How we view ourselves can have an important influence on our well-being. Research studies into low self-esteem (LSE) and high self-esteem (HSE) have been conducted in order to investigate how people with low and high self-esteem respond and what impact this has on their lives. In this article, I discuss some of the conclusions that are drawn by these studies.
Emotional Responses in Individuals with Low Self-Esteem
Some individuals with LSE have been shown to experience aggression and hostility (Rosenbaum & Stanners, 1961), anxiety, assertiveness, risk taking, locus of control (Crandall, 1973), poorer social skills (Berger, 1955), and reduced initiative (Crandall, 1973).
Anger and hostility have been found to often arise out of threats to self-esteem of an interpersonal nature, such as insults or undue criticism (Kernis, Grannemann, Barclay, 1989). This may serve several functions, namely the warding off of anxiety and other negative self-feelings, the prompting of communication of one’s displeasure, or the restoration of one’s damaged self-esteem, subjective well-being, or public self-image (Kernis, Grannemann, Barclay, 1989).
Success and Failure in Individuals with Low Self-Esteem and High Self-Esteem
According to Brockner and Guare (1983):
Low self-esteem individuals, who blame themselves for their failures, perpetuate continued failure and negative self-evaluation. The study suggests that this ‘vicious cycle’ of low self-esteem can be broken if low self-esteem persons attribute their failure at an insoluble task to the difficulty of the task, rather than to their own personal inadequacies.
With regard to success and failure, people with HSE see their goal as cultivating their personal strengths in order to excel, whereas people with LSE see their goal as remedying their personal deficiencies in order to become adequate. Research indicates that HSE individuals are motivated by success, while LSE individuals are motivated by failure (Baumeister & Tice, 1985). In addition, LSE individuals appear to have a tendency to over-generalize negative feedback to other aspects of their identities (Kernis, Brockner, & Frankel, 1989). When faced with a task that was defined as “easy,” many LSE individuals were unmotivated to pursue the task further. However, when the same task was labeled “difficult,” they found it motivating.
The individual responses of people with LSE and HSE to continued success were predicted by Marecek and Mettee (1972). Their study found that HSE people are motivated when they are aware that personal responsibility creates success. On the contrary, LSE people remain unchanged (and unmotivated) by the success that results from their personal responsibility because it does not fit their self-esteem profile. Both HSE and LSE people were found to be motivated by “lucky” success that is not attributed to personal behavior. In the case of HSE, this was because the success was expected while for the LSE people it was because it did not challenge their LSE appraisal (Dijksterhuis 2004).
Ways to Improve Low Self-Esteem
Parrott and Hewitt (1978) conducted a study based on the theory that increased goal attainment would result in an increase in self-esteem. The goals were concerned with increasing sociability, improving interpersonal relations, and enhancing individual achievement. Parrott and Hewitt discovered that their thesis was correct. HSE individuals enjoyed the goal attainment portion of the study the most while LSE individuals enjoyed it the least. However, of the three controls, only goal attainment resulted in an increase in self-esteem, while the other two controls – three counseling sessions and time spent being “indulgent” – did not.
The setting of unreasonable and unattainable standards, together with the fear of failure, will only cripple and destroy those with LSE. Most perfectionists are aware on some level that being perfect is impossible. However, they see the lowering of their expectations to a reasonable level as nothing short of admitting defeat and as a direct assault on their self-esteem. They need to meet certain standards in order to feel good about themselves. To accept anything less than what they see as perfection is unacceptable for them (Sneed, 2000).
The Pursuit of Self-Esteem vs. the Pursuit of Life Goals
Research has shown that the pursuit of self-esteem for its own sake interferes with relatedness, learning, autonomy, self-regulation, and mental and physical health. While the pursuit of self-esteem can be motivating, other sources of motivation, such as the cultivation of goals that are good for the self and others, can provide the same motivation without the personal costs of making self-esteem the main pursuit (Crocker & Park 2004).
Effects of Positive Feedback on Self-Esteem
Positive conditioning (deliberate positive feedback) has been found to enhance self-esteem to such an extent that it makes participants insensitive to negative intelligence feedback. The fear of failure can become a destructive enemy, producing anger, resentment, depression, a lack of motivation, anxiety, and even chemical dependency. However, failure can also become a friend if we choose to learn from it, grow through it, and never allow it to define who we are.
Christian Counseling to Develop Self-Esteem
Each of us wants to be seen as acceptable, capable, successful, valuable, happy, and together – regardless of our background, personality, ethnicity, gender, or age. As a Christian counselor, I am convinced that what we all need is a revelation of the heart of God towards us. If you are struggling with issues of self-esteem, Christian counseling can provide a safe space in which you can face your fears and also learn to acknowledge and accept your strengths.
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