MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Mon 04-Aug-14 12:33:57

Guest post: Women and self-esteem - do you ever feel you're enough?

Elizabeth Kesses - author of the Ugly Little Girl trilogy - struggled with crippling anxiety and low self-esteem for years. Here, she considers why this is so common amongst women, and urges others in her position to seek help.

Elizabeth Kesses

The Ugly Little Girl

Posted on: Mon 04-Aug-14 12:33:57

(15 comments )

Lead photo

'I lived with chronic and deep-seated self-doubt'

I walked into meeting rooms and dreaded what people must be thinking of me - why is she here? What is she wearing? Why is she in this job? I'd break into a cold sweat whenever I spoke up in front of others. I'd stay up all night worrying about things that could go wrong with particular projects, and then, on the rare occasions that they did, spend days racked with guilt. I was easily rattled by others’ comments.

Sound familiar? This is how I lived my life during my early adult years: with chronic and deep-seated self-doubt. On reflection, I think everything I did during that period - excelling at school, going to a top university, working non-stop in corporate land and marrying an older man - were all driven by the feeling that just as myself, I was not enough. I needed to prove I was smart and successful.

It is funny how low self-esteem can hold you back in so many ways, but can also make you an over-achiever. The more I did, the better I thought I was - but it was like filling a leaky bucket. I was profoundly unsure of myself, as if I was living on a cracking ice - never steady, never secure.

I used to worry about everything and nothing: is the plane I'm on going to crash? Have I eaten something that is going to make me sick? Did I lock the front door? It was like I was deliberately starving myself of happiness and pleasure. I didn't feel that happiness was my birth right, so I would choose the very opposite: friends who made me feel small, food that was so low in calories it tasted of nothing, and a gruelling work schedule that left no time for fun. And the weirdest thing was that everyone thought I was happy. I kept calm and carried on with a big fake smile, and they believed that my draconian lifestyle was bringing me joy. It is probably why nobody interfered, never asked me directly whether I was okay.

At the time, I thought I was the only one to feel this way. But since writing The Ugly Little Girl trilogy, women have approached me from all walks of life and told me about the crippling effect their lack of confidence has had on their lives. And it is women. We already know about the 'confidence gap' – the idea that women are more likely to put their achievements down to ‘just luck’ - and that's how I felt. Even Sheryl Sandberg has said: “There are still days I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.”

One of the biggest challenges for me was to stop being defined by what society expected of me - whether I was married or not, a mum or not, a high-flyer or not, a wealthy single woman or not. I had to realise that none of these external labels were going to make me happy.


In many organisations, boards are still dominated by men, with senior posts more rarely attainable for women. It seems that at work at least, gender stereotypes prevail - if you are already a nervous, self-doubter, then your job can fuel your insecurities. A fellow self-doubter once said to me: “if women and men are each given ten tasks, men do 6 and are satisfied with their output. Women will complete 8 and feel they have underachieved,” and that certainly rang true for me. So how can we become equal in the quest for self-belief?

One of the biggest challenges for me was to stop being defined by what society expected of me - whether I was married or not, a mum or not, a high-flyer or not, a wealthy single woman or not. I had to realise that none of these external labels were going to make me happy. And I had to realise that I needed to talk to someone about my anxiety – that accepting help didn't make me weak.

The trigger that made me get this help was the worst actually happening. My Dad died. I had been scared of losing him and when it came, it took me to rock bottom. I had never wanted to reveal to him any of my negative feelings, and that façade had just about kept me together. Without him I was face to face with me; doing a job I barely enjoyed, with men that treated me badly and spending very little time pleasing myself.

The dam had broken, and all sorts of changes happened. I fell out with my job, left my boyfriend and ran away to the other side of the world. These various disasters – the breakdown of my relationship and career – showed me for the first time the layers of brittle insecurities that had built up over the years. But the good news is that it didn't take long to unpick them. I escaped to Australia and I started the therapy that has changed my life. I would encourage anyone and everyone suffering from a lack of confidence to seek counselling. Now, I write for a living, which has been a massive test of self-esteem - I am no longer defined by a title, a position or a salary. But I have never been more content.

If this rings true with anyone out there I would wholeheartedly urge you to do something about it. It might be psychotherapy, a support group or simply writing a diary - getting those niggling anxieties running round your head out on paper. The easy road is to do nothing, but believe me; ultimately it is a much more arduous way to live your life. A bit of short-term pain will lead to much long term gain – maybe even that women’s mag holy grail of ‘well-being’. It’s a cliché, but I really do feel at peace with my life now. Of course I still have days when I question myself, challenge what I am doing and worry I am a bad step-mum, cat-owner or wife. But my life is slowly becoming aligned with who I am. I have become enough.

By Elizabeth Kesses

Twitter: @britchickparis

Timpani Mon 04-Aug-14 12:58:15

Wow. What an inspiring read. This could actually be me. I'm crippled by self-doubt, have accessed counselling for self-esteem before now (temporarily it worked to a certain extent).

I also want to write but don't because of the self-doubt and lack of time and the thought that I'll never be good enough.

