In working with women for decades, I’ve found that self-esteem is the common denominator of many women’s issues. With better self-esteem, women are more able to find balance, handle stress, and claim their autonomy.
Universally, women are considered inferior to men, and although our culture is changing, most women suffer from impaired self-esteem, even successful women. Self-esteem impacts our relationships with others and our relationship with ourselves. It affects self-care, parenting, boundaries, and communication. Self-esteem determines the way we allow others, including our children, to talk to us, and how we value and communicate our needs, thoughts, and feelings. It underpins personal integrity, our ability to pursue goals, and is crucial to effective parenting.
A mother may praise her child and try to impart self-esteem, but if hers is low, inevitably, it will be revealed in her behavior, and children learn most by emulation.
Balance is an ongoing struggle for women. As individuals, as caregivers, and as earners and professionals, finding balance between our masculine and feminine sides, between the spiritual and material, between work and family, and between personal needs and those of our employers, children, parents, and partners requires self-esteem and autonomy, not to mention time, which there is always too little of. Rather than acknowledging how much they achieve, women typically are self-critical that they are not accomplishing enough at work, as mothers, homemakers, daughters, or in their personal endeavors. They feel guilty when they don’t meet their own and other’s expectations. The fact is there isn’t enough time and energy to go around, but how we think about it and allocate our resources makes all the difference.
Women are used to stress – caring for children while cooking, cleaning, and talking on the phone. Working moms have added stress and it’s a greater challenge for them to make time for themselves. According to the latest census, 55 percent of mothers (63 percent of college-educated moms) with infants work. Of mothers under the age of 45 without infants, 72 percent are in the workforce. When I returned home to my children after a stressful day practicing law, I’d park my car outside my house to meditate for ten minutes before going inside. This allowed me time to get centered and transition to parenting. Self-esteem enables women to practice self-care and to balance these competing demands, reducing stress and allowing them to be present to loved ones and any task at hand.
Setting boundaries is vital to reducing stress and finding balance. Women are plagued with the dilemma of feeling guilty when they say “no” or resentful when they don’t. They fear loss of the relationship or the person’s esteem. Relationship loss is the biggest stressor for women, as is failure for men. The ability to feel comfortable setting boundaries requires self-esteem. When women value themselves, they are more able to claim their autonomy. Autonomy is a feeling of both separateness and wholeness that permits us to feel separate when in a relationship and complete when on our own. Many women complain that they do great when they’re alone, but as soon as they’re in a relationship or in the presence of their partner, they lose themselves. Some give up their hobbies, friends, career, and creative pursuits. They have trouble transitioning from an intimate weekend to the office, or they can’t articulate opinions about things in front of their partner or an authority figure.
Attachment is paramount for women. One reason autonomy is difficult is that girls don’t have to separate from their mothers to become women. According to Carol Gilligan, femininity is defined by attachment, and feminine gender identity is threatened by separation. On the other hand, since boys must separate from their mothers and identify with their fathers to become men, their gender identity is threatened by intimacy. (In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, 1993, pp. 7-8).
Autonomy’s opposite, codependency, is common among women. Lack of autonomy and self-esteem can cause many symptoms, such as stress, addiction, domestic violence and emotional abuse, communication problems, worry and anxiety, depression, guilt, and anger. Untreated over time, women’s health suffers. I’ll be exploring these issues in detail and how they relate to many problems, such as abuse, self-empowerment, life cycle transitions, health, body image, and sexuality. I welcome hearing any questions and concerns that you’d like addressed in the months ahead.
Copyright 2010 Darlene Lancer, MFT