Girls need support to break the damaging cycle of self-criticism


Provided by
Dr Saima Rana
CEO/Principal, GEMS World Academy Dubai; Chief Education Officer at GEMS Education
Wednesday 09 August 2023 10:31 BST
More vulnerable: Girls are more vulnerable to negative self-talk than their male counterparts
More vulnerable: Girls are more vulnerable to negative self-talk than their male counterparts (GEMS Education)

GEMS Education is a Business Reporter client.

An alarming three out of four children aged 12 and above express dissatisfaction with their bodies and feel embarrassed about their appearance, according to a study by UK youth mental health charity stem4.

To make matters worse, 14 per cent of these young individuals are already dealing with eating difficulties including extreme restrictive eating, binge eating and vomiting. The study also revealed the profound impact of social media on the mental wellbeing of today’s youth.

As an educator with more than 15 years of experience, I have witnessed first-hand the impact of these evolving challenges on young girls, and the effect on their academic performance, social interactions and personal lives – particularly as social media becomes more prevalent in their everyday lives.

While schools alone cannot provide a complete solution, there is ample room for improvement in how we support girls, together with their families. Part of this involves identifying and addressing the side effects of these insecurities as soon as they manifest.

One such consequence that requires urgent attention is negative self-talk.

The harmful influences stemming from our highly digital and interconnected world, where reality is distorted and comparisons are rampant, do not dissipate when girls put down their devices. Instead, they can lead girls and young women into a destructive cycle of self-criticism.

This negative self-talk and resulting low self-esteem can persist throughout a woman’s life, undermining her confidence and hindering her from reaching her full potential. Worryingly, these negative thought patterns often take root in childhood, when girls are still developing their sense of self and are more susceptible to external criticism and highly impressionable.

It is crucial to acknowledge that girls and women are more vulnerable to negative self-talk than their male counterparts.

Women are more prone to negative self-talk

Research commissioned by a UK-based clothing retailer [1] revealed that women engage in more repetitive negative thinking compared with men, and criticise themselves an astonishing 1,460 times per year – that’s an average of four times every day!

The ramifications of negative self-talk extend far beyond our emotional wellbeing. In fact, self-advocacy in the workplace is widely acknowledged as being a barrier to women’s progression. This is reflected in a recent 2023 study of 2,100 women conducted by for Indeed in partnership with Luminary — which found that 41 percent of women say they don’t self-advocate enough in their workplace. Additionally, 59 percent of women cited fear or anxiety as the principal reason for not self-advocating enough at work. These findings demonstrate how self-doubt often prevents capable women from pursuing fulfilling opportunities.

Fortunately, society possesses the power to intervene in the ingrained habits and thought patterns that fuel negative self-talk during a girl’s formative years. Education, within school and home environments, is fundamental.

Disrupting the cycle of negative self-talk

Educators and mentors must acknowledge that the concept of negative self-talk is not often taught or understood, and that many young girls will not even be aware that they’re engaging in it. These harmful cycles of self-criticism can be insidious, trapping young women in patterns of negative self-talk and low self-esteem.

For the sake of our youth, we must continue to emphasise the importance of recognising, contextualising and preventing negative self-talk. By providing support, positive role models and uplifting examples, we can collectively break free from these harmful cycles of self-criticism.

Recognising, contextualising and prevention

Recognising negative self-talk and low self-confidence necessitates the involvement of parents, peers, and teachers who can identify the warning signs of deep-seated self-esteem issues.

Contextualising involves reframing specific instances of negativity to foster healthier self-reflection. For example, when young girls compare themselves to the influencers and celebrities they see on their screens, contextualising reminds them that everyone’s path to success is unique and that consistent progress towards personal goals is paramount.

Prevention, on the other hand, arises from sustained efforts to identify and contextualise damaging self-talk, replacing negativity with positive thought patterns and affirmations.

Empowering through education

Education plays a vital role in addressing the negative consequences of our digitised and interconnected world. While it cannot single-handedly undo these consequences, it can tackle one of the most harmful outcomes: negative self-talk.

Educators and schools must actively work to introduce, integrate and strengthen their initiatives to enhance mental health awareness and support for students, and continue to create safe and open forums that also discuss the long-term benefits of self-advocacy.

As the head of GEMS World Academy Dubai, an International Baccalaureate school which prioritises the holistic development of students, I am reminded daily of the significance of transforming negative self-talk into empowering self-advocacy. By educating young girls within the classroom and at home, we can empower our future women, equipping them with the confidence and resilience needed to navigate life’s challenges.

Dr Saima Rana, CEO/Principal, GEMS World Academy Dubai; Chief Education Officer at GEMS Education
Dr Saima Rana, CEO/Principal, GEMS World Academy Dubai; Chief Education Officer at GEMS Education (Courtesy of GEMS Education)

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