One of my early books was titled What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women. It was based on surveys I administered initially to seventy-five women and then to five thousand more. I shared with them ten common sources of depression that I had heard in my counseling, as follows: problems with the children, menstrual and other physiological difficulties, financial stresses, in-law conflict, sexual problems, absence of romantic love in marriage, low self-esteem, fatigue and time pressure, loneliness/isolation/boredom, and aging. Then I asked the women to rank these items in their own lives. The study was not intended to meet the rigors of the scientific method, because the sample was not randomized and had no control group. Nevertheless, the results were very interesting and revealing.
The most frequent source of depression among these women was low self-esteem, far exceeding any other option. More than 50 percent listed it in first place, and 80 percent marked it in the top five. The seventy-five women who served as the test group were young, attractive, and married. All were mothers with young children and lived in upscale neighborhoods. Most had college degrees and were members of strong Christian churches. Nevertheless, almost all of them reportedly dealt with recurring bouts of depression and flagging confidence.
When I administered the short questionnaire to five thousand more women, my initial findings were confirmed. It is my conclusion, based on these and other more rigorous studies, that the sensitivity of which I have written has a downside: adolescent girls and women are more easily wounded than males, and many of them experience a lifelong sense of inadequacy. The pain that results from being ridiculed, bullied, or left out as a child or teen—as well as from wounds originating within dysfunctional families—is remembered painfully thereafter.
I served as a school psychologist before moving into academia and saw evidence of this vulnerability in most of our female students. They didn't feel pretty enough or accepted by their peers. They just weren't valuable in their own eyes. Here are some examples of that common pattern in highly successful women.
Chris Evert is the former number one tennis player in the world. She was cute and perky and everyone's little sweetheart when she made her stunning debut into the sport at sixteen years of age. There was no prize in tennis that she didn't eventually win, and yet this is what she said of herself:
I had no idea who I was, or what I could be away from tennis. I was depressed and afraid because so much of my life had been defined by my being a tennis champion. I was completely lost. Winning made me feel like I was somebody. It made me feel pretty. It was like being hooked on a drug. I needed the wins, the applause, in order to have an identity.1
Provocative singer and perennial star of the stage and screen Madonna describes herself in similar terms:
I have an iron will and all of my will has always been devoted to conquering some horrible feeling of inadequacy. . . . I'm always struggling with that fear. I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being of worth and then I get to another stage and I think I'm mediocre and uninteresting and worthless and I have to find a way to get myself out of that again and again.
My drive in life is from this horrible feeling of being inadequate and mediocre and it is always pushing me, and pushing me and pushing me. Because even though I have become somebody, I still have to prove that I am SOMEBODY. My struggle has never ended and it probably never will.2
Oprah Winfrey has been the most successful woman in television for more than twenty-five years. Millions of viewers have tuned in to her talk show every day and been influenced by what she has to say. She is also one of the wealthiest women in the world. This, however, is how she sees herself:
I discovered I didn't feel worth a d--n, and certainly not worthy of love, unless I was accomplishing something. I suddenly realized I have never felt I could be loved just for being.3
Melissa Gilbert played the role of "half-pint" Laura for many years on the popular television series Little House on the Prairie. But the story of her adult years is sad, because she chose her career over every other aspect of her life. A series of broken relationships attests to the fact that what we see on television is often a facade. An article in TV Guide revealed this dark side to her story. Gilbert, who was thirty years old at the time, said she faced the stark realization that the path she had chosen betrayed her. She said, "Didn't I tell you what my greatest fear is? That they'll write on my tombstone: 'She had an incredible career, but no life.'"4
Joan Kennedy, first wife of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, was one of the most glamorous women in the world. She was a model who could turn the heads of every guy in the room. I was one of them. I saw her and the senator at close range in 1968 at an American Academy of Pediatrics conference in Chicago. They both sparkled with beauty and charm, but Joan hardly perceived herself in that light.
