11 Signs Of Low Self-Esteem In A Woman

signs of low self-esteem in a woman
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I often marvel at how the signs of low self-esteem in women are communicated in shows like Fleabag. At the surface level, it appears as a comedy show, which can be dismissed easily. But as one explores the low self-esteem behaviors of the titular character, it becomes apparent that comedy is often used as a facade to hide insecurity in women.

Don’t we all know at least one woman who makes fun of herself and has a hard time accepting compliments? It is not surprising that many female comics, like Ali Wong or Amy Schumer, use body issues and societal conditioning as the subject of their jokes. Now, I’m not saying that these women have low self-esteem. But almost all women fight through their self-esteem struggles before they can find the courage to stand tall and accept themselves as they are. 

To get to the bottom of this and understand how low self-esteem in a woman manifests, I connected with counseling psychologist, Aakhansha Varghese (MSc Psychology), who specializes in different forms of relationship counseling, right from dating and premarital issues to breakups, abuse, separation, and divorce.

How Does Low Self-esteem Show Up In A Woman?

Aakhansha says, “Self-esteem is the worth we hold for ourselves. It’s how we value ourselves and how we think we should be valued in a social setting. If we have low self-worth, we’re going to attract situations or people that are a reflection of our self-esteem. This could include settling for a low-paying job or settling for the bare minimum in a romantic or platonic relationship. Such behavior results from the belief that we don’t deserve something better and that this is the best we can do.”

Research indicates that women tend to have low self-esteem. This trend is attributed to a lower evaluation of the stereotypical female role by society and the greater cultural pressure on physical appearance. Most religions and cultures around the world credit women as an extension of men. This propagates the belief that any measure of worth for women must come from their utility to men. 

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Tests like the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES) provide a measure of one’s self-esteem based on answers to a questionnaire. Many of these questions center around one’s feelings about their worth. The answers could be on a scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”. Certain sets of answers often show the following patterns of low self-esteem in women:

1. Insecurity

Self-esteem and insecurity run in loops, feeding each other with every cycle. Everyone experiences insecurity occasionally. It could result from a traumatic experience, repeated childhood abuse, or social conditioning. Additionally, general instability in life may be the cause. Here is what this correlation may look like:

  • Unpredictable setbacks in daily life are more likely to make people feel uneasy about commonplace resources and routines
  • It may also result in an insecure attachment style 
  • In most cases of low self-esteem in a relationship, low confidence and the need for external validation are common

2. Narcissism

In certain cases, low self-esteem may manifest as narcissism. Narcissists may appear as people with high self-esteem at first glance, but a major distinction between high self-esteem and narcissism is the dependence on external validation. While people with high self-esteem do not focus on external validation, for a narcissist it is the driving force.

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  • Narcissists often try to come off as secure, and as a result, their explicit remarks may conflict with their base reactions to specific stimuli
  • These explicit remarks may include misinformation or misrepresentation in a bid to inflate their personalities

3. Self-criticism

Low self-esteem may also result in a tendency to control one’s surroundings. This may manifest as perfectionism. Perfectionists often have conditional self-esteem. This may lead to self-criticism. One may begin to downplay their achievements, crediting “luck” or even other people for their success.

  • Perfectionists like themselves when things go well and despise themselves when they don’t
  • It could be due to growing up with parents who had exacting standards and is often a learned behavior. 
  • It puts the responsibility of emotional validation on external factors

What Causes Low Self-esteem In Women?

An important question asked in the RSES test is, “Do you like yourself?” or “Do you have poor confidence?” The answers to these questions throw light on one’s life experiences. Bad experiences often define our expectations for future ones, especially if these bad experiences come from a vulnerable time like childhood. Signs of low self-esteem in a woman are often seen as a result of the following:

1. Emotionally abusive childhood

Research suggests that an abusive childhood can impact self-esteem and emotional regulation in adults. With emotionally distant parents, a child is likely to struggle with their emotions. Since the emotions of the child are not validated by the parents, the child is conditioned to ignore or suppress their emotions. In women, it often presents as a people-pleasing behavior when they grow up. 

Aakhansha says, “Childhood-related trauma can be a major reason for low self-esteem in adulthood. We often see a pattern of constant negative self-talk, self-criticism, self-deprecating jokes, and a lack of assertiveness.” Other long-term effects may include a lack of confidence, an inability to trust oneself, or a lack of healthy boundaries. As one grows and continues to be in an environment that does not provide emotional support, these effects have a compounding effect on lowering one’s self-esteem.

