The complexity of self-esteem

Amarse a uno mismo / selfloving by Ana Vigueras

How'm I looking? Lookin' good!

Self-esteem can play an important part in career success. This has been on my mind quite a bit in recent weeks. I have been doing a lot of work with people involved in organisational restructuring. Even when they are not facing redundancy, they are often having to deal with the prospect of applying for roles within a new structure or working under radically different conditions. When someone decides that all or part of what you have spent the last few years working at is not worth doing, it can severely dent your feelings of validity.

I have also been teaching on an introductory management course, where the issue of self-esteem came up in relation to staff motivation and performance management.

It is traditional to focus on the dangers of low self-esteem, which is usually linked to under-performance, lack of initiative, social withdrawal, fear of change, even depression and self-harm. Consequently, much of the advice around is about how to raise your self-esteem.

But there are dangers in too much self-esteem.

High self-esteem can lead to under-performance and self-handicapping, especially when people want to maintain the image of self-confidence and competence in front of other people. In trying to make it look easy, those with high self-esteem sometimes fail to prepare adequately for challenges and thus perform badly (Tice & Baumeister, 1990). Sometimes, the desire to maintain high self-esteem causes people to avoid feedback about their actual abilities. They may look for (and even set up) external causes for their poor performance, especially if they are afraid that their self-esteem is based on dodgy evidence (see Kim, Chiu & Zou, 2010).

So, too much self-esteem can cause similar problems to too little. But it’s more complicated than that. In another experiment, Kim & Chiu (2011) found that people with high self-esteem became dejected when they were given false feedback that they had performed badly in a task. No surprise there. However, people with low self-esteem who were given false feedback that they had performed well in the task also became dejected. They’re told they performed better than they expected and they get sad — what’s going on?

One possible explanation is that there are two types of self-esteem: explicit and implicit. Explicit self-esteem is based on the things we say about ourselves to ourselves and to others. These are conscious self-evaluations that we are able to put into words. This is the type of self-esteem that will be measured by the standard self-esteem questionnaires. Implicit self-esteem is about the self-evaluating thoughts and feelings that we are not consciously aware of. Psychologists test implicit self-esteem by seeing how quickly and consistently we associate positive or negative images and concepts with our own name or image.

Schröder-Abé, Rudolf and Schütz (2007) have proposed that many psychological problems derive from a disagreement between implicit and explicit self-esteem. If you are explicitly thinking good things about yourself but your unconscious feelings don’t agree it can lead to weird behaviours.

Interestingly, some researchers (Koole and the gang, 2009) have suggested that mindfulness practice can help to achieve greater congruence between implicit and explicit self-esteem by making people more aware of their internal feelings.

Further reading

  • Kim, Y. & Chiu, C. (2011). Emotional costs of inaccurate self-assessments: Both self-effacement and self-enhancement can lead to dejection. Emotion, 11(5), 1096-1104. DOI: 10.1037/a0025478
  • Kim, Y., Chiu, C. & Zou, Z. (2010). Know thyself: Misperceptions of actual performance undermine achievement motivation, future performance, and subjective well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(3), 395-409. DOI: 10.1037/a0020555
  • Koole, S., Govorun, O., Cheng, C. & Gallucci, M. (2009). Pulling yourself together: Meditation promotes congruence between implicit and explicit self-esteem Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(6), 1220-1226. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.05.018
  • Schröder-Abé, M., Rudolph, A. & Schütz, A. (2007). High implicit self-esteem is not necessarily advantageous: discrepancies between explicit and implicit self-esteem and their relationship with anger expression and psychological health. European Journal of Personality, 21(3), 319-339. DOI: 10.1002/per.626
  • Tice, D. & Baumeister, R. (1990). Self-Esteem, self-handicapping, and self-presentation: The strategy of inadequate practice. Journal of Personality, 58(2), 443-464. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.1990.tb00237.x


  1. #1 by self defined on 11 November 2012 - 06:12

    Consider the idea that self esteem IS as self-esteem DOES. Here, a strong, well-constructed self-concept can be bolstered through engaging in diverse behavioral activity in a variety of areas (i.e. more eggs in more baskets). In this model, strengthening self-esteem occurs indirectly — through behavioral activities that give rise to a wider range of beneficial knowledge and expertise. Thus, improved positive self esteem is the product of a “wider” self-concept, defined by “widening” one’s behavioral repertoire.

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