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10 Things You Didn't Know About Self-Esteem

Whether high or low, our feelings about ourselves are complex and shifting.

Source: pkchai/Shutterstock

Self-esteem is a coveted "psychological accessory" that has spawned a billion-dollar industry. There are so many programs, articles, books, and products that promise to enhance your self-esteem, one might conclude that our understanding of the trait is quite advanced.

Alas, it is not—psychologists are still arguing about what self-esteem actually is.

But after decades of squabbling over the definition of self-esteem, as well as its dimensions and functions, there are a few things psychologists tend to agree upon:

  1. There are different kinds of self-esteem. Scientists generally agree that our feelings of self-worth are both global (how you feel about yourself in general) and specific (how you feel about yourself in specific roles and domains of your life, such as your self-esteem as a parent, as a professional, as a cook, etc.). Although we all have a number of domains of specific self-esteem, not all of them are equally important because ...
  2. The impact of specific self-esteem on global self-esteem varies. The more meaningful and important a given domain of specific self-esteem is to you, the more it impacts your general feelings of self-worth. For example, having a lousy round of golf will not do much damage if golf isn’t important to you but it will put a big dent in your self-esteem if you're a professional golfer. Here's why:
  3. Our self-esteem fluctuates day to day and hour to hour. Much like a bad hair day, we might wake up feeling great about ourselves one day and totally insecure the next. We tend to think of our self-esteem as being either generally good or bad but it is much more fluid than that, continually shifting up and down based on the internal feedback we give ourselves and the external feedback we get from our environment. While some people do have higher basic self-esteem than others ...
  4. Higher self-esteem is not necessarily better. Ideally, your self-esteem should be high but not too high. Narcissists tend to have high feelings of self-worth but their self-esteem is also brittle and unstable. Even small "insults" can make a narcissist feel terribly "wounded." That is why people with good, stable self-esteem tend to be far healthier psychologically than people with high but brittle self-esteem. If someone thinks they're incredibly attractive, it might be narcissism on their part or it might be a true reflection of their looks—but it doesn't say much about their self-esteem because ...
  5. Self-esteem is unrelated to physical attractiveness. Studies found that people with low self-esteem were judged to be just as attractive by others as people with high self-esteem. What makes the difference is how we present ourselves. Imagine two equally attractive people: The one who feels better about themselves, dresses more attractively, and is more confident, will probably leave a far better impression than the person who dresses less attractively and is insecure and unconfident. If you still believe attractive people should feel better about themselves because they get more attention and compliments, consider that ...
  6. People with low self-esteem are resistant to positive feedback. Unfortunately, having low self-esteem makes us resistant to the very compliments and positive feedback that could improve our feelings of self-worth. When our self-esteem is low we feel unworthy of praise and actually get stressed out by the heightened expectations we believe the praise will bring. Many people try to improve their self-esteem by giving themselves compliments in the form of positive affirmations such as “I am attractive and worthy of love,” or “I will soon have great success.” Unfortunately ...
  7. Positive affirmations make people with low self-esteem feel worse. Sadly, the very people with low self-esteem, who need positive affirmations most, tend to feel worse about themselves when they recite them. Here's why: When a statement falls too far outside our belief system we tend to reject it. When someone feels fundamentally weak and disempowered, reciting how strong and empowered they are will only remind them how much they actually feel the opposite. Ironically, the only people who tend to benefit from positive affirmations are those whose self-esteem is already high. Positive affirmations are not the only popular self-esteem product on the market—there are many others, and the majority have this in common:
  8. Most programs to boost self-esteem don’t work. Studies show that most people’s self-esteem doesn’t change at all after using products or completing programs and workshops aimed at boosting it. So why is self-esteem such a thriving industry nonetheless? It turns out that after going through a self-esteem program, we tend to distort our memories of how we felt before, and recall our self-esteem as having been lower than it was. We then believe our self-esteem improved when, in fact, it didn't change. It’s a shame so many of these programs and products don’t work because ...
  9. Higher self-esteem functions like an emotional immune system. When our self-esteem is higher, we are less affected by stress and anxiety, we experience rejections and failures as less hurtful, and we recover from them more quickly. In this way, our self-esteem functions like an emotional immune system that buffers us from emotional and psychological injuries. Obviously we should be doing everything we can to protect and boost our self-esteem, and yet ...
  10. Most of the damage to our self-esteem is self-inflicted. Unfortunately, we often respond to rejections and failures by becoming self-critical, listing all our faults and short-comings, calling ourselves names, and basically kicking ourselves when we’re already down. We then use ridiculous justifications to justify damaging our self-esteem when it is already hurting—“I deserve it,” “It will keep me humble,” “It’s a way to keep my expectations low, or “It’s true; I hate myself!” If there’s one "program" we could all start that would do wonders for our self-esteem, it’s abolishing needless self-criticism and punitive self-talk—and that program, is free!

For science-based, proven strategies for improving self-esteem, check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

Visit my website and follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch.

Copyright 2014 Guy Winch.

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