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 façade 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.
What Is Low Self-Esteem In A Woman?
Aakhansha defines low self-esteem like this: “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.”
Studies show 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.
What Are The 3 Effects of Low Self-Esteem In A Woman?
In their 2018 book The Confidence Code for Girls, writers Katty Kay, JillEllyn Riley, and Claire Shipman found that girls’ confidence drops by 30% from ages 8 to 14, with a particularly steep drop starting at age 12. They start worrying about being perfect and about failing – and the fact they are not allowed to fail. It says, “Nearly 8 in 10 girls want to feel more confident in themselves.” Not being comfortable in our own skin has a lot of adverse effects, as you can imagine.
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:
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
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.
- 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
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
Other effects of low self-esteem in a woman’s life:
Self-image and self-confidence issues can cripple your day-to-day life. Low self-esteem in girls can look like this too:
- Anxiety and stress – This is from trying to behave or perform in an ‘acceptable’ way with others
- Bad decision-making
- Eating disorders
- Problematic love life
- 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.
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
A study shows 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
According to a study, 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. Mental health issues can cause a woman’s low self-esteem
This is definitely one of the root causes of low self-confidence in girls and women. Poor mental health causes self-esteem issues, and self-esteem issues cause mental health problems – a vicious cycle. Here are some ongoing mental health issues that can lead to low confidence and poor self-image:
- Anxiety of any kind
- Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (RSD)
- Mental health issues caused by disability or neurodivergence
- Mental health issues caused by body dysmorphia or gender dysphoria
- Mental health issues caused by experiences of societal discrimination and bias
4. Stressful incidents
In Fleabag, the titular character was struggling to cope with guilt. 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.
5. 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.
12 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 acts may be completely disjointed from how she feels about herself. Many subtle signs of low self-esteem could look like this:
- Poking fun at yourself because it’s ‘funny’
- Unable to make a decision (and passing it off as a quirk)
- Being silent in tough situations (which other might perceive as staying calm)
- Saying yes whenever anyone needs help (perceived as being helpful)
To be truly able to understand the triggers behind her patterns, it’s critical to be aware of the behavior of a woman with 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 self-deprecating behavior may look like this:
- Making jokes about yourself, saying things like, “I’m such a klutz,” “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
3. You notice physical symptoms of low self-esteem
Aakhansha says, “When a woman’s confidence is at an all-time low, she never believes that she can get something better than what she has. Women are internally critical of themselves in their body language. Some examples of physical signs of low self-esteem are:
- Minimal eye contact
- Limp handshakes
- They won’t stand tall so they appear to have hunched backs
- Headaches, issues with sleep and gut, and tiredness are some of the other signs.”
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. That’s one of the most subtle traits of a toxic boyfriend.
4. You’re constantly wondering if others like you
In the first episode of season one of Fleabag, 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
5. 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. Some examples of being less assertive are:
- 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
6. 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.”
Related Reading: 20 Proven Ways To Make Him Feel Guilty For Hurting You
7. 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. You may find yourself avoiding situations. Here’s what social anxiety looks like when it has an impact on your daily life:
- 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
8. 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. This is what low self-esteem can look like:
- 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
- Criticizing others a lot, as people tend to criticize others as a way to subconsciously avoid criticism
9. You always blame yourself for everything that happens
Another way low self-esteem in females 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. Let’s discuss some examples of self-blaming attitude. Do you 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
10. You rarely prioritize your needs
A major reason that 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. Here’s what the dismissal of our own needs looks like:
- 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.
Related Reading: 11 Warning Signs That You’re Settling For Less In Your Relationships
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.”
11. 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. Some examples of living in extremes are:
- 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
12. 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 that depends on body shaming 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. How does low self-esteem affect you as you make decisions, big and small? Some examples:
- 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?
Improving your self-esteem may seem daunting as it’s unfamiliar territory so far. But it’s important for your mental health, your physical health, and a better life. If you’re someone who’s trying to help a woman with low self-esteem, collaborate with her to recognize her patterns. Remind her that she deserves more, and reassure her that you’re there for her, and she’s not burdening you. Here are a few expert-backed suggestions for a girl to increase her self-esteem:
Related Reading: 26 Love Yourself Quotes to Build Your Confidence
- Try journaling: Keep a diary to record your thoughts whenever you feel overwhelmed, drained, or burned out. Also, write down pleasant memories, positive developments, or decisions; it will make you more confident. Aakhansha says, “Write down your negative thoughts and try to find a pattern in them. Ask people whom you trust if they agree with these thoughts. It can really help in shifting the perspective.”
- Be kind to yourself to overcome low self-esteem issues: 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, stop shaming, chiding, and blaming yourself. If you feel overwhelmed and tired, do not be apologetic about taking some time off
- Stop shaming your trauma: Your trauma and your trauma response are/were not in your hands. Acknowledge your pain and feelings
- Take one step at a time: Go slow. If you keep going in an anxious state, it can push your body into survival mode and lead to burnout. Psychologists suggest that this can have an adverse effect on your mental and physical health. So, do one thing at a time. List things according to their priority and importance. Tell your partner that they’re dating an overthinker, and ask for help
- Start setting boundaries and asserting them: If you’re a person with low self-esteem, think before saying yes to a favor. Also, do not be afraid of having your own opinions and expressing them. Aakhansha suggests two exercises for this, “To bring in a behavioral change, like being assertive by expressing your opinions or feelings, use statements with this structure: ‘When you <act>, I felt <feeling> because <reason>. This communicates the event, feelings, and reason clearly. Secondly, use ‘I’ statements like, ‘I felt’ or ‘It happened to me.’ Be the primary person in the situation.”
- Create new experiences: New experiences are important not just in the healing process but to live a meaningful life. They help us discover new things about ourselves and our lives, fuel our curiosity, and help us evolve. You can boost ego like this: Try exercising, start small and go a step further every other day, and have a few friends accompany you
- Seek professional help: Aakhansha says, “When you notice signs of low self-esteem issues and that you have a pattern of self-criticism, then this is the right time to start your journey of healing. You can try soft skills training, counseling, or therapy.”
Remind yourself of this
“My feelings matter, no matter how difficult they are. I only need to do what I can, and not what other expect of me. My small steps will accumulate and achieve big results eventually. I’ve started on this journey and that’s all that matters right now. I got this.”
- Low self-esteem in females 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.