Related Reading: 9 Things That Happen When A Man Is Vulnerable With A Woman

2. Peer pressure

Research shows that peer pressure can negatively impact self-esteem in adolescents. This impact can be observed more in low-income households. Peer pressure, whether in adolescence or later in life, can lead to a negative self-image and trigger severe issues, like poor body image, an unhealthy reliance on beauty products, and emulating a lifestyle one isn’t always comfortable with.

3. Stressful incidents

In Fleabag, the titular character was struggling to cope with the guilt of being responsible for the death of her best friend. As a coping mechanism, she’d get involved in sexual rendezvous with men who only wanted her body. She’d be emotionally detached from the man who genuinely loved her. She’d take whatever insults her evil stepmother threw at her. Stressful incidents like the death of a loved one or a relationship breakdown can affect a person’s self-esteem.

4. Biological makeup of the female brain

A study shows that the frontal and limbic cortices in the female brain tend to be larger than those in men. These areas of the brain are responsible for cognitive functions and emotional responses. Though this is useful when it comes to the protection of the offspring and family, it can lead to unnecessary negative thoughts. 

As suggested in this study, fluctuations of hormones such as estrogen and progesterone can contribute to the function of the brain. This may lead to instability in mood and a perception of not being “good enough”. This is why, when you’re a woman, you run a greater risk of low self-esteem than a man.

11 Signs Of Low Self-esteem In A Woman

It is often assumed that low self-esteem will mean poor confidence or an introverted demeanor, but a woman may have low self-esteem, and yet one may think that they’re dating an alpha woman. This is because how she behaves may be completely disjointed from how she feels about herself. To be truly able to understand the triggers behind one’s behavior patterns, it’s critical to be aware of the following emotional and physical signs of low self-esteem:

1. You make fun of yourself deprecatingly

Women often downplay their talents or skills to feel more accepted in a community. Research indicates that female comics often employ self-deprecating humor as a way to address the discomfort of the male audience with their presence. 

This suggests a pattern where an audience is more comfortable with a woman who is less sure of her presence or sexuality and comes across as an object of ridicule. This behavior is often dismissed as a few non-unique quirks, but over a long period, a woman may internalize these thoughts, lowering her self-esteem. This behavior may include:

  • Making jokes about yourself, saying things like, “I’m such a clutz”, “Ya, I’m sure he looked at me, you don’t see a baby elephant often”, “You sure you want me to drive?”
  • Bringing humor to a situation that suggests trauma, like rape jokes, or comparing your abuse to Lolita

Related Reading: Expert Advice On Coping With Feeling Empty After A Breakup

2. You focus on negative self-talk

Negative self-talk is when your inner voice turns into an inner critic. Every person has a way of communicating with their conscience. It’s not always a dialogue, but a stream of thoughts. If you find that your thoughts are mostly turning to the worst-case scenario or are making you complicit in that scenario, then you are likely to have an active case of negative self-talk. Here are a few examples of what that may look like:

  • You blame yourself for anything that goes wrong, even if you would have had a minuscule role in it
  • You are always running to the worst-case scenario. You imagine accidents every time your car speeds above 60. You check if the gas stove is on again and again. You tend to imagine the deaths of everyone you love. This behavior is called catastrophizing
  • “The glass is half-full” is the biggest relationship turn-off. You focus on the negatives more than the positives. You may not be a pessimistic person by default, but you may get affected by what others have and you don’t, even if you don’t need it

Aakhansha says, “You can see that they’re internally critical of themselves in their body language. You observe that there are physical signs of low self-esteem, like minimal eye contact and limp handshakes, they won’t stand tall and so they appear to have hunched backs. Their confidence is at an all-time low and so they never believe that they can get something better than what they have.” A toxic man dating a woman with low self-esteem knows this extremely well and uses this knowledge to ensure she never gets out of the negative thought circle.

3. You’re constantly wondering if others like you

In the first episode of season one of Fleabag, Fleabag announces that her obsession with sex is not with the act itself but rather the fact that someone finds her body desirable. In the last episode of that season, Fleabag expresses her worry that she is aging and she may not be desirable anymore as she grows older. With those words, she expresses the worry that women all over the world live with. That they do not fit within the body standards of the time. As a way of dealing with it, 

  • You change your wardrobe or makeup style or hair frequently based on what is the rage, but you’re scared to go against the grain fearing it will oust you from the people around you
  • You’re mortified at the thought of not looking put together or donning a trend that has become old
  • You’re always wondering what others think about you, attaching great importance to looks, or lack thereof. This often becomes a self-sabotaging behavior that ruins relationships

4. Sign of low self-esteem in a woman — You are not assertive

A study has highlighted that women tend to apologize a lot more than men. A major reason for this behavior is low confidence and the tendency to take the blame for things that are beyond their control. You may also have trouble saying no in situations where you are uncomfortable, suggesting people-pleasing behavior. Most of this behavior is rooted in an inability to trust oneself, so one may need validation from others.

