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Women may be gaining ground in the battle for equality, but they are still losing the war on self-esteem. Nothing is more important than how you feel and think about yourself so I was shocked to discover that girls’ self-esteem peaks at nine or ten years of age and plummets before they’re even teenagers.  What this means is that there is a generation of girls whose self-confidence slides just as their  insecurities, doubts, and body image issues take hold.

What we know about self-esteem

Self-esteem is a term used to reflect a person’s overall emotional evaluation of their worth. It is a judgment  – not just of how you look but how you feel about how you look. And it’s not about how successful or smart others believe you are; it’s how confident you feel about your own talents and abilities.

It seems like other cultures don’t grapple with self-esteem as much as Americans do, perhaps because of the emphasis in the U.S. on materialistic indicators of self-worth (like what kind of car you drive, what school you attend,  how big a house you live in, or how many designer clothes hang in your closet).

You might want to blame low self-esteem on your parents, or a teacher, coach or boss (the fact is adults who harshly criticize or create unreasonably high standards do contribute to a negative psychological climate) but it also helps to understand the pressures – both internal and external – that girls experience and how these pressures affect the development of self-esteem.

Fast Facts:

Consider the following facts:

  • Eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression are the most common mental health problems in girls.
  • 20–40% of girls begin dieting at age 10.
  • By 15, girls are twice as likely to become depressed than boys.
  • Among 5–12th graders, 47% said they wanted to lose weight because of magazine pictures.
  • Health risks accompany girls’ drop in self-esteem due to risky eating habits, depression, and unwanted pregnancy.
  • Girls aged 10 and 12 (tweens) are confronted with “teen” issues such as dating and sex, at increasingly earlier ages. 73% of 8–12–year olds dress like teens and talk like teens.

Why is it that 10 year old girls believe they can do or be anything while older girls doubt themselves on so many levels?  And why is it that young boys – whether they have talent or not – think they can become professional athletes, rock stars or CEOs? And this self-worth continues through their lives.

When and why does girls’ self-esteem drop?

  • Starting in the pre-teen years, there is a shift in focus; the body becomes a barometer of worth.
  • Self-esteem becomes closely tied to physical attributes; girls feel they can’t measure up to society standards.
  • Between 5th and 9th grade, gifted girls, perceiving that smarts aren’t sexy, hide their accomplishments.
  • Teenage girls encounter more “stressors” in life, especially in their personal relationships, and react more strongly than boys to these pressures, which accounts in part for the higher levels of depression in girls.
  • The media, including television, movies, videos, lyrics, magazine, internet, and advertisements, portray images of girls and women in a sexual manner—revealing clothing, body posture and facial expressions—as models of femininity for girls to emulate.

I’m beautiful the way I am

The self-esteem problem for girls is epidemic and to combat the devastating side effects,  New York City  unveiled a campaign to improve girls’ self-esteem last year.  Mainly through bus and subway ads, the campaign aimed to reach girls from 7 to 12 years old,  at risk of negative body images that can lead to eating disorders, drinking, acting out sexually, suicide and bullying. The initiative attempted to help girls believe their value comes from their character, skills, and attributes – not appearance.

In developing the campaign, city officials cited evidence in The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing that more than 80 percent of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat, that girls’ self-esteem drops before age 12 and does not improve until 20, and that that is tied to negative body image.

Tips for improved self-esteem

It’s not necessary to fall into the trap of low self-esteem. Here are six things you can do – starting today – to improve and maintain your self-worth.

1. Stop listening to your inner critic.

Learn to replace the voice inside your head (you know, that voice  that tells you that you’re not good enough, or skinny enough, or fast enough) with positive assertions.  When that inner voice says “I suck. I’m a bad person. I can’t do anything,”  ignore it because it’s not true. We all suck from time to time but the solution isn’t to wallow in suckage as the core of your identity.

One way to minimize that voice is simply to say “Stop” whenever the inner critic pipes up. Then refocus your thoughts to something more constructive. Like planning  your tactic for the next soccer game or coming up with a plan for tackling school work. Over time your inner critic will pop up a lot less often.

2. Take a self-appreciation break.

This is a simple and fun exercise. And if you spend just two minutes on it every day it can make huge difference. Take a deep breath and ask yourself  –  what are three things I appreciate about myself? These short self-appreciation breaks can not only build self-esteem in the long run but can turn a negative mood around in the short-term.

