This article first appeared on Forbes.com
Self-worth is a self-evaluative emotional reaction. It’s a feeling of confidence in our abilities and qualities.
So basic is this feeling to our functioning that we’ve come to know it by many names. There’s self-confidence and self-esteem, and even self-evaluation and sometimes self-appraisal. However, research shows that all these function in feedback loops that grow or shrink self-worth.
The Role of Early Development
For better or for worse, the foundations for self-worth are laid in our very early experiences. Even before we develop a complex cognitive system capable of assessing our beliefs about ourselves, our interactions with our primary caregivers expose us to feelings of pride and shame, and influence the way we see ourselves later as adults.
Research on early attachment over the past thirty years has shown how attuned mothers (or primary caregivers) help children make sense of their inner worlds. The ability to understand and regulate emotions is what leads to the affective construct of self-worth that later gives rise to the cognitive construct. Together, they allow us to make sense of our experiences, believe in our competence and grow an authentic identity based on our strengths and values.
Unfortunately, not all of us grow up in the secure and nurturing environments that are ideal for self-worth to blossom. In fact, studies show that over half of us end up with insecure attachment, the result of dismissive or indecisive parenting, or worse, neglect and trauma by the very people who we once turned to for security.
Even in these early years, if seems that the cards are not dealt equally between girls and boys. Biology primes the female mind towards an inherent negativity bias that is Velcro for negative events. Little girls end up experiencing failure and rejection with greater intensity and ruminating about it for longer periods of time, thus strengthening the circuits of shame and incompetence.
The Societal Onslaught
However, these early shortcomings are almost trivial in comparison to the social disadvantages that follow. From very young ages, girls are burdened with external demands – some familial and others societal – that chain them to an “ought self” and limit their full potential.
They’re required to “be nice” while boys are free to “be boys.” This means that they are expected to stay away from little fights and tussles, avoid aggressive sports and behaviors, and work at maintaining harmony, even at a cost to their dreams. Ironically though, when they act in ways that are consistent with gender stereotypes, they’re viewed as less competitive. On the other hand, when they act in ways that are inconsistent with these stereotypes, they are considered unfeminine. Never “just right!”
Add to that the fact that they are bombarded with subtle and not so subtle messages to be perfect from a very young age. They begin to reject parts of themselves they don’t like in order to be accepted by others, and by society. In this barren container of inauthenticity, they struggle to reach a mirage, consistently fall short, and raise the bar even higher to safeguard a failing sense of self-worth— over and over again. Enough rounds of this downward spiral, and they end up depressed and lose faith in themselves.
Worst of all, even if they do manage to put in Herculean efforts and “prove their worth,” they’re required to be modest and downplay their achievements. Young women who boast their qualifications are seen as braggers— and are disliked. Young men who do so are given bonus points for their confidence. No wonder so many women suffer from the Imposter Syndrome, unaware and unaccepting of their inherent abilities.
A Downward Spiral
This has far reaching consequences. Externally imposed expectations deprive women of the very learning experiences that would erase the effects of an insecure attachment. Recent advancements in neuroplasticity show that experiential learning has the power to rewire our brains. This is why boys manage to restructure whatever internal working models they developed in their early years, while girls continue to strengthen them and struggle with self-confidence for the next quarter of their lives.
Research shows that when people with low self-esteem receive negative feedback or encounter interpersonal rejection, their self-evaluations become even more negative and they close down in shame and humiliation. Those with high self-esteem, on the other hand, are quite immune to failure. They learn from their mistakes and stay in the game without launching an onslaught of self-criticism.
By depriving women of the experiences that would allow them to live with courage and boldness, and thus come to believe in their abilities and qualities, we’re making them prisoners within themselves. A few decades down the road, and the difference is stark. Men use their confidence to speak up, earn higher wages as a result and claim the majority of leadership positions. Women, on the other hand, continue to doubt themselves despite their competence, and struggle with the glass ceiling, often unaware that the real ceiling lives within their own minds.
Reclaiming Our Selves
We cannot change our past, nor our biology—but we can certainly make sense of it and understand why we feel the way we do. But more importantly, we can change societal expectations that we’ve internalized, so that we let go of self-defeating beliefs and patterns of behaviors and rise to our full potential.
This means that firstly, we have to connect to our “true self.” We have to befriend once again, the person who we are, our values, passions and dreams. This inner connection is what will decrease the importance of external evaluations on our self-worth and allow us to pursue intrinsic goals that imbue our lives with meaning and purpose.
Secondly, we need to put aside modesty and develop a greater belief in our attributes. Knowing who we are, without appreciating what makes us unique will not do much for our self-worth. Savoring and sharing past experiences where our strengths impacted our performance or benefitted others allows momentary positive states to register in long-term memory and build a reservoir of self-worth.
And finally, we need to let go of perfection. This is because self-worth is judged against a self-ideal discrepancy that exists only in our mental maps. When the ideal is a mirage, the consistent gap becomes the birthplace of self-doubt, overwhelm, perpetual anxieties and everything that keeps us from living life with courage and boldness.
At the end of the day, self-worth is inner security. It’s the friend that stands up for you when you are down and cheers you on when you are successful. Isn’t it time we began to nurture this relationship?