  • Note how often you say sorry to others. This may make you a convenient scapegoat when others are looking to place the blame
  • You also tend to say “yes” a lot, even when it’s detrimental to you. Aakhansha says, “When a person is not assertive but passive, they will say yes to everything. They are not able to put across their opinion or take a stand for themselves” 
  • You are constantly worried about rejection in a relationship or a relationship breakdown and have to be assured repeatedly 

5. You think others are better than you

A study highlighted that 75% of women working in corporate America have experienced imposter syndrome in their careers. These statistics indicate a pattern of lack of confidence and a tendency to accept lesser wages and other privileges in their professional life. At the end of the day, female employees tend to be more stressed and isolated as they climb the corporate ladder, even if they have the same professional qualifications as their male counterparts. The major reasons for this shift are:

  • Inability to internalize accomplishments. You tend to attribute success to luck or help from others instead of your talent and skill
  • Lessening the value of your skill or talent. You don’t value your skills even if others do or you assume that what you do is easy enough for anyone else to do

Aakhansha says, “You surround yourselves with people who don’t put any effort into the relationships or workplace, but you put up with it as you believe this is what you deserve. Gradually, low self-esteem in a relationship ensures that you’re surrounded by toxic people but you’re unable to take any steps. You need to ask yourself why you are settling for low-paying jobs or toxic people.”

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6. You are scared of talking to new people

Aakhansha says, “Constantly being in a negative environment is going to deplete your mental energy at some point, leading to anxiety and depression.” It’s not unusual for people to be slightly apprehensive or uncomfortable in unknown situations, but for someone with low self-esteem, it can lead to a spiral of anxiety, overthinking, and negative thoughts. Social anxiety can have an impact on your daily life because you may find yourself avoiding situations. 

  • You think of excuses to say no to social events or try to escape from them. It can come across as a sign of a negative relationship, especially if this leads to arguments
  • You are constantly fidgeting or worrying about what others think of you
  • You have a hard time forgetting any inconsequential slips or forgiving yourself for it

7. Risks of low self-esteem — You are scared of criticism

Unsolicited criticism is not a new thing. We’ve all been at the receiving end of comments that we didn’t need or deserve. If you have low self-esteem, you’ll find yourself struggling to come to terms with any criticism. This can lead to a general feeling of inferiority. You’ll also notice a pattern of:

  • Procrastinating over decisions or tasks. There is also a tendency to be evasive about one’s actions
  • Imitating others in speech, dress, or manners to get approval from others
  • You tend to criticize others a lot. People tend to criticize others as a way to subconsciously avoid criticism
Do you stand up for yourself?

8. You always blame yourself for everything that happens

Another way low self-esteem in women presents itself is a tendency to blame themselves in every situation. Aakshansha says, “I see a common sign of low self-esteem in women that they associate themselves with the trauma. They form an internal belief that they deserved what happened and that they were somehow responsible for it. In therapy, we help them to process those emotions so they can realize that whatever happened was due to lack of control or awareness, and not their fault.”

Self-blaming is a survival response as it gives the person the illusion of control. By blaming herself, she can escape the thought that people around her have failed her. This helps her avoid the implication that she is essentially alone. Do you also experience the following signs?

  • A tendency to highlight those things only that you think are your fault, especially when you’re in an anxiety-prone situation
  • A study proposes that when you have negative self-esteem, you seek negative social feedback. You tend to look for evidence that supports your self-blame instead of the opposite. When you begin to take everything personally, the self-hatred could ruin your relationships as well
  • You tend to wave off the voice in your head or even other people when they say it’s not your fault

9. You rarely prioritize your needs

A major reason why women often fail to prioritize their lives over others is their conditioning as caregivers. This is often attributed to the “maternal instinct” in women, but conditioning in a patriarchal society often plays a great role in it. Secondly, this behavior can also result from a survival response from past trauma, where a person may prioritize the needs of other people to avoid getting hurt.

  • Major risks of low self-esteem involve a tendency to give a lot of favors, without getting any in return
  • You’re often taken advantage of, and yet you find it difficult to say no. You are exhausted all the time and mostly from working on things as favors or help
  • You’re scared of meeting people fearing that you may be roped into things you don’t want to
  • You don’t take care of yourself physically or sexually. 

