Self-Delusion: I Love Me

Artificially propping up self-esteem may provide a temporary mental boost -- but in the long run stunts social and personal well-being.

By PT Staff, published November 1, 1995 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Self-esteem is one thing. But many psychologists have been preaching the gospel of self-delusion. They argue it's actually healthy to think more highly of yourself than reality warrants.

There's nothing wrong with feeling good about oneself, of course. But when self-perception races ahead of reality, the likely result is a socially inept misfit, warns Northeastern University's C. Randall Colvin.

As part of a decades-long study that has tracked 130 individuals since nursery school, Colvin and his colleagues assessed subjects' personalities at ages 18 and 23, monitoring such traits as dependability and how subjects handle life's frustrations. The volunteers provided self-descriptions, and their friends contributed evaluations as well.

When the researchers looked at subjects who were "self-enhancers" -- those whose glowing self-image bore little resemblance to their true personality -- a disturbing portrait emerged.

"Self-enhancers tend to be hostile, lack social skills, and appear anxious and moody," says Colvin. "They are sensitive to criticism and keep people at a distance -- perhaps so that they don't get negative feedback that might alter their overly positive view. They are trying to hide their flaws from themselves."

If self-enhancers are deluding themselves, they're not fooling their friends. Even their pals describe self-enhancers as hostile, condescending, and unable to delay gratification, report Colvin and University of California psychologists Jack Block and David C. Funder in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. And when friends see through the facade, self-enhancers engage in more distortion and denial in an attempt to maintain a positive self-view.

All this suggests that artificially propping up someone's self-esteem may provide a temporary mental boost -- but in the long run stunts their social and personal well-being.

"Positive self-esteem is good," says Colvin. "But the context has to be based on reality. Knowing that imperfections exist is the first step to improving yourself."