Women and “Self-Esteem” — Are You the Protagonist?

Sometimes I am struck in my work as a therapist by how many strong, talented, intelligent, creative, loving women have a tendency to live as if their lives didn’t matter.

Of course my experience is skewed: I live in a place where conservative patriarchal attitudes are still overtly the norm. I also meet women who are coming for help with various problems in their lives rather than those who are getting on just fine — or indeed those who see no alternative and no point asking for help.

But sometimes it seems to me that I hear the same words coming out of the mouths of young and not so young, educated and uneducated, mothers and women without children, married and unmarried, caregivers and those whose lives are free of such responsibilities.

I hear long complicated stories about work, family relationships, love affairs, giving penetrating insight into how the social world works and into how everyone else thinks and feels. The women speaking are the background to the story. It is implicit in what they think and feel. They assume I understand it, and usually I do. The women speaking are not the protagonists of the story, although they are at the centre.

As the clients realise the way they are talking, they tend to mention the slippery concept of ‘self esteem’. How to get it? It seems to be the Holy Grail, the key that will open up the way to a better life.

I am no expert in “getting” self esteem. In fact it is not really a thing at all but a way of being, in which you just value yourself and those around you. I know it is not something you can buy, or deserve, or give or take away, but rather something natural which grows in, and out of healthy relationships. People who are unfortunate enough not to have experienced good relationships when they were young can use other ways of feeling better in/about/as themselves, but in my opinion these things work the best when tried within a relationship (such as the relationship with a counsellor/therapist). The idea of cutting off from everyone else and trying to build your self esteem in isolation doesn’t really work, tempting though it may be after having experienced a string or a network of toxic relationships throughout your life. If you do start to take measures by yourself, they will probably quickly result in a better relationship or two. The world does not become entirely populated by wonderful people once your own self esteem rises, but you are at least available to notice and meet the ones there are.

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So how can you start to value yourself? Notice how you treat yourself, how you talk to yourself in your head, and ask yourself if you would talk to somebody you love like that. Notice what you spend your time doing. Have you asked yourself recently what you need? What you like? What you want? Or do those seem like silly questions when there is so much that needs doing (usually for other people so they can get what they need/do what they like/get what they want!)?

Of course here you may say that the real secret to joy is giving and not receiving. I would agree. But the situation has been a little complicated by lifetimes of patriarchy, to the extent where women’s “giving” can sometimes not be consciously giving at all but running on automatic, fulfilling a role.

To anyone who wants to “up” their self esteem I would say simply give yourself some attention. Look at all the strengths and talents you have. Write them down. Say them aloud. Put yourself in the centre of your story. You are the main character, someone you really like and are curious about.

It is worth being curious, and worth asking questions (rather than just answering them for everyone else)! Do you actually like this story? Should the protagonist do something different now? The last one can be very revealing. If this were a film, what would you be shouting at the screen?

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