It’s more complicated than you think!
Working with women (and girls) for almost three decades, I’ve been struck by how many feel inadequate (aka worthless, undeserving, not good enough), commonly referred to as imposter syndrome. My colleagues have observed this, too. In fact, it’s so pervasive, I can only conclude that the cause is cultural. Most women will know exactly what I’m talking about. The sad irony is that each thinks she’s the only one who feels this way.
Women are also innately relationship-oriented. In her groundbreaking book, In a Different Voice, Psychologist, Carol Gilligan, introduced two moral viewpoints: the logical, individualistic perspective – which makes decisions based on people’s rights and the rule of law – and the care perspective – which places more emphasis on protecting interpersonal relationships and taking care of other people. Dr. Gilligan referred to the two perspectives as the “masculine voice” and “feminine voice.” When researching how girls and boys play, Gilligan found that girls were more likely to change their play to accommodate others while boys were more likely to stick to the rules.
Through centuries of cultural oppression, including the present, women have had to deal with gender bias limiting their opportunities from which to draw a sense-of-self. But relationships have always been accessible. As a result, this psychological co-existence between feeling inadequate and being relationship-oriented has seemingly evolved into an unhealthy and complex nature-nurture symbiosis: women treating relationships like mirrors for a sense of self-worth. Of course, it’s healthy for women to feel good about their capacity to help and care about others. It is the resulting emotional discomfort – anxiety, depression, stress, pressure, etc – I repeatedly hear from women I’m addressing.
Naturally, if your self-esteem is heavily reliant on your relationships, you’re going to do everything in your control to protect them. So women overcompensate by ruminating (often described as racing thoughts). I have identified five thought patterns: mind-reading, second-guessing, anticipating other people’s reactions, self-criticizing, and comparing themselves to others. (Sound familiar?) In other words, the ruminating is really a coping mechanism for dealing with fears of rejection and failure. Of course, these fears are compounded by a woman’s belief that rejection and failure are evidence there’s something inherently wrong with her. I’ve heard this train of thought from women hundreds of times regardless of experience, socioeconomic status, or ethnicity.
Fear of rejection and failure is a normal human emotion. It’s the way people cope that can be problematic. Ironically, most women would never talk to others as harshly as they do themselves. They wouldn’t tell their children or best friend, they need to mind read, second-guess themselves, bully themselves, etc to avoid rejection and failure. Yet, they unconsciously believe this about themselves.
I tell women to imagine saying to someone they care about the mean things they tell themselves. Their answer is always the same: they wouldn’t. Women understand this would 1) make the person feel worse, 2) goes against their values (for how people should be treated), and 3) isn’t effective in avoiding rejection or failure.
So then why do women do it? Because, unconsciously, they don’t trust themselves. They’re afraid if they stop being hard on themselves, stop being perfectionists, stop putting other people’s needs before their own, they’ll fall flat on their face and no one will like them. They think they cant just be themselves. They’re not good enough the way they are – even though they tell others the opposite. Of course, all this negative thinking further lowers their self-esteem, creating a vicious cycle.
So how do women break free of this? It’s starts with self-validation. Without this, a woman is like a cup with a hole in it. No matter how much reassurance she gets from others, she’ll keep needing more. (Which is why they can’t be talked out of it.) Women frequently express skepticism that they’re capable of self-validating but I remind them they do it for others all the time!
In other words, women have the innate ability to self-validate! I start by teaching two techniques. I call the first “being your own best friend.” Whenever you catch yourself ruminating, imagine someone you care about coming to you with the same problem. What would you tell them? What wouldn’t you tell them? Imagine saying to them the mean things you tell yourself. I tell my patients, “If you wouldn’t say it to someone you care about, then you certainly shouldn’t be saying it to yourself!”
I call the second technique “the opposite of the Golden Rule.” Most women treat others better than they treat themselves. If the situation were reversed, how would you react? Would you be judgmental and critical or understanding and supportive? The answer reflects your values for how you treat people. So, by who’s values do you wish to live by: your own or someone else’s?
Is it hard to rely on yourself for validation? Yes, at first. Once you start ignoring the bully in your head, it’s not going to like it. It’s going to “punish” you by getting louder and making you feel more anxious. Remind yourself, you don’t need the bully to avoid rejection and failure. Use thought-stopping and mindfulness: tell the bully, “I hear you. I feel your presence, but I’m not engaging in a conversation with you.” Keep your mind where your body is. No matter how many times it wanders, keep redirecting your thoughts back to the present. “Ground” yourself using your 5 senses.
Be patient with yourself. You’ve been relying on the bully to “protect” you most of your life. Remind yourself you don’t need it anymore. In fact, you never did.