7 Popular Myths About Self-Esteem
Our happiness and emotional stability are dependent on our ability to love ourselves. This self-love is called self-esteem.
Self-esteem is a broad, encompassing self-evaluation that includes all of our mini-evaluations of ourselves, some explicit, some implicit. Explicit self-esteem refers to self-evaluations that we’re conscious of and can report. Implicit self-esteem refers to self-evaluations that are more intuitive and occur largely outside our conscious awareness.
Self-esteem works on us in subtle ways, dictating our choices, shaping our worldview. It lies at the heart of many of our problems in life, but because we may not be fully aware of our implicit self-evaluations, we may not realize that the root cause of a problem is how we feel about ourselves at the deepest level.
For example, someone might have a lifelong dream to be an architect, but because he lacked the necessary self-esteem and self-confidence to pursue his dream, he ended up in an unfulfilling occupation. This choice may damage how he feels about himself later in life, yet he can never quite seem to pinpoint the exact problem. He may endlessly attempt to “fix things” that do nothing to improve self-esteem. He may blame something (or someone) else. He may be angry, stressed and even cynical of others who do pursue their dreams.
There are many pop psychology theories about self-esteem — what it is and how one should go about getting more of it.
Unfortunately, self-esteem is often presented as some nebulous, magical quality that some people simply have and others simply don’t, or as a quality that we can improve by losing weight or buying a new wardrobe. But self-esteem is more complicated than that.
To understand how to maintain healthy self-esteem, you must first understand what self-esteem really is… and isn’t.
High self-esteem is healthy self-esteem
Not necessarily. More is not always better.
Traditionally, the concept of self-esteem was divided into two sub-types: “high” or “low,” High was good; low was bad. But modern research has shown that high self-esteem does not necessarily equate to healthy self-esteem. People with high explicit self-esteem may consciously feel positively about themselves but harbor implicit or subconscious self-doubts and insecurities, which results in fragile high self-esteem.
In other words, their conscious, positive explicit self-evaluations don’t match their subconscious, implicit self-evaluations, which means that their explicit self-esteem is just a mask for their negative implicit self-evaluations.
Our explicit self-appraisals are often filtered through our implicit self-appraisals, whether we realize it or not. This incongruence between implicit and explicit self-esteem is associated with psychological problems such as narcissism, self-doubt, and stringent, self-damaging forms of perfectionism.
When our explicit and implicit self-evaluations match, however, we have secure high self-esteem (Kernis et al, 2003, 2005).
People with high explicit self-esteem and low implicit self-esteem tend to be narcissistic and feel threatened by criticism (Shröder-Abé et al, 2007; Zeigler-Hill, 2006). People with low explicit self-esteem and high implicit self-esteem may be especially prone to damaging perfectionism (Zeigler-Hill et al, 2007). Discrepancies between implicit and explicit self-esteem produce greater levels of self-doubt, anger suppression, and impaired physical and psychological health (Shröder-Abé et al, 2007).Fragile high self-esteem is shallow, an exterior facade. It’s characterized by narcissism, an unwillingness to admit to having negative self-views and fluctuating feelings of self-worth that are dependent on others for validation and reinforcement.
While secure high self-esteem involves thinking well of oneself, narcissism involves passionately wanting to think well of oneself. To compensate for self-doubts and feelings of inferiority, people with fragile high self-esteem may go to great lengths to defend, protect and enhance their feelings of self-worth.
While low self-esteem is not healthy, high self-esteem must be secure in order to be healthy. And as you’ll soon see, having high but fragile self-esteem is no better than having low self-esteem.
High self-esteem equals big ego
Having high self-esteem does not necessarily mean one has an inflated ego.
In fact, for people with healthy, secure high self-esteem, the opposite is true: As secure self-esteem increases, ego decreases. And conversely, as ego increases, self-esteem decreases or becomes fragile.
People with inflated egos either have low self-esteem or high fragile self-esteem, no matter how much they appear to love themselves. Here’s why…At the root of self-esteem lies self-control. Self-esteem directs what we’re attracted to.
When we allow ego to drive our actions, we tend to focus on doing what we think looks good, rather than what actually is good. Once ego steals the wheel, we lose control of our behavior. We may work ferociously to project a certain image to others. We may allow ourselves to be ruled by our impulses. We become emotionally immature, focusing only on the short term, like children. We seek immediate gratification (“if it feels good, do it”), even if we know that our actions will yield negative consequences.
Secure high self-esteem, on the other hand, allows us to forgo immediate gratification and focus on meaningful pursuits that offer long-term satisfaction.
We’re able to see that surrendering to our impulses for immediate gratification will only bring fleeting satisfaction, and, ultimately, only reinforce more unhealthy behavior.In the end, ego-driven behaviors only make us feel empty, guilty and angry at ourselves, and these negative feelings corrode our self-esteem and our self-respect.
We become defensive, overly sensitive, unstable. The ego inflates to compensate for these feelings of inadequacy and we become increasingly egocentric — self-absorbed and self-focused — which only makes us feel more and more isolated. This is how egocentricity narrows our perspective of the world.
Fragile self-esteem causes us to take a narrow, emotionally immature perspective of situations and relationships.
We lose sight of the big picture. Perspective always shapes how we respond to events. Secure high self-esteem endows us with a wider, more realistic perspective, enabling us to view situations and relationships rationally and objectively, as opposed to emotionally. The result is that we’re less susceptible to emotional overreactions and less likely to be negatively impacted by relatively minor events. But low or fragile high self-esteem — and the associated ego inflation — compromises our ability to make rational decisions.
For example, people with unhealthy self-esteem are more likely to care more about not losing than winning — avoiding loss or failure is more important than succeeding. They’ll continue to chase their losses, refusing to accept the reality that they’re wasting time or money, whereas people with secure high self-esteem can cut their losses and walk away. This phenomenon of loss aversion can cause really smart people to do really dumb things.The lower our self-esteem, the less we like ourselves and the more dependent we become on others to make us feel good about ourselves.
The less self-control we feel we have, the more desperate we are to control the events and people around us, especially those closest to us. If we have low self-esteem, we’re constantly seeking proof of our worth from others, which causes us to feel insecure, vulnerable and anxious. Our self-concept rises or falls with every interaction with others. Our self-esteem fluctuates with our perception of whether or not we’re impressing someone.
We become more prone to displaying a false self to others because we secretly fear that if they knew the real us, they would reject us. We become rejection-sensitive, always on the lookout for “threats,” and too quick to read disrespect into others’ behavior toward us. Because our pride (a.k.a. ego) is so easily bruised, we may overanalyze and blow even casual, insignificant comments out of proportion.
If someone is rude to us, embarrasses us, or not giving us the respect the ego feels we deserve, anger — the ego’s ultimate defense mechanism — kicks into gear. Anger, after all, braces the ego by creating the illusion that we’re stronger and more “in control” than we actually are. While people with secure high self-esteem are relatively unaffected by criticism, people with fragile high self-esteem may aggressively seek to punish or defeat anyone who threatens the grandiose self-image that they’ve invested so much effort in concocting.But anger provides no true psychological comfort. It can only fortify the ego for so long.
Meditation teaches us to respond with acceptance, rather than anger. Acceptance allows us to respond appropriately and proportionately, rather than allowing our emotions to dictate our response.
Successful people have high self-esteem
Maybe. But not necessarily. (The “you can’t judge a book by its cover” rule applies here.) One can appear to be “successful” by modern society’s definitions of success and still have low self-esteem. Society’s idea of success often focuses on the symbols of success and status — awards, a big bank account and expensive toys. But the trappings of success cannot compensate for self-destructive choices that feed fragile self-esteem.
