Self-doubt, insecurity, moments of low self-esteem…whether we admit it or not, we have all experienced these to some degree. Popular culture often portrays women and men as having different levels of security. Is this an accurate observation? If not, why are women perceived as less secure than men? What is self-esteem really? How can we change it?
What is Self-Esteem?
Self-esteem is a person’s evaluation of his or her own value. Whether this is an assessment of our value in specific areas or overall, self-esteem is at times how we feel about ourselves (Leary & Baumeister, 2000). Studies suggest that self-esteem increases during adolescence and young adulthood, peaking around retirement age and declining thereafter (Yasemin Erol & Orth, 2011; Orth, Trzesniewski, & Robins, 2010).
Why the gender difference?
So who has worse self-esteem, men or women? The results are mixed. One study showed that women had lower self-esteem than did men in young adulthood. However, with age, men and women showed equal levels of self-esteem. This difference may be explained by women having less health, financial success, and social status (Orth, Trzesniewski, & Robins, 2010).
Psychologists have found evidence that constantly sexualized images of girls and young women in advertising and the media are harmful to girls’ health and development. Sexualization has negative effects on other aspects of life as well, including thinking ability, sexuality, even beliefs. In fact, the over sexualization of women has been linked with mental health problems such as depressed mood, and yes, low self-esteem (Durkin & Paxton, 2002; Hofschire & Greenberg, 2001).
Can we build self-esteem?
Psychologists have made a connection between high self-esteem with states of emotional stability, extraversion, conscientiousness, and healthiness (Yasemin Erol & Orth, 2011). So, if you feel emotionally overwhelmed, if may be helpful to seek the support of a trusted family member, friend, spiritual leader, or an experienced psychotherapist. You may find it beneficial to become part of a local community. For example, a simple Internet search could help you connect with an interest group (ex: meetup.com) in your neighborhood. Participating in an ongoing social group can help us feel that we belong to something and can improve our moods.
Regarding physical health, aerobic activity, and nutrient-rich foods can increase energy and also improve mood. Researching ways to improve your health (ex: consulting your physician) and actually following through with some simple steps can help improve mood and build upon your sense of accomplishment.
Creating other realistic goals and challenge yourself can also build self-esteem. For example, choose a goal (perhaps something you have been putting off) and break it down into simple steps on a list. Once your cross off your achievements, celebrate them!
Try to recognize the needs of those around. Do something nice for another person. This could mean joining a local charity, or providing pro-bono services in your community.
Decreased economic and social status has been linked to declines in self-esteem as women age (Orth, Trzesniewski, & Robins, 2010). However, psychologists have connected more education with higher self-esteem (Orth, Trzesniewski, & Robins, 2010). Why is this relevant? Consider that higher education can lead to increased income and with that greater social status. So, if you have considered beginning or returning to an academic program, it is possible that this long-term step could result in improved socioeconomic status and could potentially contribute to higher self-esteem.
Finally, recognize that your value is inherent and is generated from your many varied characteristics, not only from your sexual appeal as a woman. If you keep in mind that you are a person with the capacity for independent action and decision-making, you may be on your way to improved self-esteem (APA, 2010).
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