Women and Self Confidence
Colette Dowling, M.S.W.
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 is the plague of many girls and it 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 charateristics 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, and cling for dear life.
Writing of studies she conducted in the l970s, 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. Consequently, she doesn't develop enough skills in coping with her environment, which 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. While her studies are based on research done in the 1970s, and might be dismissed as dated, soundly conducted psychological research is very slow to date, in part because such patterns as she described in her "developmental sequence" are very slow to change.
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 aware. They do not think of themselves as having been hobbled in their efforts to become independent as children, and so, 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 help 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 utterly 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."
Independence results from learning that one can accomplish by oneself, can rely upon 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 they can't succeed in meeting life's challenges on their own. Without this belief they will invariably suffer from low self confidence.
In my experience, lack of self confidence, whether it shows up in relationships, or work, or both, is one of the chief reasons women enter psychotherapy. Here they encounter a process that allows them to unlearn the deeply ingrained negative beliefs that are holding them back.
This article is adapted from Colette Dowling's book, The Cinderella Complex.
Ms. Dowling is a writer and a psychotherapist with a practice in New York. Women who want help with low self confidence can see Dowling's profile at http://therapist. psychologyoday.com/34706, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Colette Dowling is an internationally known writer and lecturer whose books have been translated into twenty languages. She is best known for The Cinderella Complex: Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence, published in the eighties.
In 1991 Dowling’s book, You Mean I Don't Have to Feel This Way? New Hope for Depression, Anxiety and Addiction (Scribner's, 1991; Bantam 1992) was hailed as a breakthrough in educating the general reader on the neuroscience of depression.
Dowling’s latest book, The Frailty Myth: Women Approaching Physical Equality, was published in hardcover by Random House, in 2000.
Dowling has written eight books and has lectured widely at medical schools and psychiatric institutes. Her articles have appeared in major magazines, including The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s and New York. She has a masters degree from The Smith College School for Social Work and post-graduate training from The Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York City.