Aakhansha shares an anecdote about a patient, “A patient with low self-esteem once told me that they don’t want to work on their physical health and well-being. They had PCOS but because they believed that they didn’t deserve proper diet, or putting any sort of energy in their physical health, they didn’t want to invest in their well-being.”

Related Reading: 11 Warning Signs That You’re Settling For Less In Your Relationships

10. You live in extremes

Your life is filled with highs and lows. There is no in-between. You go big or you don’t go at all. You either perform tasks with a perfectionist zeal or you don’t start them at all. You’re either at the top of your life or lying on the ground somewhere. You’re either giving your partner the silent treatment or showering them with love. This behavior reflects a need to be perfect at all times, to the cost of placing your value on the things you do than yourself

  • You’re scared of living a stagnant life. Since you derive your value from the work you do, you fear not being successful or productive. Being average is not an option for you
  • You procrastinate a lot. Procrastination is a defense mechanism that the mind uses to prevent one from getting affected by supposed impending failure
  • You’re constantly getting burned out. Seeking perfection in everything can wreak havoc on your life as you struggle with the ups and downs

11. You’re indecisive

Fleabag says in an iconic scene, “I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, and who to love, and how to tell them. I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong.” This is true for many women. 

Social conditioning, patriarchy, and a misogynist media culture often paint the picture of the perfect woman with a perfect body, who knows what to say to whom, is well-liked, and knows what she wants. Everyone makes mistakes, but the fear of making mistakes and being maligned for them can make a person try to delay making the decision or fail to make it at all.

  • You’re happy following instructions from others. You rarely have anything to say when your opinions are asked for
  • You keep seeking other people’s suggestions to make your decisions, even minor ones. This could become a pet peeve in your relationship
  • You keep experiencing anxiety after making a decision and keep catastrophizing about its result

How Can You Fix Low Self-esteem?

Low self-esteem can cripple your day-to-day life. It can lead to anxiety and stress from trying to behave or perform in an “acceptable” way with others. It can lead to bad decision-making. It can lead to a problematic love life and toxic relationships. Low self-esteem manifests as a vicious cycle, where it triggers behaviors that, in turn, perpetuate low self-esteem. You can get out of this cycle only by working on yourself. How do you do that? Here are a few expert-backed suggestions:

1. Try journaling

Try keeping a diary to record your thoughts whenever you feel overwhelmed, drained, or burned out. Not only will it help you organize your thoughts but it can also help you keep track of positive events that you tend to ignore. 

  • Keep a journal. Write daily, weekly, or whenever you feel like it. If the thought of writing your thoughts on paper sounds daunting, then you can maintain a journal online guarded with passwords and biometrics
  • Always make it a point to write down pleasant memories, positive developments, or decisions. Think of it as writing a love letter to yourself
  • Write down your achievements. This is to remind yourself of your capability and potential

Aakhansha says, “Write about any triggers that bring out the above-mentioned signs in you. It’s important to draw awareness to any places, situations, or experiences that are a reflection of low self-esteem. This helps you to acknowledge the issue at hand. Also, write down your negative thoughts and try to find a pattern in these thoughts. Ask people whom you trust if they agree with these thoughts. It can really help in shifting the perspective.”

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2. Take one step at a time

If you get overwhelmed easily, allow yourself to take things slowly. When you keep going in an anxious state, it can push your body into survival mode. Psychologists suggest that this can have an adverse effect on your mental and physical health. Therefore, it’s important to recognize when you might be getting sucked into that vortex of anxiety and hyperactivity.

  • Notice if you’re often forgetting things, getting extremely tired, or having trouble sleeping. Do you have trouble emptying your mind at night? Many of these symptoms point toward a burnout
  • Do one thing at a time. Make a schedule and follow it. List things according to their priority and importance. Start with tasks with the highest priority
  • If you can delegate something to someone else, do it. Tell your partner that they’re dating an overthinker, and ask for help. Look for ways to do the same tasks smartly in lesser time and with lesser effort

3. Be kind to yourself

Low self-esteem results in your inner voice amplifying the doubts you have about yourself. The constant negativity can be crippling. To truly come out of this cycle, you have to be kind to yourself. Stop shaming, chiding, and blaming yourself for whatever happened.

