By Hara Estroff Marano, published on November 1, 1995 - last reviewed on November 20, 2015
We attempt to bolster our sense of self from within. We may even resort to repeating simplisitc self-affirmations.
But in fact, self-esteem is more a reflection of our relationship to others. In a bold new theory that turns conventional wisdom inside out, psychologist Mark R. Leary, Ph.D., proposes that self-esteem is a kind of a meter built into us to detect—and to prompt us to avert—the threat of social rejection.
After all, when asked about happiness, people usually focus on the quality of their relationships to others. A happy marriage, a good family life, good friends—all rank above occupational success, financial security, and possessions. "Clearly, potent affective reactions are tied to the degree to which people are included in meaningful interpersonal relationships," says Leary, a professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Think of self-esteem as the fuel gauge on a car. Most of us are busy driving around trying to keep the indicator from registering "empty." The whole time, we're focused on the alerting system—instead of on its true function: keeping fuel in the tank. "In the same way, in focusing on the psychological gauge, many psychologists have erred by concluding that people are motivated to maintain self-esteem for its own sake," Leary says. Instead, we should be using self-esteem as a gauge "to keep our 'interpersonal gas tanks' from running low."
Call it a "sociometer." When self-esteem sinks to the danger zone, the appropriate response is not to fix some inner sense of self, but to repair your standing in the eyes of others, to behave in ways that maintain connections with other people.
Like, check your own behavior for things that could be turning people off. "It's a primitive emotional warning system to get you to analyze the situation you're in," says Leary. "Say you're talking to someone and notice the person's suddenly frowning; a sign of social disapproval. You think to yourself, 'I said something they don't like. I've got to let them know I was just kidding.'"
Happiness: From the Praise of Others
The sociometer is built into us not just because we are happiest when basking in the acceptance and praise of others—but because without them we wouldn't have survived in the first place. "Early humans who struck out on their own, who had no 'need' to belong, were less likely to pass on their genes to successive generations," Leary observes. So the self-esteem system evolved to monitor the degree to which we are being accepted and included—versus rejected and excluded.
Although the self-esteem system is strongly tied to maintenance of supportive social relationships, you could be forgiven if a negative read-out hasn't sent you flying into the arms of others. "Western culture has taught us to march to our own drummer—in effect, to override the sociometer," Leary insists.
"Our ideology of individualism forces us to buck this internal monitor," he points out. "So when we are feeling low, we don't attempt to do what we need to do to fit in."
As psychological systems go, self-esteem is nearly perfectly designed to help you avoid rejection and promote affiliation: It's highly sensitive to indications your social status is in jeopardy; it operates constantly with or without your awareness, so threats to your inclusionary status are detected no matter what else you're doing; and it makes you feel awfully uncomfortable when it spots such cues.
Leary has carried out a variety of clever studies in which subjects are led to believe that others are rejecting them. Even imagining social rejection lowers people's self-esteem. When subjects rate how others might react to them in various situations, actions that pose the possibility of rejection—talking too loud, saying rude things—consistently lower their sense of self-esteem.
In fact, experimentally manipulating an individual's rejection status produced the strongest effects Leary's seen in 15 years of research. In one study, he invited subjects to enter into a situation in groups of five. He told them that three would need to form a working group and two would work by themselves. All were asked to rate and rank one another before selecting.
"There were huge differences in how people feel about themselves when told they were not selected," Leary reports. Self-esteem plummeted. Anxiety levels skyrocketed.
Outsize Attempts at Repair
Interestingly, those who were rejected went on to engage in outsize attempts to repair their standing with others.
Even though deep down they felt less positive about themselves, they described themselves to newcomers in even more positive terms than did those who had not been rejected. The reason is that loss of self-esteem increases your motivation to be liked by all others, not just those who rejected you.
The connection between perceived rejection and self-esteem, Leary finds, also helps explain why people who are physically abused or assaulted often show significant drops in self-esteem. "Not only does physical violence connote rejection of one's worth as a person, but in many cases victims of assault worry that their victimization will lead others to reject them."
That the self-esteem system processes information at a preconscious level can be seen in the speed of our ability to pick up signs of disapproval. Studies by other researchers demonstrate that people are particularly fast at detecting angry faces in a picture of a crowd.
Actually, the whole monitoring mechanism is weighted towards the negative. Even neutral feedback registers almost as low as rejection, Leary finds.
When someone tells us, "I don't care if you stay or go," the statement may be perfectly neutral—but it doesn't do us much good. We need clear demonstrations of acceptance for self-esteem to hit positive.
And when it doesn't, we suffer a plethora of ill effects. Many studies show that low self-esteem is associated with depression, anxiety, and every other negative emotion, as well as with maladjustment and even ill health. Leary does not dispute those findings; he just thinks they've been misattributed to the wrong cause.
"The reason low self-esteem is associated with all manner of ill effects is that they are really a consequence of long-term perceived rejection. Or they may be a consequence of dysfunctional attempts to connect with others."
Count among them joining gangs or other groups that pose a danger to oneself. And people who engage in substance abuse or extreme risk-taking usually suffer from some deficit in belongingness, the North Carolina psychologist points out.
For over 200 years, Western culture has been marked by a rise in emphasis on the individual and on individuality. Now at its zenith, such thinking has also been accompanied by a deepening psychospiritual malaise.
Perhaps recognizing the real meaning of self-esteem will allow us to see that some group-centeredness, some attempt to fit in with others, is a badly needed corrective.
Illustrated by Timothy Cook