THE BLOG
06/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How Do Women Measure Self Worth?

Does someone else need to acknowledge your worth to make it real? Do you crave outside affirmation of your value? Did we get a disproportionate amount of so-called worth from the "powers that be" because we're females, or are we generally insecure by nature about this issue?

If we're basically insecure as a gender, we've been given reason to be. Imagine that you're a woman living in a country and society which denies you freedom of travel, forbids you to possess your own passport, complicates or denies your access to education and female-centric healthcare, restricts your participation in government, your ownership of property, your ability to obtain loans, to work outside the home, drive a car, or have custody of your children. Wow. Seems to me that this lack of freedom and autonomy could easily impact on your feelings of worth, could it not?

Or, consider the prickly issue of how crime investigations - particularly in rape cases - are handled. The recent outrage at the backlog of unprocessed rape kits is well deserved. How could this be allowed to happen? Rape kits can provide investigators with the evidence they need to find and prosecute rapists, but yet, for some inexplicable reason, many kits are languishing, unprocessed. Does this say something about how we are valued and respected?

Perhaps it's not that simple.

A woman's culture, our upbringing, our environment, our religion, social cues, and our own strongly held beliefs nuance a woman's status, and ultimately, our perspective. Societal and cultural indoctrination is strong, and we continue to use a reflection of societal boundaries to assess ourselves. When the dominant governing power holds stubbornly to stereotypes, cultural mores, and antiquated mindsets, there may not be much wiggle room for women to express their worth.

Despite the reflection we get from society, and even in spite of difficult, if not terrible life circumstances, our sense of self-worth is a personal journey. Though I'm a girl who grew up in the United States - a country where women have many rights, I doubted my self-worth and personal autonomy for the first thirty-odd years of my life. I faced some difficult things. I was raped when I was eighteen. I spent plenty of time in dysfunctional relationships, and ultimately had two failed marriages. I was, for a time, a single, working mother who couldn't afford health care. Trust me when I tell you, I felt powerless, humiliated, and essentially, worthless. I finally crawled off that slippery slope, but it was a difficult descent.

Power and control issues are complicated for all of us, but are particularly so for women. Women who find themselves in untenable situations because of spousal abuse, power imbalances, poverty, or other difficult issues may have the right to drive, the right to go to work, and in fact have all sorts of other rights, but may lack the confidence or resources to exercise them. Many women don't think they can control their lives, and consequently, may have convinced themselves they don't deserve better.

For example, thirty-one percent of American women report being physically or sexually abused by a boyfriend or husband at some point in their lives, yet only a fraction of those go to a shelter. Sadly, despite interventions, many of these women will eventually return to their attackers because they don't believe in themselves enough to strike out on their own - or, they don't have the support and social network to help them do so long term.

Like the realization of self- worth, the idea that one has free will - freedom to choose, freedom to escape an unhappy life, freedom to direct one's trajectory and the power to do so, may seem as fanciful and out of reach as the summit of Everest. Still, even such a climb begins with the first step, which is why this dialog is so important. Those of us who can think freely, speak in public forums, and reach across miles and mindsets, need to keep the wheels of change in motion, and reach out our hands, hearts, minds, and financial resources to help those who are struggling. Women need to be more equally represented in the rule-making consortium to make sure female-centric needs are addressed.

Regardless of cultural constraints and mores, when women take more personal responsibility for how we view, interpret, assess and express our worth, the groundswell of female opinion will eventually cause a tipping point in societal reform. And this newly articulated female narrative would ultimately affect the lives of women everywhere. Tough as it may seem, we need to realize our worth in order to actualize it.

The Dalai Lama said, "According to Buddhism, individuals are masters of their own destiny. And all living beings are believed to possess the nature of the Primordial Buddha, Samantabhadra -- the potential or seed of enlightenment, within them. So. Our future is in our own hands. What greater free will do we need?"

Indeed. Perhaps as young girls and women, we will be able to express that free well once more and more of us model that behavior. I'm signing up to do whatever I can. Will you?

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