“I feel that I am a person of worth, at least on an equal plane with others.” That is an example of the kind of question you might be asked by researchers trying to determine your level of self-esteem.
“On the whole, I am satisfied with myself” is another. There are so many life experiences that could contribute to feeling good about yourself. Is having positive social relationships one of them? If you have close and satisfying relationships with your friends, parents, and romantic partners, will that boost your self-esteem? Does self-esteem have its own powers, so that if you have high self-esteem, that is likely to improve the quality of your social relationships?
In “The link between self-esteem and social relationships: A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies,” just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, psychology professors Michelle A. Harris and Ulrich Orth found that the answer to those questions was yes. Self-esteem seems to enhance the quality of our relationships, and having good social relationships seems to boost our self-esteem.
The findings were based on 53 studies from 13 nations (Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Finland, Germany, Greece, Korea, the Netherlands, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States). More than 46,000 people participated, ranging in age from 4 to 77.
The kinds of social relationships that were studied included relationships with parents and peers (usually in studies of children), romantic relationships, and relationships with other kinds of people such as coworkers. In some studies, participants were asked about relationships more generally – for example, they were asked about their sense of community or whether they had someone who helped them.
To determine the quality of the relationships, researchers asked different kinds of questions in different studies. For example, some asked participants about the warmth or closeness of their relationships, or how satisfied or secure they were with their relationships. In 43 of the studies, it was the participants themselves who described the quality of their relationships; in the other 10, an observer or someone who knew the participant offered their judgments.
All of the studies were longitudinal or prospective, meaning that the same people were studied repeatedly over time. That made it possible to see whether having higher self-esteem tends to be followed by better social relationships and whether better social relationships are followed by higher self-esteem. Both were true and to about the same extent.
These associations between self-esteem and social relationships were statistically significant for all of the categories of relationships except romantic ones. But the findings for parental and peer relationships were not significantly stronger, statistically, than the ones for romantic relationships.
The reciprocal relationship between self-esteem and good social relationships held for both women and men. It was true for participants of all age groups. It was also true for people of different ethnicities.
The research was not designed to explain why self-esteem might result in better relationships and vice versa, so the authors could only speculate. Other research indicates that people with high self-esteem may show more physical affection and resolve conflicts in more constructive ways. It has also been suggested that they listen more attentively and more supportively. All of those ways of interacting are likely to result in warmer, closer, and more satisfying social relationships. Similarly, having emotionally supportive and secure social relationships is likely to signal the social acceptance and approval that can foster self-esteem.
If self-esteem and good social relationships mutually reinforce each other, a virtuous cycle could ensue: You feel good about yourself, and that improves your chances of having warm and satisfying friendships, and those fulfilling friendships, in turn, make you feel even better about yourself. The flip side is that vicious cycles could occur instead, in which disappointing relationships make you feel worse about yourself, which makes it even harder to develop better relationships in the future. The authors hope that people who seem to be having difficulties can get help early on in their lives, to put a stop to the discouraging feedback loop.
In discussing the limitations of their research, Harris and Orth note that “there is virtually no research on self-esteem in the context of parent and peer relationships in adulthood.” It is as if social scientists think that friendships are for kids, and relationships with parents are, too. Yet, as more people around the world are staying single longer than before, adult relationships other than romantic ones are becoming more profoundly significant. The implications of those relationships for self-esteem, and vice versa, should not be ignored.