A few examples might include:

  • I help people each day at work.
  • I make people laugh and forget about their troubles.
  • I am thoughtful and caring when it comes to animals.
  • I am a good listener.

Want to take a more substantive self-esteem inventory? Get a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. On one side, write: “Strengths” and on the other side, write: “Weaknesses.” List 10 of each. That may seem like a lot of strengths if you suffer from poor self-esteem, but force yourself. In addition to the above examples, you might always pitch in on housework or team projects. Or mentor younger kids without being asked. Or you are diplomatic and can diffuse a fight. Or maybe you’re daring, curious or brave.  Keep this list handy and take a peek whenever you need a boost.

3. Replace the need for perfectionism.

Perfection is simply unattainable for most of us. Let it go. You’re never going to have the perfect body, the perfect life, the perfect relationship, or the perfect home. We revel in the idea of perfection, because we see so much of it in the media but that is simply an artificial creation.

Perfectionism can paralyze you from taking action because you become so afraid of not living up to some set standard that you procrastinate. And that leads to negative feelings about yourself and decreased motivation. It can turn into a never-ending spiral.

Remember that life is not like a movie, a song or a book; it can be good reality check whenever you are daydreaming of perfection. The fact is, expectations that are out of this world can harm relationships, jobs, projects  and so on. Instead, grab a hold of your accomplishments and don’t devalue them (e.g. “that was no big deal”). String together a series of smaller goals and move on from each one, like a connect-the-dots game, until you’ve crossed the finish line. And then set another series of goals for yourself.

4. Handle mistakes and failures in a more positive way.

Mistakes are an opportunity for learning and for growth, once we escape the depth of self-pity or negative self-talk. If you go outside of your comfort zone, if you try to accomplish anything that is truly meaningful, then you will no doubt stumble and fall along the way. And that is OK. In fact it is normal.

Instead of beating yourself up, ask yourself how a friend or parent would support you and help you in the situation. Then do things and talk to yourself like he or she would. It keeps you from falling into a pit of despair and helps you to be more constructive after the initial pain of a mistake or failure starts to dissipate.

Another way to be more constructive is to focus on optimism and opportunities. Ask yourself: what is one thing I can learn from this? And what is one opportunity I can take away from  this situation? This will help you to change your viewpoint and hopefully not hit the same bump further down the road.

5. Stop falling into the comparison trap.

Nothing can hurt your self-esteem more than unfair comparisons. Katie has 3,000 Facebook friends while I only have 300. Mary can outrun me and outscore me . Elizabeth has a bigger house and a nicer car. You can see how these comparisons might impact your feelings about yourself.

The only person you should be competing against is yourself. Other comparisons are unfair because you don’t know as much as you think you do about other people’s lives. You think it’s better, but it may be 100 times worse.

When you compare your life, yourself and what you have to other people’s lives  you can never win. There is always someone who has more or is better than you at something in the world. There are always people ahead of you.

So replace that habit with something better. Look at how far you have come instead. Compare yourself to yourself. Focus on you. On your results. And on how you can and how you have improved your results. This will both motivate you and raise your self-esteem.

6. Spend more time with supportive people (and less time with toxic or destructive people).

It’s hard to keep your self-esteem up if the most important influences in your life drag it down on a daily.

So make changes in the input you get. Choose to spend less time with people who are nervous perfectionists, unkind or unsupportive of your dreams or goals. And spend more time with positive, uplifting people who have kinder standards and ways of thinking about things.

And think about what you read, listen to and watch too. Spend less time online, reading a magazine or watching a TV-show if  it makes you  feel negatively towards yourself.

Then spend the time on reading books, blogs, websites and listening to podcasts that help you and that make you feel good about yourself.

Bonus Tip: Regular physical activity can enhance your mental health, reduce symptoms of stress and depression, and make you feel strong and competent which improves self-esteem.  And it doesn’t hurt if you can kick a guy’s butt – see how that affects their self-esteem.

Bottom line: Self-esteem means appreciating yourself for who you are — faults, foibles and all. It’s important to acknowledge that while you’re not perfect and have faults, those faults don’t have to play an overwhelming or irrationally large role in your life or your own self-image.

When you set realistic expectations and stop beating up yourself for not meeting some idealistic goal, things will improve  Changing your self-esteem takes time, trial-and-error, and patience. but if you make an effort to be more fair and realistic,  you will be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Remember – You are awesome!

November 7, 2014
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