Why Do Young Women Have Such Low Self-Esteem?

Low Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is defined as “self-respect; confidence in one’s own worth or abilities,” and it is associated with more happiness, greater life satisfaction, and fewer negative moods, research shows.

Yet, for many young women, self-esteem is lacking. Even with growing gender equality, body positivity, and inclusiveness, young women continue to struggle with self-esteem. As a result, they are at greater risk of a number of mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, and suicidality – to name a few.

Female brains differ in small but significant ways from male brains, which may factor into low self-esteem among young women. Click To Tweet

What’s more, low self-esteem can affect one’s life trajectory. It can lead to inaction, underachieving when it comes to pursuing dreams, and staying in unhealthy or unsatisfying relationships.

Here’s how to identify low self-worth, what causes it, and how to get it back.

SIGNS OF LOW SELF-ESTEEM

A lack of personal worth and value will show up in a number of ways. Here are some of the most common signs:

  • Feeling unworthy of being liked
  • Looking at the world negatively
  • Lack of confidence
  • Excessive fear of failure/perfectionism
  • Difficulty hearing criticism or positive feedback
  • Overfocus and insecurity about one’s weaknesses
  • Negative experiences color your outlook
  • Worry
  • People pleasing/poor boundaries
  • Difficulty identifying and expressing your needs
  • Overly concerned with how others perceive you
  • Feelings of anxiety, depression, shame, or inadequacy

CAUSES OF LOW SELF-ESTEEM IN YOUNG WOMEN

There are many causes of low self-esteem, such as having parents (or other caregivers/teachers) who were extremely critical, doing poorly in school, abuse, and ongoing stressful life situations, to name a few. However, there are some additional factors unique to women.

1. The Negative Bias of the Female Brain

Female brains differ in small but significant ways from male brains, which may factor into low self-esteem among young women. A study conducted at Harvard Medical School compared MRI scans of male and female brains and found that women have larger volume in the frontal and limbic cortices. The prefrontal cortex is involved in higher cognitive functions such as learning language, judgment, controlling impulses, and conscientiousness. The limbic system is responsible for emotional responses. Experts believe this may be why women are typically less impulsive than men and more concerned with emotion. In fact, it possibly explains why women tend to be collaborative, intuitive, empathetic, have self-control, and have a small amount of worry. Intuition and a healthy amount of worry can be very beneficial to women for self-protection and the protection of their children and families. Though the downside of this is that women’s minds are busier, and oftentimes worry too much. This can lead to a preponderance of automatic negative thoughts (ANTs). In turn, ANTs can be self-directed and tear self-esteem apart.

Young women tend to worry constantly about what others people think about them, how they compare with peers, what’s going to happen, and, of course, about their appearance. It’s overwhelmingly negative, which can lead not just to low self-esteem but also to anxiety and depression. Indeed, starting in adolescence, research shows that women are twice as likely to be depressed than men. Young women are also more likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder than men, studies reveal.

Add hormones to the mix, and things can go from bad to worse. Young women, especially, have dramatic fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone each month, which can fuel negative thinking and worry even more.

But that’s not all. Some brain imaging research has found that men have 52% more serotonin production than women. Serotonin is a powerful calming neurotransmitter involved with a number of important functions, including mood, sleep, pain, and appetite. Amen Clinics has noted low serotonin levels associated with overactivity in the brain’s worry and mood centers on brain SPECT imaging scans. Additionally, SPECT studies at Amen Clinics show that an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex tends to be more active in the female brain. This part of the brain allows you to shift attention and recognize errors. Yet when it is overactive, an individual can get “stuck” in negative thinking or negative behaviors and see the world as a cup half empty, rather than half full.

2. Social Media/Body Image

When you add images of an unattainable beauty standard all over social media to young female minds already prone to negative thinking and worry, self-esteem suffers more. Indeed, an abundance of research clearly shows a negative relationship between social media use and the self-esteem of young women.

Surveys in recent years reveal alarming insights. After researchers interviewed 10,500 young females from 13 countries about body self-esteem, the 2017 Dove Global Beauty and Confidence Report found that more than half of the young women surveyed reported having low body self-esteem. (It reflected a big drop from the 2010 Dove report that found 85% of women surveyed felt confident in their own beauty.)

Even more concerning is a 2011 survey conducted by Glamour, which revealed that a whopping 97% of young women admitted to having at least one “I hate my body” moment every day.

