A couple years ago, I began a formspring page where women with dating or relationship woes could stop by to anonymously ask me their questions. After 18,000 answers, the page has evolved into a catch-all that includes careers, social etiquette, travel and more. I also founded a boutique life coaching company to help women work through their concerns via more intimate conversations.

I’ve got a lot of experience helping women unpack their baggage. And reading through all those questions and working with so many clients, I’ve reached a disturbing conclusion: A whole lot of women have low self-esteem. It’s the devil, and among my mostly female clientele, it’s the No. 1 blockage that keeps them from living their best lives.

It’s important to recognize the behavior and not mislabel it as something it’s not. I get questions from women who are unhappy in relationships with men who are unreliable, cheat rampantly, or just don’t sound very nice. Yet the women stay. It’s not because they’re “crazy” or “stupid,” labels commonly hurled at women who let bad relationships linger. It’s that they don’t believe they deserve or can do better. Sometimes it’s because they’ve started to believe an emotionally abusive man who tells them that. More often they didn’t think very highly of themselves going into the relationship.

The context of relationships is most often where low self-esteem is discussed, but that’s far from the only place this issue shows up or can be detrimental. I’ve heard from countless smart women with big dreams who are afraid to pursue them. There’s always a list of excuses, but at the core, there is a belief that they’re just not good enough to accomplish what they set their minds to.   

You’ll also see the current of low self-esteem in women who are people pleasers. Their oft-cited rationale is they want to make others happy — but really the desire to gain approval and take care of everyone else keeps them from saying “no,” and trumps their personal time, self-care, or development.

The good news is if you’re living this way, you don’t have to continue. It may sound a lil’ earthy-crunchy to some ears, but I advise my clients to accept that they are all that they need because, well, it’s true. They don’t need reasons to be worthy. They just are. Period.   

Very few people believe that the first time they hear it, and so I work to get them there. One of my favorite exercises is asking clients to make a list of all of the qualities they bring to the table and all of their accomplishments. If they do it right, the activity should take more time and use more pages than they allotted. I find when people focus on all the greatness they are wasting by not putting it to use where it’s appreciated, they stop allowing others to take it for granted (i.e., what people with high self-esteem do).

It’s not an overnight process — there are no shortcuts and it requires a lot of hard work. But it’s all worthwhile, because when a woman’s self-esteem changes for the better, the rest of her life does too.

Demetria L. Lucas is the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life (Atria), in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk