What Happens When You Don’t Have Cheerleaders
Self worth, self esteem, and confidence are kind of the same but kind of not. Though I might use them interchangeably at times, as a feminist wellness educator and counsellor, I find making distinctions between these three concepts to be useful. I think of good self worth as “I am deserving,” positive self esteem as, “I accept myself as I am,” and strong confidence as, “I can do this.” Without worth, confidence, and esteem, you can go through life without inner voices telling you they love you, believe in you and root for you. If you have lost your inner cheerleader along the way, you can absolutely find them again.
Strong self worth is your sense of yourself as deserving of dignity, freedom, love, safety, joy and other good things. It’s believing you have inherent value as a human being, no matter what. Self worth has more to do with how you think you should be treated than what you think you can do.
Self worth is nurtured in an environment of healthy boundaries, respect and love.
Self esteem is how you evaluate yourself and how you feel about your self assessment. People with good self esteem have a general sense of themselves as capable, and are able to accept themselves and their limitations. They usually have a growth mindset, where new and hard things are perceived as learnable, and they feel able to practice their way into improved skills. Self esteem is also often tied to how much we care about what others think, how we think we measure up against others, and ideas about what we “should” be doing.
The experience of encouragement, feedback, and validation build our self esteem.
I think of self confidence as a sense of being really sure of yourself in relation to a specific outcome, task or skill. So you can have good self esteem generally, but not be a confident swimmer. Confidence is that feeling that fills you up, clears your vision, straightens your spine and puts a (sometimes smug) smile on your face. Confidence comes from doing stuff and things going well.
Little kids have a way of trying new things with unbridled curiosity, and saying no to what they don’t want to do. What the heck happens to that inherent sense of worth?
People that are struggling the hardest with their self worth have usually experienced trauma. Violence of any kind is the most profound form of disrespect and a violation of human dignity. When it is perpetrated by someone who is supposed to take care of and/or love you, it is a betrayal. However, it is very common for people to reason that they must have deserved the bad thing that happened, and that’s what makes them feel unworthy of goodness.
Before becoming physically violent, abusers often break down the self worth and esteem of their victims. Abusers get control over others by making them feel they really don’t deserve any better and “need” the abuser because of their supposed deficits. Women, girls and femmes are more likely to experience relationship and family violence, so issues of worth and esteem tend to be more common for them.
Another possibility for people who are low on self worth is that they have been made to feel that their value was tied to a specific thing — their academic success, their prowess in a sport, their looks, or their ability to conform to cultural norms. Maintaining self worth is really hard when you are trying to meet impossible expectations and if you don’t feel free to live your own truth. When the ability to conform is privileged, this leads to discrimination towards queer, disabled, racialized, gender variant and otherwise minoritized folks. Research shows that oppression often gets internalized as “there’s something wrong with me.” As a result, minoritized people not only have to face external oppression, but they end up fighting their own oppressive thoughts.
Self esteem in girls often plummets at puberty. At this age, girls start to believe social messages that their worth is tied to looks and male attention. Achieving or maintaining idealized beauty standards is a battle for most of us, so when we fail, we feel “not enough.” Internalized misogyny also causes women to project their own self-criticisms onto the other women in their lives, including their daughters. I know, for example, that many of the first comments that made me feel self conscious about my body came from my mother.
Attempts to conform to gender roles can pull girls’ focus from other self esteem building activities. It’s common for girls to start pulling back from sports and academics at puberty. Alternately, we see young women chasing the feeling of being “enough” by doing it all — working hard at school and extracurriculars, doing emotional labour for others, and relentlessly pursuing beauty standards. Brene Brown’s work on shame and courage reveals that this pursuit of being “enough” continues well into adulthood. Unfortunately, even when we can conform to our gender role, we are devalued. Qualities and careers associated with femininity tend to be devalued. For example, reason is valourized over emotion, physical labour is paid better than child care. Therefore, no matter our success or failure at achieving idealized femininity, we struggle with our worth and esteem.
It should be noted, too, that men are not immune to self esteem problems. Men (especially minoritized men) experience violence and discrimination too. The pressures of masculinity are also threats to self esteem.
There is no person who is immune to attacks on self worth. There is no person who doesn’t need validation and support. There is no age at which confidence comes easy, although I am told that part of the wisdom of age is not giving a s*@! anymore. I look forward to this. In the meantime, I’ve done a lot to build up my resilience and confidence. How it started? With self compassion.
See my next article, “How To Be Your Own Cheerleader” for tips on how to improve your self worth, esteem and confidence.