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5 Ways That Self-Esteem Boosting Strategies Can Backfire

... and 5 things to try instead.

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

When we face failure or disappointment, it’s easy to get down on ourselves—and to look for ways to feel better fast. Unfortunately, some of the strategies we adopt in the service of confidence-building can have unintended negative consequences. Here are 5 strategies you should approach with caution:

1. Black-and-white thinking

One popular way to correct negative thinking is to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction, so that “I’m worthless” becomes “I’m wonderful.” But research suggests that exclusively positive self-statements tend to be ineffective for the very people who need them most. In two studies, low self-esteem participants who focused on how the statement “I’m a lovable person” was true for them felt worse about themselves than those who focused on how it was both true and untrue.

The researchers speculated that untempered positive self-statements might arouse contradictory thoughts in those who tend to hold negative self-views, whereas more balanced self-statements might be easier to accept. Balanced statements may also communicate that it’s okay to be imperfect—that one can be unlovable in some ways, while still lovable in others.

2. Inflated praise

Like overly positive self-statements, inflated praise can be misleading, and may even impair performance. In one set of studies, participants who received inaccurate positive feedback on a test spent less time preparing for a subsequent test and performed worse on it, compared to those who received accurate feedback. Those who received inflated praise were also more likely to choose to take the test in a distracting environment.

Why would inflated praise have these effects? The researchers reasoned that over-praised participants, wanting to maintain that self-esteem boost, might have engaged in self-handicapping. This phenomenon involves behaving in ways that are likely to impair performance so that one can blame the self-handicapping behaviors—rather than one's personal ability—if one doesn’t perform well. In other words, participants’ desire to continue feeling good about themselves based on their performance may have ultimately undermined their performance.

Another possibility is that over-praised participants may have simply been overconfident in their abilities, assuming that extra effort was unnecessary because success was so likely. Either way, the results suggest that inflated praise, though comforting, may not always be conducive to learning and self-improvement.

3. Downward social comparison

Comparing ourselves to others who seem worse off, known as downward social comparison, can produce a temporary boost in self-esteem. But while it’s important to keep things in perspective and appreciate what we have, this “it could be worse” mentality can have a dark side when it relies too heavily on others’ misfortunes and shortcomings.

Rarely do we consider how our comparison targets might feel if they knew they were the source of our self-esteem—a tendency The Onion has satirized (“Man Unaware All His Friends Think of Him When They Want to Put Things Into Perspective”). And the fact that others typically don’t know they’re a comparison target doesn’t mean the comparison doesn't affect them. No one wants pity, but downward comparison can involve just that, motivating us to focus on others’ negative events and overlook their positives. Research suggests that people feel most understood, validated, and cared for when others recognize and celebrate the good things in their lives. If a relationship is heavily based on sympathy, it’s less likely to last.

4. Derogating others

We don’t just compare ourselves to worse-off others when we need a boost—we also sometimes actively put others down. According to Abraham Tesser’s self-evaluation maintenance model, when a close other is successful in a domain that is important to us—for example, a co-worker gets a promotion we were hoping for—this can threaten our self-esteem. It can also make us more likely to engage in one of the following protective strategies:

  • distancing ourselves from the successful person;
  • minimizing the importance of the domain; and
  • trying to outperform the other person, or even sabotaging their performance.

While self-evaluation maintenance motives can sometimes fuel healthy competition, they can also erode relationships and inspire harmful behavior.

A desire to enhance self-esteem may also underlie some forms of prejudice and discrimination. Although self-esteem is presumably not the only motive for prejudice, multiple studies have shown that derogating stereotyped outgroup members can boost self-esteem and that this behavior is especially likely to occur when self-esteem is threatened.

5. Seeking social approval

Since self-esteem is closely tied to social acceptance, one way that people might try to enhance their self-esteem is by presenting themselves in a favorable light to others in an effort to gain social approval. Most of the time, a desire for approval is harmless, and as social creatures, it’s hard to avoid. But sometimes the need for approval is so strong that people are willing to sacrifice their own (and others’) health and well-being to get it.

In an influential review, Mark Leary and his colleagues summarized several ways that self-presentational behaviors driven by a desire for positive social evaluation can be dangerous. Examples include abusing drugs or alcohol in an attempt to fit in; engaging in reckless behaviors to appear brave or adventurous; and having unprotected sex to appear spontaneous and carefree. While such behaviors may effectively boost or protect self-esteem in the moment, they also carry serious risks.

Chronically seeking others’ approval can also increase the risk of mental illness such as depression and disordered eating. Because others’ approval can’t always be guaranteed—no one is immune from feeling rejected or excluded at times—attempting to boost self-esteem via others’ approval can be an emotional roller-coaster.

What self-esteem boosting strategies are less likely to backfire?

  • Instead of black-and-white thinking, self-compassion allows for shades of grey, helping us accept our imperfections while still striving to be our best.
  • Instead of inflated praise, feedback that fosters a growth mindset is more likely to inspire.
  • Instead of comparing ourselves to less fortunate others, helping them get back on their feet can give us a sense of self-efficacy.
  • Instead of derogating successful others, reframing others’ success as a boon rather than a threat can help us bask in reflected glory.
  • Instead of seeking social approval at any cost, we should remind ourselves that no matter what we do or don’t do, someone is likely to disapprove; being true to ourselves is more likely to lead to healthy self-esteem than pleasing others.