Self-esteem holds us back and undermines our happiness; but it can be overcome
By Joanne Stephens
Mar 16, 2016
“Women shouldn’t play in bands because they’re crap at playing music,” said Pete. “Go on, name me one band with women in it that’s good.”
I continued the discussion with his mate Tom. Why are there so few women in bands? Tom had an infuriatingly simplistic explanation. “If a woman wants to be in a band, she can be in a band. There’s nothing stopping her. Women just don’t want to play music”. I disagreed. It’s a matter of social conditioning. You look at the music industry (especially rock music) and what does it tell you. It’s for men. Just like board rooms, panel shows, politics, sport, pretty much everything… But not only that, playing in a band in front of a crowd of people is incredibly intimidating. You have to have confidence to do that. Many women struggle with self-esteem and confidence - not surprising considering there are still ridiculous old-fashioned beliefs like that your gender could determine whether you have musical talent or not, or even if you have an interest in music at all. But Tom was having none of it.
I find it totally baffling that two men approaching 40, married with kids, could have so little insight into the life experience of women, or in fact, anyone who has low esteem. Of course, it’s not just women who are affected by it but it seems to primarily be the case. Perhaps what made it particularly galling is that these two men were old friends who I hadn’t seen for about 15 years. Pete was my boyfriend when I was 19. He played drums back then, with Tom singing, and I was the groupie, dutifully turning up at every gig (about 50 in all), helping pack up and carry the drums, cheering loudly and defending them against critics in the audience. And all along that was their opinion of us lowly women. That we’re only good enough for a support role.
I have found myself trying to explain to people what low self-esteem is. It seems almost impossible to understand for those who are lucky enough not to be affected by it. It’s a life long struggle to believe in yourself, to value yourself. You have to work at it all the time and you know at any minute you could be back to square one again. When you fail you believe people will think badly of you, and since your self-worth is so connected to how others feel about you, you get floored. So it’s easier not to try. To just keep your head down.
“Why don’t you think they like you? Is it because they disagreed with you about something?” I was asked once by a friend. No. No that at all. I think that because my default belief is that people don’t like me. I mean, not actively dislike me, but not like me enough to want to spend time with me. I’m not interesting, smart or fun enough. I feel like I'm being constantly judged. The result is that I’m useless at making friends and don’t organise things because I worry no-one will turn up.
“Why didn’t you put your hand up when you had something to say?” Because I didn’t have confidence enough in my ability to clearly articulate what I wanted to say. Because I worried what people would think of me, that they would think I was stupid. And ultimately even the idea of putting my hand up and being centre of attention was making my heart race and I knew there was a very real chance that my voice would shake. It’s hard to speak with your heart in your mouth.
It breaks my heart listening to other women who talk about their feelings of inadequacy. “I never feel good enough”. Constantly seeking approval, constantly fearing rejection. Doubting ourselves, blaming ourselves when things go wrong and worrying what people think of us stops us from trying new things, from pushing ourselves, chasing our dreams, from living fulfilled lives. And the worst thing about it? It’s this belief that we are unimportant, unlovable, replaceable, that prevents us from being our true selves, a deep-rooted fear that if we dare to be different, to disagree, to make demands, to speak our minds, even to ask for help, that people won’t want us.
This is where abuse starts. It’s true that people accept what they think they deserve. You keep quiet for fear of loosing people. The feeling of being loved and valued by someone plugs a hole, it fills the gap that’s supposed to be filled with your own sense of self worth. You can’t let that go, even if the person who makes you feel worth something, also, at other times, makes you feel worthless. Ironically, sometimes you can’t leave an abuser for fear of hurting their feelings, as if theirs are more important than yours. And you hop from one relationship to the next as someone has to love you, and if its not you, then it has to be someone else.
Low self-esteem is not considered a mental health problem, although its recognised that it can lead to conditions like depression and anxiety. It has such massive implications on our quality of life. It’s not just our happiness at stake but the stress of those negative thought patterns has health impacts too. Low self-esteem is also linked to addictions; alcohol, drugs, love, sex. I’m glad to be in a place now where I feel more comfortable being myself than ever before, where I can fail at something and not care so much what people think of me. These days I even stand up for myself when people mistreat me, not always, but a lot more than before. It’s taken a while to get here, and it doesn't feel permanent. We need to understand self-esteem better, what determines whether we grow up with good self-esteem or not, what strategies can build up self-esteem in a more permanent way? Of course, there are systemic factors, such as sexism, racism and other forms of oppression, and living in a capitalist society that only values those of worth to the economy. But there are other factors too - your relationship with your parents, trauma, bullying...
Tom asked “why weren’t you in the band?" I wanted to but I didn’t have the confidence and you didn’t ask. I wonder why? As it happens though, I started learning to play a drumkit about 6 months ago. The thought of joining a band or playing a gig terrifies me. But I do believe the only way forward is to try, even if it’s hard. We have to push ourselves and we need to talk openly about our challenges (especially to those closest to us) and ask for what we need to enable us to find the courage to do what we want to do. Stepping out of our comfort zones, scaring the shit out of ourselves and succeeding at things we never dreamt we could (or failing and realising it doesn't matter to those who love you), forming deep friendships, looking after ourselves, challenging our own negative thoughts and pracitising assertiveness are some ways to build self-esteem. But at the same time, others need to step back and create space for us, support us, listen to us and drop the discriminatory attitudes.
And Pete, I’ll see you at a gig sometime soon, I’ll be the drummer in the headlining band.