PetulaGordino Mon 04-Aug-14 18:28:24

"It is funny how low self-esteem can hold you back in so many ways, but can also make you an over-achiever. The more I did, the better I thought I was - but it was like filling a leaky bucket."

this comment speaks to me very strongly. i'm going to mull that one over

joshandjamie Mon 04-Aug-14 19:05:10

Brilliant read. From someone who has suffered from low self-esteem for years unbeknownst to everyone (except my husband).

I wonder whether low self-esteem goes hand in hand with an inability to feel happy, even when there is no reason not to be. OR worse, to feel happy and not quite know what to do with the emotion.

Salhal Mon 04-Aug-14 19:05:51

I have low self esteem that seems to have spread into all areas of my life now that I 'm a mum . I feel not a good enough mum because I work full time, not good enough at my career because I work part time, not good enough because the house is a mess and the washing undone. I never feel I look good enough or that I am enough. I never even considered that Icould have counselling to help me address this. How would I go about accessing this? I'm bloody sick of feeling second rate and really don't want to pass it on to my kids.

PetulaGordino Mon 04-Aug-14 19:14:00

"I wonder whether low self-esteem goes hand in hand with an inability to feel happy, even when there is no reason not to be. OR worse, to feel happy and not quite know what to do with the emotion."

you may well be right. it can be described as "one of life's unsatisfied customers", as my mum puts it. it's hard to be satisfied if you feel that your life is good but you don't deserve it, or are the "bad" core that blights the good parts

foslady Mon 04-Aug-14 20:45:49

I have low self esteem, I've called myself the one who's 'not quite good enough' for the last few years - not good enough for any husband to treat with respect, not good enough for the ex to want to stay with - he went off with another woman, not good enough for the man I love to change his life and move to be with me.
My low self esteem and resulted in many years of depression. It's not that I want to be like this, it's just that every time I try to change, something happens that knocks me back, strengthening the LSE - a knock back from a job application or interview, bad day at work - that kind of thing.
But then I remind myself that people tell me I am a great mum and a really kind, genuine person and it puts me back on my feet to fight another day.

Here's hoping that the CBT works for me

Fillybuster Mon 04-Aug-14 23:11:30

What a fantastic, thought-provoking, honest and inspiring post! Thank you. So much of that resonated, although I'd never admit it to anyone in RL (except possibly dh, who thinks I'm bonkers grin). Lots of things to think about in there....

Oblomov Tue 05-Aug-14 08:18:31

I don't have low self esteem. in fact in light of all my problems, I have always had good self esteem.

Do you look at the core reasons OP?
Does CBT or counselling look at the real reasons for your low self esteem in order to address the problem at its base?

glossyhair Tue 05-Aug-14 10:48:58

My self esteem has always been OK too - so I don't think this should be presented as universal to all women by any means. I don't relate to the comments about anxiety at all, I just don't get worried about things I know I can't control. The idea of being defined by what society expects of you is possibly the key difference. I am not from the sort of background where going to a top university and getting a corporate job was expected, so didn't have those pressures. It has given me a certain freedom to do as I choose in life (and has meant some quite unconventional decisions), but I think ultimately that is what has made me happy.

Britchickparis Tue 05-Aug-14 11:34:33

I used to think therapy meant you were mad; was afraid id be judged. Its been the most liberating experience ever to talk to someone neutral who can unpeel all the layers of worries like an onion. Therapy changed my life. Id advise anyone to seek a referral from a gp or ask for a good ref amongst friends. I know of a few good therapists in London. Holli Rubin and Jacqueline Hirst. Both experts in body confidence and self esteem.

Britchickparis Tue 05-Aug-14 11:46:41

One useful technique to create a deep sense of selfworth is to nurture your true passion - so many of us fall into a job by chance and dont get to do what we love. It can be a creative pursuit, helping others, something physical/active. Doing what you enjoy and doing it well will give you the biggest boost and not an artifical one from eating or shopping. Mine was my imagination - i ignored it for a long time and always felt like something was missing. Now im writing I have never been happier

As a daughter, I felt I never lived up to expectations. As a partner, I was made to feel second rate, and not very worthy. As a single the person, I feel totally different. I m quite good at lots of things I d never discovered before, very content and capable. I seem to view myself in a totally different light to how others saw me.

breakingthebank Tue 05-Aug-14 22:27:14

Totally identify with this! Ended up giving up my career 5 years ago in a state of depression and have spent the last few years on a journey of understanding my feelings. Amongst other things I have dealt with the negative people around me who fed my low self esteem and last year I re entered my profession, got promoted and had another baby! Can finally say I feel that I am good enough just as I am, I don't need to be perfect at everything I do and I'm so much happier.

MorphineDreams Wed 06-Aug-14 02:43:11

I've always felt I've been enough because certain circumstances in my life led me to always having to be enough

Britchickparis Mon 11-Aug-14 15:05:31

thanks so much for all your feedback and comments...appreciate each and every case is different and personal. More britchickparis posts coming soon!

Join the discussion

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now