In the Company of Women: Indirect Aggression Among Women, Why We Hurt Each Other and How to Stop
By Pat Heim, Ph.D., Susan Murphy, Ph.D.
The Woman's Dilemma
Women not only diminish their self-esteem through negative self-talk: they also fail to compensate for it by building themselves up when they experience success. We usually attribute our accomplishments to factors outside ourselves, such as effort ("I tried really hard"), task ease ("Anyone could have done it; it was easy"), or luck ("It just fell in my lap; I was in the right place at the right time"). Our success isn't our doing, we say, but our failings are. We don't have the ability, we think, saying things like "I'll never have enough willpower to lose weight," "If only I were smarter, I could do it," or "I have the memory of a flea." This is even true cross-culturally: a recent study of more than thirteen thousand children in twelve countries including Australia, Jamaica, Germany, Thailand, and Israel found that girls consistently blamed themselves when things went wrong.
This unproductive way of defining our accomplishments and ourselves can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy since self-esteem derives, in part, from the reflection of how we perceive the world responding to us. Let's say a woman says, "Gee, I just lucked out on this one; I didn't even know what I was doing. The stars were lined up, and it turned out that the data were available." If over time she's consistent enough in attributing her successes to factors outside herself in this way, people will eventually believe that she wasn't responsible for her wins and will reflect that attitude back to her. This feedback loop will ingrain in her psyche the belief "It wasn't me, it was other factors" all the more insistently.
Interestingly, men have the opposite tendencies. A man is likely to attribute his successes to his own abilities ("The reason I was successful is because you asked me to do this, and I'm good at it"), while he attributes his failures to factors outside himself ("I didn't get the job done because you didn't give me enough time"). The people around him are much more likely to believe that it must be his innate abilities that cause him to be so hot. And when he fails, it wasn't his doing. Give the guy a break! Just as with women, this feedback loop reinforces men's beliefs about themselves and their self-esteem.
Moreover, from the time they were little boys, males in our culture have organized their lives in terms of hierarchies (think sports teams, club officers, and so on). Everyone is either above or below someone else in the pecking order. Consequently, men are constantly trying to keep from finding themselves at the bottom of the pile. One of the ways they manage this is by behaving as if they are powerful even if they don't feel as though they are. If you act as if you're "hot" and the world begins to respond to you that way, it becomes another self-fulfilling prophecy that supports men's positive self-esteem.
Women, on the other hand, don't grow up in hierarchies. Their young lives are organized around "being nice" and sharing power equally. No one is in charge of this kind of play; girls form a cooperative group and build upon one another's ideas: "Okay, now I'm going to be the mommy!" "And I'm going to make the mud pies." There are no winners and losers in girls' imaginative games, unlike in boys' games with their team captains and star players. Of course, our socialization is changing, and more and more young girls these days engage in competitive sports, but in general women tend to flatten out the hierarchy among themselves; this makes their relationships more equal, but may look to the world as if they're putting themselves down in subtle ways: "You did a great job on the report," says Liz. When Mary responds, "Oh no, most of the information was already there. I just reorganized it," she appears to be negating her own worth. But in actuality, these two women are supporting each other's self-esteem.
Troubles Talk Enhances Self-Esteem
In a similar vein, sharing difficulties, shortcomings, and areas of deficiencies in their lives is one of the major ways women bond with one another: "I'm a dummy in math." "I'm useless when it comes to applying new software." "My kids are driving me crazy." "My husband is always away on business, and I'm lonely." "I've gained so much weight." Communications expert Deborah Tannen calls this troubles talk, and it's a useful way for women to maintain their relationships.
These sorts of interactions are a way to diminish the external power among women: if you are the one to start the troubles talk, you willingly open yourself up and thus give power to the person to whom you're speaking. Troubles talk can help if the woman you're talking to empathizes and joins you in your pain, but it can derail you if the empathy or help isn't forthcoming. If she makes fun of you or devalues your experience by one-upping you ("You think that's bad . . . you should hear what happened to me!"), you may be left feeling vulnerable, empty, and angry because such one-upmanship feels self-serving and is antithetical to women's culture. Your self-esteem can also decrease if a woman with whom you're sharing your troubles doesn't reciprocate and share a few of her own. If she does so, by demonstrating that you understand her pain and want to help her be comforted, you are extending yourself and can nourish and nurture her self-esteem.