topic of self-esteem is surprisingly complex. Not all psychologists
are even in agreement on what self-esteem IS, let alone where it comes
from or how to improve it. Still, there is much we have learned from
decades of research on this topic. Here are a few basic ideas drawn
from the social psychological research literature about self-esteem.
Generally speaking, a person’s level of self-esteem is seen
as the person’s attitude toward him or herself. It is thought
to include feelings (e.g., of self-liking and pride versus self-dissatisfaction
and shame) as well as thoughts about the self (e.g., views of oneself
as worthy and capable, or evaluations of one’s talents versus
shortcomings). People with relatively “high” self-esteem
are generally secure in their own self-worth, and hold an attitude
of self-respect and self-confidence. People with relatively “low”
self-esteem are less secure, are unsure about their worth and sometimes
are quite negative in their view of themselves. There are several
ways to measure self-esteem that we and other psychologists use in
our research. The most straightforward way, though, is just to ask
someone, "Do you have high self-esteem?" Your answer to
that question is a pretty good indication of your self-esteem.
there different "types" of self-esteem?
There are a few distinctions, among different “types”
of self-esteem, to consider. For example, sometimes a person’s
feeling of self-worth is highly conditional,
or contingent, on some valued (often culturally-valued) trait like
being attractive, or athletic, or successful at business (e.g., “I
am worthy because I am so successful”). When self-esteem is
highly conditional in this way it is often unstable
-- that is, you might feel great about yourself when you succeed or
you think about your best qualities, but really bad about yourself
when you fail in some way. This type of self-esteem is usually contrasted
with true or authentic self-esteem, which
is rooted in self-acceptance that is not based entirely on specific
talents. Very conditional self-esteem is often thought of as a kind
of defensive self-esteem, which covers over
or compensates for some underlying insecurity (in fact, some highly
conceited, arrogant, or narcissistic individuals may actually be trying
to make up for an inner feeling of unworthiness). Indeed, another
important distinction is between explicit
and implicit self-esteem: Explicit self-esteem
includes a person’s conscious sense of self-esteem (that is,
the thoughts and feelings the person is aware of), whereas implicit
self-esteem involves a person’s self-reactions that occur outside
of awareness. Even though implicit self-esteem occurs outside of awareness,
it can influence related phenomena such as anxiety in social situations,
persistence at tasks, reactions to failure, and more.
thought processes underlie self-esteem?
Low self-esteem is maintained by several habits of thought. Focusing
attention on negative self-aspects, constantly comparing oneself against
perfectionistic or unreachable standards, and overgeneralizing from
single negative events to draw broad negative conclusions about oneself,
can lead to feelings of low self-esteem. These kinds of thoughts are
closely tied to expectations about social relationships, for instance
the anticipation that others will be rejecting or critical. Ironically,
these kinds of negative expectancies can lead people to try to avoid
rejection by withdrawing from the very people who care about them
and do in fact accept and appreciate them.
contrast, higher levels of self-esteem are maintained by different
habits of thought. People with high self-esteem focus their attention
on positive self-aspects and positive feedback from others. When they
think of one of their weaknesses or failures they balance it out by
thinking of things that they like about themselves. True high self-esteem
is rooted in the sense that one’s deepest and most authentic
self is securely accepted by others, particularly by the significant
or important others in the person’s life. This feeling may be
based in current relationships, or may be based in earlier experiences
of being loved and respected by another. In fact some researchers
have argued that this sense of being securely related to others, along
with feeling competent and self-directed, is the important thing:
high self-esteem may just be a signal that these needs are being met,
rather than something to be pursued for its own sake.
general, then, one's feelings of esteem can come from conscious, deliberate
thoughts as well as "gut feelings" that come from automatic,
unconscious thoughts processes.
it possible to change unhelpful habits of thought?
The habits of thought that underlie low and high self-esteem often
occur quickly and automatically, without much conscious deliberation.
A person may just find their attention drawn to certain kinds of information,
or they may draw biased interpretations of ambiguous events, or they
may selectively remember only certain types of information. Sometimes
people’s habits of thought tend to focus on negative information
and interpretations, producing low or insecure self-esteem. Psychotherapy
often involves trying to modify these habits of thought - many of
which have been learned through a lifetime of experience - through
becoming aware of them, examining them carefully at a conscious level,
and learning new ways of thinking about self and social relations.
our research, we have asked whether it might be possible to modify
thought processes more directly, at the automatic level. Two habits
of thought that we have been working to modify are implicit self-associations
and attentional bias for rejection. As you may have seen in the WHAM!
Self-esteem Conditioning game, our research shows that acceptance
information can be conditioned to personal information in order to
create a more secure and positive "gut feeling" of self-esteem.
In EyeSpy: The Matrix game, certain peoples' habit
to look for rejection (called attentional bias for rejection) can
be modified by teaching them to ignore rejection. Our hope is that
these kinds of repetitive games can eventually be developed even further
to create powerful interventions to help people modify their automatic
thoughts about themselves.
we said at the beginning, self-esteem is extremely complex!
Some relevant references from the literature on self-esteem:
R.F. (Ed.) (1993). Self-esteem: The puzzle of low self-regard. New
York: Plenum Press.
R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I, & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does
high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success,
happiness, or healthier lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public
Interest, 4, 1-44.
S.D., Greenwald, A.G., & Banaji, M.R. (1999). Implicit self-esteem.
In D. Abrams & M.A. Hogg (Eds.), Social Cognition and Social Identity,
M. H. (Ed.), Efficacy, agency, and self-esteem. New York: Plenum.
M. R., & Baumeister, R. F. (2000). The nature and function of
self-esteem: Sociometer theory. In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental
social psychology (Vol. 32, pp. 1-62). San Diego: Academic Press.
S. L., Holmes, J. G., & Griffin, D. W. (2000). Self-esteem and
the quest for felt security: How perceived regard regulates attachment
processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 478-498.
M. (1965). Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton