Women have a tendency to be their own worst critics, say experts. The most common and insidious display of this has got to be the self-deprecating comment. When innocent bystanders try to assail our misperceptions with a compliment, we shoot them down by insulting ourselves.
“Oh, you like my jeans? They’d look better if I lost 10 pounds.”
“The typical reason women do this is that, somewhere along the way, they’ve been taught as little girls that accepting a compliment is ‘unladylike’ and makes you appear as someone who’s conceited and ‘thinks too much of herself,’ ” says Esther Kane, a Courtenay, B.C.-based psychotherapist who specializes in working with women on self-esteem issues.
Take Megan Fox, for example. The bombshell transformed her red-carpet interview at the Golden Globes into a Hollywood walk of shame by responding to a reporter’s compliments by comparing herself to Alan Alda…and a transvestite. The blogosphere went nuts. Was she hard-core insecure? Had she brought self-deprecation to new farcical lows? Was she suffering from body dysmorphia?
None of these scenarios is attractive, says Elaine Lui, who spends her days blogging about celeb gossip on Laineygossip.com and covering the beat for Etalk.
“Somebody [like Megan Fox] who clearly has a distorted image of themselves when they look in the mirror doesn’t come across as refreshingly candid,” says Lui. “They come across as having some sort of a perception distortion. Insecurity is a lack of self-confidence, and a lack of self-confidence is perceived as weakness.”
It’s also a manicured finger in the eye of modern feminism. “From a sociological perspective, women fought very, very hard for the same rights as men,” maintains Lui. “When women act insecure, it undermines that fight. It almost goes so far as to say, ‘Well, we don’t even believe we’re equal. We don’t have confidence in those things that we have achieved.’ It undermines a journey that women, as a gender, have gone through.”
In other words: at best, insecurity is obnoxious. At worst, though, it can ruin your life.
“Self-doubt and insecurity can play a huge role in explaining why people stay in bad relationships,” says Karen Hirscheimer, a Toronto-based psychotherapist. Likewise, low self-esteem can affect the quality of your friendships—and your friends. “Self-doubt and insecurity lay the breeding ground for trust issues such as attributing negative intent to comments and behaviour, overextending oneself in order to be liked and issues with envy and jealousy,” says Hirscheimer. “Insecurity can get in the way of being truly able to celebrate your friends’ accomplishments and victories,” she adds.
It can also make you prefer the company of those who you believe don’t have any chance of outshining you. Misery loves company, after all. But the reverse is also true.
“We know from new brain research that, basically, the brain believes what we tell it. If you say to yourself, ‘I’m stupid and will never get the job I dream of,’ your brain will believe this as truth and, most likely, you will not strive for the education [or other criteria] you need and, thus, your ideal job,” says Kane. But, the flip side is also true. Tell yourself you deserve it, have faith you can do it, then go out and do what it takes to get there.
The first mind-set (self-sabotage) starts and ends with you doing nothing. The second starts with you researching what you need to do to get where you want to be, and it ends with you having the job/relationships/life you want. No one’s saying women need to ditch their inner critic altogether; just make sure she’s your ally, not your enemy.
For starters, try speaking to yourself as you would to your BFF: tactfully. Take your feelings into account the way you do your pal’s. Cut the hyperbole, be specific in assessments and identify solutions. Change “OMG, I’m so fat!” to “I’ve gained weight since moving in with my boyfriend. I’m going to start hitting the gym again, and I’m also signing us up for a low-fat cooking class so we can cut back on takeout.”
“It doesn’t take a lot to start feeling better about yourself,” says Hirscheimer. Baby steps lead to big leaps. “Nobody’s born with healthy self-esteem. It’s earned through trial and error, and persistence and resilience in the face of things not working out. The key is to be compassionate and forgiving toward yourself, and also set a new standard for your life, your career and your relationships that you can feel proud of,” she says.
Here are five ways to help banish self-doubt and insecurity:
1. Take a compliment like a man. If Dude A said to Dude B, “Hey, nice abs!” Dude B would reply, “Thanks, bro!” Period. End of story.
2. Don’t bash the sisterhood. Let’s stop with the “Who does she think she is?” whenever someone you know finally taps into her self-pride and is stoked she ran the whole 5K, nabbed that promotion or loves how her new jeans fit.
3. Consider a volunteer gig. Become a Big Sister or walk dogs for your local SPCA and you may benefit from a volunteer high that magically shrinks your other issues.
4. Avoid perfectionist thinking. Make goals, prioritize, work hard, but don’t think you have to be the best at everything. You’ll constantly fall short—and hate yourself for it.
5. Like yourself. I know, how New Agey. But seriously, you need to value who you are and everything you’ve accomplished. Talk yourself up, not down, and turn your inner critic into your inner wing-woman.
“The Enemy Within” has been edited for FLARE.com; the complete story appears in the November 2009 issue of FLARE.
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