  • Acknowledge your pain and feelings. We often neglect or ignore our feelings as a means to get over the trauma, but ignoring feelings doesn’t make them go away. Deal with your feelings more healthily. Think about what you feel, why you feel that way, or if is there something else that you associate with this feeling
  • Stop shaming yourself for your trauma and your trauma response. We don’t get to control what happens to us
  • If you feel overwhelmed, tired, or experience other signs of low self-esteem in women, stop pushing yourself. Do not be apologetic about taking some time for yourself. Try some self-care and wellbeing gifts for yourself

Aakansha suggests this exercise. “When I have to help a woman with low self-esteem, I advise her to seek the positive people in her life and ask them why they chose to be around her.” Through this activity, you may realize that others’ perception of you is very different from what you think of yourself

4. Start setting boundaries and asserting them

You may have heard mantras like “Be assertive” or “Start saying no”. But if you’re a person with low self-esteem, it’s easier said than done. So, take it slow, and do not be hard on yourself if the act of saying no fills you with immense guilt. Others may or may not understand, but you need to prioritize yourself first.

  • Think before saying yes to a favor. If it involves going extremely out of the way or interferes with your plans, say no
  • Learn to identify your emotions and address any issues you may have with the person/s involved in the situation instead of bottling up your feeling and then taking it all out on someone else
  • Even if your opinions differ from others in a group, it doesn’t make you wrong. Do not be afraid of having your own opinions and expressing them

Aakhsha suggests two exercises for this, “To bring in a behavioral change, like being assertive by expressing your opinions or feelings, communicate it in a statement using the structure, ‘When you <act>, I felt <feeling> because <reason>. This helps in clearly communicating the event, feelings, and reason, so there is no ambiguity or misunderstanding. Secondly, start communicating using I statements like, “I felt”, or “It happened to me”. This highlights you as the primary person in the situation.”

Related Reading: 26 Love Yourself Quotes to Build Your Confidence

5. Make new experiences

Low self-esteem often prevents a person from taking on anything new to avoid failure. But new experiences are important not just in the healing process but in being able to live a meaningful life. New experiences help us discover new things about ourselves and our lives. It fuels our curiosity and helps us evolve.

  • Try exercising if starting something new is daunting. Exercise releases serotonin, a feel-good hormone. When you feel good, trying something else is not that hard anymore
  • Start small and go a step further every other day. Do not be disheartened if you do not like following through on something you decided you’d try, or if things go awry. You can always restart the next day
  • Have a few friends accompany you if you can’t start by yourself. There’s no shame in seeking support. Once you’re comfortable, you can keep going by yourself. Who knows you may soon be exploring solo date ideas
  • If you’re trying to help a woman with low self-esteem, help them recognize their pattern. Remind them that they deserve more, and reassure them that you’re there for them, or they’re not burdening you. But at the same time, be mindful of the fact that you’re not their therapist and there is only so much you can do

6. Seek professional help

“Ideally, one should not wait until the peak of abuse or trauma to seek therapy,” says Aakhansha, but real life rarely works like that. “However, when you realize that you have a pattern of self-criticism, that you shame and judge yourself, and that hampers your interaction with others, then this is the right time to start your journey of healing,” she adds. Aakhansha suggests the following methods:

  • Try soft skills training. It is beneficial for people who want to improve their communication and gain more confidence through behavioral exercises. It helps to build healthy communication patterns
  • Try counseling, which is a short-term solution and is ideal for people who are hesitant about therapy. It focuses on solving the present problem rather than helping you process past trauma
  • Try therapy. It helps one in acknowledging and processing trauma. Processing trauma and dissociating oneself from the trauma helps in terms of redefining self-esteem. Therapy can help you regain the confidence that you can control how you live your life. The healing process can be slow and long but it is very rewarding
counselling on women's issues

Key Pointers

  • Low self-esteem in women is often a result of childhood or past trauma
  • Major signs of low self-esteem in women include self-deprecating humor, negative self-talk, self-criticism, and insecurity
  • Journaling, self-care, and assertiveness can help fix self-esteem issues
  • If you’re dating a woman with low self-esteem, extend your help in dealing with their issues. But do draw a line that while you’re there for her, you’re not her therapist

Low self-esteem behavior in a relationship is not just responsible for depression and anxiety; it also affects your quality of life. Thanks to social media, we have a lot of awareness about mental health issues, but low self-esteem often gets sidelined as a sign of being an introvert, a pushover, or timid. Its signs are so normalized that people rarely realize that they’re caught in a cycle that keeps sucking them back in. If you suspect that you suffer from low self-esteem and want to break free from this feeling of constantly doubting yourself, you can always seek help from Bonobology’s panel of experts. We’re here for you.

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