Women are notorious at finding fault with themselves. A Dove Self-Esteem Fund study last year found that over 40 percent of women are unhappy with their looks, and over two-thirds suffer low confidence about their bodies. Many blamed the airbrushed, ideal models for setting unrealistic, unattainable standards. Our societal attitudes are a major cause.
If you lived with someone constantly complaining about your cooking, your body, your work performance, your ability as a mother, daughter, wife, lover, home decorator, housekeeper, and on top of that also nagged you to diet and exercise more, read more, maybe even pray or meditate more, you’d know why you were depressed, anxious, and wanted to scream all the time. Maybe you do live with someone like that, YOURSELF.
It starts in childhood. Girls’ self-esteem begins to plummet at nine years old, found Dr. Emily Hancock (The Girl Within (Ballentine, 1990). A 1997 Commonwealth Fund survey determined 25 percent of teenage girls didn’t like or hated themselves, compared to 14 percent of males, and 27 percent of the girls had had suicidal thoughts. Girls admitted to being very self-critical, particularly about their looks and weight. (The New York Times, “Women’s Health,” 11/4/1997). Things have gotten worse instead of better. A new survey by Dove reports that seven in ten girls are dissatisfied with their looks and/or their performance in school or in their relationships. Sadly, many engage in self-destructive behavior.
By the time girls mature, they have an eagle eye that notices what’s wrong far more than what’s right. Self-Criticism is a major contributor to low self-esteem, and although it hasn’t been shown to cause depression, it’s a symptom of depression and often the cause of feeling down or having the blahs.
Increasingly, since women have had careers, they feel pressured to excel as mothers, wives, homemakers, and as entrepreneurs and professionals. Perhaps, if you didn’t work you’d have the time to be a better cook, to be with your family; without a family, you’d have more time to focus on your career; if you had neither, you could grow your own vegetables, pursue your hobbies, or spend the day at a spa and feel sexy by evening. But women more than men expect themselves to be topnotch at everything. In truth, one person can’t.
A solution is to accept this reality. What ever you work at, you will improve and excel in. Examine your priorities, and take responsibility for your choices. Commitment to a goal may require hard work, but that’s an option. Changing your perspective and consciously choosing your lifestyle will lift a huge weight of guilt. You may decide not to change anything, but then accept that you’ve elected to divide your time as you do in order to accommodate your different roles and the needs or yourself and family, because they were important to you. If you later criticize yourself for what your not doing or not doing well enough, remind yourself that you’ve chosen to compromise and do less at one thing to make time for something else as well.
Another tactic in combating your critic is becoming more self-aware. Self-criticism is pernicious, because it leads a stealth life, remaining concealed from consciousness most of the time. It’s a psychological axiom that our unconscious controls us. Hence the more conscious we become of our negative self talk, the more power we have to rein it in. Here are some suggestions to shine a spotlight on the critic to chase it out of hiding:
1. Sit quietly and notice your thoughts. You might hear yourself saying you can’t. You’re not good at it. Listen to that string of putdowns!
2. If you talk to yourself using “should,” “always,” or “never,” your critic is probably at work.
3. Make a list of all the things you don’t like about yourself in each area of your life. Complete the sentence, “I don’t like myself when I…”
4. Watch out for criticisms as they pop up during the day, and add to the list.
5. Look in the mirror and assess what features you like, those that are neutral, and those you dislike.
6. If you’re feeling bored, frustrated, down, or having other uncomfortable emotions, they may be a symptom of negative thinking. Trace back to what event preceded them, and what thoughts you had about it and about yourself.
7. Notice the voice of your critic – the tone, volume, and words. Do they remind you of someone who has spoken to you that way in the past? Young children easily emulate the words and tone of their parents and internalize those voices.
Do the exercises in 10 Steps to Self-Esteem: The Ultimate Guide to Stop Self-Criticism. Get the webinar: How to Raise Your Self-Esteem.
Copyright Darlene Lancer, MFT 2010