More recently, Dove honed in on the effects of social media on young women’s self-esteem in what’s called the Dove Self-Esteem Project. Half of the girls interviewed reported that the idealized beauty content on social media negatively impacted their self-esteem. On a positive note, 70% of the young women interviewed also reported feeling better after unfollowing idealized beauty content on social media!

3. Trauma

Survivors of many different forms of trauma—such as life-threatening accidents/events, sexual abuse, emotional trauma, and generational trauma—typically have low self-esteem. Before trauma, an individual usually believes in their ability to exercise good judgment and stay safe. However, after a traumatic experience, much of that trust is destroyed, which can leave a person to feel doubt, fear, helplessness, shame, and a feeling they are to blame—all eroding self-esteem.

The American Psychological Association reports that women are twice as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following a traumatic event than men. Women are more commonly exposed to high-impact trauma (sexual trauma) than men at a younger age. Research shows that female survivors of sexual trauma suffer from self-esteem.

Self-esteem also suffers at the hands of emotional trauma, which might include incidences of harassment or adverse childhood events such as neglect, verbal abuse, an alcoholic parent, or parental separation. The trauma of a really bad relationship, divorce, an abusive boss, or an extremely humiliating experience can scar self-esteem, too.

RECOVERING SELF-ESTEEM

On a brighter note, young women can counter some of these confidence-killing causes. You can learn to tame your busy brain with meditation or hypnosis, which can both calm the mind and help to keep worries in check. You can challenge your ANTs by asking yourself the following questions about persistent negative thoughts.

  1. Is it true? (Is the stressful or negative thought true?)
  2. Can I absolutely know that it’s true?
  3. How do I react when I believe that thought?
  4. Who would I be without the thought? Or, how would I feel if I didn’t have the thought?

You can also stop looking at social media images that make you feel bad and curate your social media feed to include images that promote your well-being. Follow accounts that post positive messages about your body and your values. Dove started a #detoxyourfeed hashtag to promote this action!

Finally, you can work to resolve your trauma. Cognitive behavioral therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) are effective treatments for PTSD symptoms. Seeking the help of a mental health professional can also provide the added support that may be needed to slowly build self-esteem.

Low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

5 Comments »

  1. For decades I have observed these things (as I’ve participated in hiring and supervision). I had dubbed it “young woman’s syndrome”. Grateful to see the science behind my experiences.

    Comment by Becky Stephen — November 7, 2022 @ 3:28 AM

  2. Dr. Amen, I believe that all of the above is valid and true. And I also believe that often things just need to be done, by someone, and that someone can be you and make a difference. This can be viewed as people pleasing but doesn’t fall under that description. Just a notation on the valid statements here.

    Comment by Diane Conroy — November 7, 2022 @ 4:38 AM

  3. Thank you for this very insightful article. I read many years ago an article about the differences in men's and women's brains. Explains a lot!!

    I'm curious what the age range for "young women" referred to in the studies and in the article? I'm 70 and relate to many of these things you talk about. I know my self-esteem has improved over the years, but I still struggle with depression, excessive worrying & Ants despite counseling, EMDR and Seratonin supplements. Does this mean I'm young? 😊

    Comment by Carolyn Johnson — November 7, 2022 @ 7:19 AM

  4. as we live in human societies that are run by men's values and morals can we really be surprised that "Young women tend to worry constantly about what others people think about them"
    they are being compared against men's values not only of their actions but also the way they look
    have you heard of the interthalamic adhesion – a small bundle of nerve fibres and cells that is sited within the third ventricle – tis only in 53% of the population and mostly in women – and provides for empathy as it connects the four sides of the brain together – it can be increased by prayer and meditation and maybe singing(?)
    until women spend more time with each other, and in groups, to find the common ground that women have in their understanding of the world of humans and their place in it – we will still be run by tribal competition that men require for their own piece of mind
    we really need to understand that men and women are quite different, how and why and begin to be accepting of both the good and bad in male and female people, who are after all, animals first, instinctively – the mind, like governments, are always the last to know

    Comment by penny waters — November 7, 2022 @ 11:17 AM

  5. You neglected to mention an important factor that influences women's self-esteem: men. We have always been considered 2nd class citizens and, in my generation, received the lower wages and the lower level jobs. Now with the end of Roe, we no longer have control over our own bodies. What? PS I love the 4 questions printed above, which should be attributed to a woman, Byron Katie and her Work.Com.

    Comment by Lois Dorn — November 7, 2022 @ 2:51 PM

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