During the 1980 presidential campaign, she began seeing a psychiatrist regularly. She said, "I had really lost my self-confidence. The only thing I knew that I was sure of was that I was a very attractive young woman and that I had a pretty good figure. . . . The Kennedys are so good at every- thing and I'm a flop."5 When hearing reports that Teddy was a womanizer, she said, "[That] went to the core of my self-esteem. . . . I began thinking maybe I'm just not attractive enough or attractive anymore, or whatever, and it was awfully easy to then say . . . if that's the way it is, I might as well have a drink."6 Joan soon became an alcoholic.
There is no end to the examples I could cite of admired, respected, and gorgeous women—from Ava Gardner to Marilyn Monroe—who were never entirely comfortable in their own skin. Alas, the problem even showed up in my own home. I was shocked to learn shortly after I married Shirley that she had the same feelings of inadequacy. She had been Miss Everything in college—homecoming queen, most outstanding junior girl, senior class president, Who's Who among Students in American Colleges and Universities, and one of the most popular girls in school. She was beautiful and had guys pursuing her from the time she arrived as a freshman. Everybody loved Shirley, and so did I. Yet I discovered during our first year of marriage that she harbored secret doubts about herself that she had concealed from me during our three-year courtship. The fact that Shirley disliked herself made absolutely no sense to me.
I understood that some of her feelings came from being the daughter of an alcoholic and growing up in a poor neighborhood, but those influences lingered long after she had moved away from home. Nevertheless, those feelings of inadequacy were real, and because I loved her, I needed to help her deal with them. I went to work to repair the damage. Shirley has completely recovered now and is, I think, one of the most respected Christian women in the country. I have seen her confidently step to a podium facing an audience of sixteen thousand men and women. But as I discovered in my wife, the phenomenon of low self-worth can be irrational and is not always linked to obvious causes. To some degree, it is "every woman." And it begins in childhood.
John and Stasi Eldredge described this nature in their book entitled Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman's Soul. They wrote:
You see, every little girl—and every little boy—is asking one fundamental question. But they are very different questions, depending on whether you are a little boy or a little girl. Little boys want to know, Do I have what it takes? All that rough and tumble, all that daring and superhero dress up, all of that is a boy seeking to prove that he does have what it takes. He was made in the image of a warrior God. Nearly all a man does is fueled by his search for validation, that longing he carries for an answer to his Question.
Little girls want to know, Am I lovely? The twirling skirts, the dress up, the longing to be pretty and to be seen—that is what that's all about. We are seeking an answer to our Question. When I was a girl of maybe five years old, I remember standing on top of the coffee table in my grandparents' living room and singing my heart out. I wanted to capture attention—especially my father's attention. I wanted to be captivating. We all did. But for most of us, the answer to our Question when we were young was "No, there is nothing captivating about you." Get off the coffee table. Nearly all a woman does in her adult life is fueled by her longing to be delighted in, her longing to be beautiful, to be irreplaceable, to have her Question answered, "Yes!" . . .
And down in the depths of our hearts, our Question remains. Unanswered. Or rather, it remains answered in the way it was answered so badly in our youth. "Am I lovely? Do you see me? Do you want to see me? Are you captivated by what you find in me?" We live haunted by that Question, yet unaware that it still needs an answer.7
1.Good Housekeeping (October 1990): 87–88.
2.Lynn Hirschberg, "The Misfit," Vanity Fair (April 1991): 160–169, 196–202.
3.Alan Ebert, "Oprah Winfrey Talks Openly about Oprah," Good Housekeeping (September 1991): 63.
4.Deborah Starr Seibei, "Melissa Gilbert's Bittersweet Justice," TV Guide (October 15, 1994): 12.
5.Marcia Chellis, Living with the Kennedys: The Joan Kennedy Story (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1985), 39.
7.John and Stasi Eldredge, Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman's Soul (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 46, 59.
Book: Bringing Up Girls
By Dr. James Dobson