Self-esteem and ego both hinge on respect; in fact, healthy self-esteem results from self-respect.
We must get respect from somewhere, and if we can’t get it from ourselves, we’ll seek it from others. People with fragile self-esteem essentially become emotional beggars, depending on the rest of the world to feed an insatiable ego. If we have secure high self-esteem, on the other hand, we don’t depend on others for proof of our self-worth. We don’t need someone else’s respect in order to respect ourselves. We’re able to nourish ourselves though self-respect and good choices.We respect ourselves because of who we are at the core, not because of our physical appearance, our possessions, or someone else’s perception of our achievements.
If we have secure high self-esteem, our self-respect does not rise and fall with our successes or failures. High self-esteem doesn’t buffer us from failure. Everyone experiences failures now and then.
Nor does secure high self-esteem result from comparing ourselves to others. We can always find someone who’s “better” or “has more.”If our self-perception of success is dependent upon the approval or acceptance of others, it becomes very difficult to maintain high self-esteem. You might be a multimillionaire CEO, but if your lifelong dream was to be a concert pianist and you abandoned that dream because you were afraid of losing someone else’s respect, you cannot have secure high self-esteem.
Conversely, an artist who doesn’t earn much money might not be society’s traditional idea of success, but if she’s achieving her dream and fulfilling her potential, she may have secure high self-esteem because she views herself as successful at something that’s important to her.
Self-esteem equates to self-confidence
Self-esteem is often conflated with self-confidence, but the two concepts are actually quite different. Self-esteem is measured by how much we like ourselves and the degree to which we feel worthy of receiving all the good that life has to offer. In contrast, confidence is our belief in our abilities or effectiveness within a particular realm of expertise or in a particular situation.
So, a person could feel pretty good about himself in general, but not necessarily feel good about his odds of beating a superior player on the basketball court. While playing basketball, he may appear to have low confidence, but that shouldn’t be misinterpreted as low self-esteem. Poor basketball performance doesn’t affect secure self-esteem and sense of self-worth — those qualities are hardy enough to survive a loss on a basketball court.
Conversely, an attractive woman might feel confident that men will notice her when she walks into a room, but secretly not like herself very much. Having confidence about her appearance doesn’t translate into high self-esteem. So what may seem like high self-esteem may only be high confidence in a specific arena.
Self-esteem does impact confidence in the sense that, the higher our self-esteem, the more likely we are to feel comfortable and confident in new situations.
But one study found that self-confidence is most strongly linked to self-esteem with respect to issues that really matter to us; that is, areas in which we have self-perceived competence (Lindwall, 2010).
The actual performance competency or level of achievement didn’t necessarily differ much between people who have high self-esteem and low self-esteem.
But as we travel through life, we’re constantly sorting things into two categories: Matters or Doesn’t Matter. Our self-esteem is more vulnerable to taking a hit when we fail at something that Matters. Conversely, our level of self-esteem determines what we mark as Matters versus Doesn’t Matter.
For example, if we’re ruled by ego, we may endlessly strive to accumulate symbols of “status.” But if we have secure high self-esteem, we don’t need to own a yacht or drive a fancy car to feel good about ourselves.
Childhood calibrates the self-esteem set-point
While it’s true that our childhood upbringing sets the bar for self-esteem, after that, our self-esteem rises or falls with our choices.
Ultimately, healthy self-esteem results from making choices that are consistent with our core values, regardless of what our egos want us to do, or how we believe our actions will be viewed by others.
High mood indicates high self-esteem
You can’t assume that someone who’s the life of the party has high self-esteem just because he’s smiling and cracking jokes. Nor can you assume that someone who’s in a bad mood or seems depressed has low self-esteem. Mood, even in mentally healthy individuals, is variable and can shift in respond to external events.
It’s true that mood tends to trail self-esteem, but low self-esteem in itself is neither necessary or sufficient to cause depression, and not all people with depression have low self-esteem.
