Self-Esteem, Part Two: Challenges to Self-Esteem as You Grow Through Life

Many environmental forces and messages come into play as our identities develop.  Unfortunately, many of those influences act upon us in negative ways, causing many of us to think we are much less than we really are.  Not everyone will be affected by these forces in the same way; some women emerge from difficult circumstances with remarkably intact self-esteem, while others come from apparently nurturing and supportive environments with a shocking lack of self.  We can’t absolutely predict who will be affected in harmful ways, but the more you understand the forces that can negatively affect self-esteem, the freer you are to draw your own, objective conclusions about who you are and the kind of life you choose to create for yourself.  With that goal in mind, we’ll examine the various life stages of women, and the inputs along the way that may contaminate a developing woman’s sense of self.


Problems can begin in earliest childhood, as little girls are often encouraged to be pleasing to their parents rather than to discover their independent selves.  This is important to note because we tend to unconsciously continue childhood patterns into adulthood, just because we are by then so accustomed to repeating them.  This is how the reflex to please others can be perpetuated for a lifetime; the seemingly irresistible urge to please others haunts many an adult woman in our society today.

This dynamic is especially powerful in dysfunctional homes (which many people actually seem to have, to some degree).  An addicted, mentally ill, physically ill, abusive, narcissistic, needy, or otherwise demanding parent will naturally unbalance the family system.  The child, for the sake of her own survival, may strive to rebalance the family herself.  She becomes very other-oriented as she gains proficiency at scanning and reading the environment, anticipating the needs/moods of others, and developing strategies to stabilize the family.  This comes very much at the cost of the child’s own identity development.  “Parentified” children -- those who are left with major responsibility for their siblings because parents are unable or unwilling to actively lead the family – are forced into an other-oriented role for very compelling reasons, but which again take away energy and opportunity from self-development.

If you grew up in a dysfunctional home, the above information is best used for increasing your understanding and ability to generate more effective strategies.  Your beginnings are not a handicap – they’re just where you started.  Where you go from there is up to you.

Many young women feel urgency to be attractive to potential mates, and are often encouraged to change themselves to become more attractive to others.  This is now complicated by the fact that girls have been becoming sexualized at younger ages in recent decades.  There is ever-earlier use of makeup and sexualized clothing, and even earlier pursuit of plastic surgery.  Identity formation was already challenging enough without this increasing distraction at younger ages.  This predicts that self-esteem issues will continue in too many of our women for the foreseeable future.  It not only confuses those young women trying to grow up now, but reinforces to adult women that appearance and sexuality are primary to how we are viewed in society, as opposed to competency, integrity, intellect, spiritual presence, and any number of other aspects of identity that are far more substantial (and longer-lasting).

Intimate Relationships

Most women who end up in a controlling or abusive relationship will do so beginning early in life.  They may stay with a controlling partner for a long time, or find with great frustration that they choose controlling partners yet again after having escaped such a relationship.  Regardless of whether it is one very long relationship or several shorter ones, any serious amount of time spent in a relationship with a controlling partner will result in some loss of self.  So much effort is spent in trying to please or appease the partner, and so many parts of self are given up in order to reduce conflict, that you may find at some point there is little of you left.  Women in such conditions describe feeling hollow and lost.  Hopelessness may also be felt, as it may be impossible to imagine ever feeling whole. 

Healing can and does happen, but it takes time and is usually a more effective process with knowledgeable help.  In the case of recovering from a long-term, controlling relationship, the personal reconstruction can take years, and that’s only if you’re working at it.  Those who don’t work at it may spend the remainder of their lives just stumbling along with no clear sense of personal direction.

Young Adulthood – Family and/or Career Challenges

Young adult women may lose themselves in parenting their own children, putting off development of self for another 20-30 years.  This is worse than it has ever been, as today’s young mothers feel pressure to be “there” for their kids 24/7, regardless of how difficult it is or how much it stunts their children’s own ability to define themselves.  Children are hindered from discovering and developing their own competencies when they are being constantly attended to by the young mother, who fears that a moment’s inattention constitutes neglect or emotional abandonment.

This is not to say that being an at-home mom means there can be no healthy sense of self.  The point is that at-home moms may be at higher risk to remain focused exclusively on others than are women who get out in the world where it is possible to have a broader range of relationships and experiences.

Women who work may find that work either aggravates or begins to correct the lack of self-identity.  If the work mirrors the pattern of being a support person to others who are considered somehow more important, the woman may continue to feel defined only by what she can do for others.  If the work allows a woman to explore and develop her personal interests and gives her a sense of competency and purpose, work can be very healing, and may be where a woman first really finds herself.

The Middle Years

Women in their 40s and 50s begin to notice that the world is focusing more on the younger women.  Some note this with despair and feel irrelevant, while others discover that the reduced social attention and pressure actually frees them to more easily discover and nurture their real selves, often for the first time.  The women who begin to thrive in this new freedom tend to find previously unseen communities where they feel more powerful and acknowledged than perhaps ever before in their lives.

On the other hand, women in this same age group may struggle more than ever with self-esteem and identity.  Some of these women have focused on their families throughout their own adulthood, but now their children are moving on, distancing, and focusing more on their own challenges.  Such women find themselves at a loss, with little left of their lifelong role to fulfill.

Generations ago, fewer women had the challenge of figuring out who to be and what to do for decades after their last child launched.  Succeeding generations used to stay within a more limited geographic range, so family-centered women could move from the mother role into the grandmother role and beyond, still having much family contact time and daily purpose.  Such women were not challenged with finding a focus outside of family if they preferred not to.  Most women today will find themselves with essentially a second life to live.  Many families are now scattered across a wide geographical area, so that frequent visitation and a family-centered lifestyle is no longer logistically possible for an entire lifetime.  For women who have focused solely on their children, giving no thought to their own second act, this can be a disorienting time.

The Later Years

Senior years are a complicated mix.  On one hand, there is the wisdom and insight of years of experience and for many, an emotional steadying.  There is release from many of the tiring responsibilities of middle-adult life and perhaps, more discretionary time that may finally be devoted to personal interests and projects.  These are elements that may permit some blossoming of self-esteem that has previously remained undeveloped.

Alongside those benefits however, is the fact that loss is a prominent feature of these years: Marriage may end through death or divorce.  A work career comes to an end.  Kids and grandkids may be a plane ride or very long drive away.  Physical ability wanes over time and for most, health will eventually suffer.  Physical appearance changes in ways that we seldom welcome.  If you go through these years with no clear sense of self, they may be more than simply challenging – they may also be intimidating and overwhelming.  Do your future self a favor and connect with you now.

What All of This Means

If you find the above material depressing or discouraging, then you are seeing the importance of tackling low self-esteem.  Low self-esteem makes full, engaged living impossible.  Many, many women have spent entire lives lost to this emotional cancer.  You don’t have to be one of them.  See Building Stronger Self-Esteem for clear strategies to get yourself on the best possible track.

Copyright © 2011, Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW.  All rights reserved.


Related articles:

Self-Esteem, Part One: What Self-Esteem Means and Why Yours Matters

Self-Esteem, Part Three: Common Signs of Low Self-Esteem

Self-Esteem, Part Four: Building Stronger Self-Esteem



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