seeing that we've got to have help with that. And it's OK if you have to get help. It doesn't mean you're a bad or flawed or not strong enough person—it's just the reality of it. There are only 24 hours in the day, and there's a lot to do in those 24 hours.
Unfortunately one of the casualties of this idea of "having it all" and doing it all seems to be having less time to have those types of supportive interactions with a woman's close friends to find out that everyone is sharing the same types of struggles.
How the Transition to Parenthood Affects Women's Self-Esteem
Megan and I also discussed the challenges of being a mother, both from her professional experience and her personal experience with parenting, and the common effects on how women feel about themselves.
MM: One of the things that came up in writing this book is how motherhood impacts women. I do some work with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, and we often see a shift in self-esteem from before pregnancy to after pregnancy. There was a recent study that found that women's self-esteem tends to take a nosedive after childbirth, and for at least the first several years after that. So I thought it was important to have a section in this book for women to think about how motherhood has impacted them, or how not becoming a mom has played into how they feel about themselves.
SJG: You're right—it is such a big factor, whether a woman becomes a mother, or chooses not to, or isn't able to be a mom. There are such profound effects—and on average, bigger effects on a woman's life, and certainly body having born a child, compared to the partner. And speaking personally, I don't know if there's anything I've found as revealing of my own shortcomings as being a parent, and wanting to do well, or even perfectly, for my kids, and seeing how on a more than daily basis, I fail.
MM: It's hard work, for sure.
SJG: And there can be this mentality that if we're letting our kids down in certain ways because of our inherent limitations, that somehow means we're a failure.
MM: Right—I have little kids and there are so many days when I come home and I'm still responding to emails and I'm like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I can't pay attention right now," and I think, Oh my gosh, I'm not practicing what I preach. But you're not going to be perfect as a parent. And what you can do is show that vulnerability to kids. You can make mistakes, you can apologize to kids. I mean, the best thing you can do, really, is make a mistake and model apologizing for it, because what better way to teach a kid that perfection isn't the expectation? And you can also teach kids the tools that you're learning about good self-care. And if I have a day when I'm not a perfect parent I'll say, "I'm really sorry, I had a really stressful day today. I love you and I didn't mean to yell at you before. I was really stressed out and I'm not perfect." There will obviously still be that guilt factor as a parent, but you can model for them things that will set them up to not have some of these struggles that they might otherwise, had they not had these honest conversations. Honest conversation is the most important thing with little kids.
The full conversation is available here.
MacCutcheon, M. (2018). The self-esteem workbook for women: 5 steps to gaining confidence and inner strength. Berkeley, CA: Althea Press.