People with secure high self-esteem do tend to have a more consistently positive mood because they’re more likely to be living happy, fulfilled lives, while low self-esteem is often marked by mildly positive, ambivalent, or slightly negative feelings. It is perhaps telling that some people who suffer from clinical depression report feeling “worthless,” which suggests low self-esteem. People who suffer from chronic or prolonged depression are more vulnerable to low self-esteem because depression tends to feed negative thought patterns, which can deplete their inner reservoir of self-esteem.
And when we think about ourselves while in a particular mood state, we may experience what’s known as affect intensification: our current mood state is exaggerated. If we’re in a positive mood, we’re more likely to have positive thoughts about ourselves. If we’re depressed, we’re more likely to have negative thoughts about ourselves, which only intensifies our depressed mood.
Self-esteem is heavily linked to motivation, which is, of course, also integrally linked to mood.
In fact, five studies involving around 900 participants found that people with low self-esteem are less motivated than people with high self-esteem to improve a negative mood, a finding that debunks the popular self-help theory that everyone is motivated to relieve negative moods (Brown et al, 2002). Researchers found that people with low self-esteem felt sadness and resignation. They didn’t feel that they couldn’t change a negative mood even if they tried. They felt that sadness was simply part of life and that it wasn’t appropriate to try to change a mood; rather, one should learn and grow from sadness.
Participants with high self-esteem, on the other hand, were more likely to express the need to actively do something to change a negative mood and were less likely to recall instances when they weren’t able to find a way improve their mood.
Interestingly, the problem wasn’t that people with low self-esteem didn’t know how to improve their mood. The participants with low self-esteem were found to be as knowledgeable as those with high self-esteem about mood repair strategies, but didn’t take advantage of this knowledge.
People with low self-esteem were also more likely to say that negative moods sapped their energy. Motivation is heavily linked to energy.
Self-esteem equates to self-image
Self-image refers to how you see yourself and how you believe others see you. Self-image is about perception. It’s the face you believe you are projecting to the world. Self-esteem is how you feel about yourself— who you are at your core — and it doesn’t depend on how you believe others see you.Self-image bundles many qualities, including, for example:
- body image or outward appearance (fat vs. thin, attractive vs. unattractive)
- personality traits (extroverted vs. introverted; fun vs. boring)
- personal qualities (loyal vs. disloyal, hard-working vs. lazy; moral vs. immoral)
- intellectual qualities (smart vs. dumb; strong math skills vs. poor math skills)
- status (successful vs. unsuccessful; poor vs. rich; popular vs. unpopular)
Self-image may or may not reflect reality; in fact, our self-perceptions rarely match exactly others’ perceptions of us. Our self-perceptions are shaped — and sometimes distorted — by ideals that we subscribe to and measure ourselves against, beliefs about qualities we ought to have.
For people with fragile high self-esteem, these self-image ideals may be less about character or values and more about attaining status and symbols of success. Ego is driving their behavior and they’re focused on doing what they think looks good, rather than doing what actually is good.
Self-image tends to form from our social comparisons (often subliminal) — comparing ourselves to others. We may think that we only make social comparisons consciously and deliberately, but one study found that these comparisons are spontaneous, automatic and not under our deliberate control (Gilbert et al, 1995).
Now, a negative self-image can undermine your self-esteem and self-confidence, thus self-esteem and self-image are linked in that, for example, if you have negative opinions of the image you project to the world, you’ll have low self-esteem. The self system and the perceptual system are intrinsically linked and can influence each other spontaneously. So self-image both influences and is influenced by self-esteem.
High self-esteem is beneficial when we are secure about who we are, both consciously and subconsciously. Low self-esteem and fragile high self-esteem, on the other hand, drive emotional instability and are often associated with mental health problems such as depression, anxiety or eating disorders. At the very least, fragile, unhealthy self-esteem prevents us from living the fulfilled, self-realized life we were meant to live.
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