Author of the following article on self-confidence issues in women, New York psychotherapist Colette Dowling, LCSW, has written eight books on psychological issues, including The Cinderella Complex, and "You Mean I Don't Have to Feel This Way?": New Help for Depression, Anxiety and Addiction.
Why Women Don't Feel Confident in Themselves
Women's self-confidence is often inhibited, in part because they were taught to be self-doubting as children. I have learned, through years of work a a psychotherapist, that Women actually learn low self confidence. They're trained for it.
Studies show that girls--especially smarter ones--have severe problems with self-confidence. They consistently underestimate their own ability. When asked how they think they'll do on different tasks--whether the tasks are untried or ones they've encountered before--they give lower estimates than boys do, and in general underestimate their actual performance as well.
Low self-confidence leads to a host of related problems. Girls are highly suggestible and tend to change their minds about perceptual judgments if someone disagrees with them. They set lower standards for themselves. While boys are challenged by difficult tasks, little boys demonstrate more task involvement, more self confidence, and are more likely to show incremental increases in IQ.
By the age of six, the cards are in on probable intellectual development, just as they are in on probable independence development. By this age a predictive picture will have emerged. The six-year-old whose IQ is going to increase in subsequent years is the child who is already competitive, self-assertive, independent, and dominating with other children, Eleanor Maccoby, a Stanford researcher, found. (The information from Maccoby that you see here can be found in The Psychology of Sex Differences, published by Stanford University Press.) Maccoby noted that a six-year-old whose IQ would probably decline in the following years was passive, shy, and dependent. "On this evidence," she wrote, pointedly, "the characteristics of those whose IQs will rise do not seem very feminine."
All of this relates, in girls, to the development of "affiliative needs", by which psychologists mean the need to experience relationship. Low self confidence tends to be associated with a high degree of affiliative need. Given her felt incompetence, it's not surprising that the little girl would hotfoot it to the nearest Other, someone she believes is stronger and more competent than she.
Lois Hoffman of the University of Michigan described a developmental sequence that leads girls to become adults who need excessive support from others. Since the little girl has a) less encouragement for independence, b) more parental protectiveness, c) less cognitive and social pressure for establishing an identity separate from Mother, and d) less mother-child conflict, which highlights this separation, she engages in less independent exploration of her environment. As a consequence, she doesn't develop enough skills in coping with her environment, and this, of course, affects her confidence. She continues to be dependent on adults for solving her problems, and this means she may need her affective ties with adults at all costs, including the cost of her independence and self confidence.
I wrote about Hoffman's work in my book, The Cinderella Complex. I find in my work as a therapist that many of my female patients describe childhoods in which the "developmental sequence" was very much as Hoffman described. And yet, interestingly, a restricted and overprotected childhood is generally something of which women are not even aware. They don't think of themselves as having been hobbled in their childhood efforts to become independent. When dependency problems crop up to plague them in adult life, they are often dumbfounded. "Why is this happening to me?"
Those who eventually go into therapy will begin to recall the fear-enhancing proscriptives of their parents: the warnings, the curfews, the entreaties not to travel too far afield lest they lose their way. Many parents show a tendency to "overhelp"--to jump in and save their daughters when they don't really need it, when, instead, they should be learning to falter and self-correct. Faltering and self correcting is a process that's fundamental to the development of self confidence. Often little girls don't get the chance to self correct because parents are so bent on protecting them from faltering.
Why is "overhelp" so destructive?
Mastery requires the ability to tolerate frustration, Lois Hoffman explained. "If the parent responds too quickly with help the child will not develop such tolerance."
Self confidence results from learning that one can accomplish things on one's own, can rely on one's own abilities, can trust one's own judgment. Girls are often not given enough opportunity to learn these things. Eventually they internalize the idea that on their own they can't succeed in meeting life's challenges. In my work I treat young women in their twenties and even their thirties, whose parents continue to believe that they--the parents--know best, and they will badger their daughters at every turn. This type of parental behavior actually has an affect on the brains of their offspring. We know, now, that the self-beliefs learned in childhood have actually been entrained in the neurons of the brain.
Fortunately it is possible to re-process early experiences that might have been harmful to us with therapeutic techniques such as EMDR (Eye Movement De-sensitization and Reprocessing). The important thing is that the brain can change. Self-confidence can be built.
I've found that women's lack of self confidence, whether it shows up in relationships, or work, or both, is a chief reasons why they seek therapy. With the therapist they enter a process that allows them to unlearn the deeply ingrained negative beliefs that have always held them back.
Fortunately, there are effective, evidence-based techniques to help people reconceptualize their negative beliefs about themselves. Therapists can now help their patients to re-train their brains and learn t what it's like to feel invigorated and self-empowered.
About the author:
NYC psychotherapist Colette Dowling, LCSW, has a masters degree from The Smith College School for Social Work. She has a certificate in psychoanalysis from the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy, and has been trained in EMDR and AEDP for the treatment of trauma.
Colette has has written many books and articles, including the best-selling The Cinderella Complex: Women's Hidden Fear of Independence. Other books are "You Mean I Don't Have to Feel This Way?": New Help for Depression, Anxiety and Substance Abuse, and The Frailty Myth: Re-defining the Physical Potential of Women and Girls.
Colette has a private therapy practice in Manhattan and can be reached at 718-594-0201, or by writing firstname.lastname@example.org.
To hear Colette speaking about what it's like starting therapy with someone new, click the audio button.
Copyright Colette Dowling, 2006-2010