Self-esteem consists of the way in which we view, think and value ourselves. Beliefs about the self include dispositional, behavioral and emotional information that the person holds about himself. The beliefs answer the questions such as who am I ? What do I do? What am I like? How do I feel? What are my strength /weaknesses? How do I feel when I behave in a certain way? What am I good/bad at? Etc. Beliefs about the self are held to be true, valid and reflective of the true self. Self-beliefs effect one’s perception of past, present and future experiences. They are subjective and stable across time. Beliefs about the self can arouse negative or positive feelings (Saroufe, 1990). The more the belief is highly prioritized by the individual, the more intense the emotions are that relate to the respective belief. Continuous criticism of a highly held important self-belief will lead to negative affect and will open a window to the possibility of developing depression.
The consequences of negative self-beliefs are low self-esteem and negative affects. According to Higgins (1987) self-esteem is built out of three categories: actual self, ideal self and ought self. The actual self includes beliefs that one possesses over who one is; ideal self includes desires of the person about who one would like to be; ought self refers to the part of the person and what one believes one should possess. Discrepancies between the three domains produce emotional distress and relate to depression and anxiety. Anxiety appears when a conflict exist between actual and ought self, where as depression is a result of conflict between actual and ideal self.
Self-esteem influences every aspect of ones’ life, be it from cognitive performance or social interaction. Individuals with low self-esteem think, judge and evaluate themselves very negatively. The deep rooted negative belief about the value of the self distorts the perception of own abilities, lowers expectations of success and promotes feelings of inadequacy. Frequent self-criticism can also take form in self- doubt, putting oneself down, self-derogatory remarks and self-blame when things go wrong. Low self-esteem contributes to reduced problem solving ability. The individual focuses more on the perceived negative self characteristics, which contribute to failure, rather than on the problems at hand. High self-focus and elevated attention to irrelevant details, rather than task relevant information impairs thus problems solving abilities. Negative self-esteem also increases avoidant coping and self-destructive tendencies.
Individuals with low self-esteem might avoid challenges and opportunities for the fear of not doing well. Individuals with low self-esteem are intrinsically and continuously preoccupied with protecting the positive aspects of the self by avoiding activities that may expose them to failure and thus decrease their self-esteem. Self-protection comes at the expense of self-enhancement and as a result the low achievements reduce the self-esteem even more. The perceived personal failures increase negative thought patterns and negative mood, which leads to negative consequences on the self-worth. A person with low self-esteem often feels depressed, anxious, guilty, ashamed, frustrated and angry. Depressive state causes the individual to focus the attention on loss, insecurity, personal shortcomings, lack of personal control, hopelessness, self-worthlessness and minimize attention to positive successes. When compliments are given, individuals with low self-esteem often ignore and dismiss them. Success is often attributes to external sources. They will also try to avoid recreational or leisure activities as they do not believe that they deserve to experience fun, enjoyment and pleasure.
Self-esteem influences the level of interaction with the environment. Individuals with a low self-esteem tend be socially anxious and to alienate themselves from others. Low self-esteem reduces the probability that one would reach out for support from others. Their shyness and self-consciousness causes them to avoid intimate contacts. Individuals with low self-esteem are very sensitive to signals of criticism and disapproval from others and try to avoid it by overly pleasing others. They are also less likely to be assertive and stand up to others. Some do try to overcompensate their low self-esteem by becoming overly aggressive in their interactions. Their aggressiveness is a form of expressing anger towards those who they see as superior to them (Bushman et al., 2009).
Low self-esteem is a common problem for many people in our society. We all have limitations and weaknesses that challenge our self-esteem. Our experiences since childhood (i.e. not fitting in at school, neglect, not meeting parent’s expectations, traumas) and conclusions we arrived at, shape our self-esteem. The negative core beliefs that we hold maintain and stabilize the negative self-esteem throughout time. The core beliefs shape the way we live, behave and the rules that we set ourselves. For example, a person who thinks that he is “worthless” may develop rules such as if I will please others then they will like me or I must do everything perfectly. Understanding the existence of these limitations and confronting them is the first step of securing our self-esteem. The negative core self-beliefs stay strong because it is not challenged. Cognitive challenging these schemas as well as positive internal and/or external feedback can improve negative self-esteem. Even though drastic transformations are rare, it is possible to improve low self-esteem just as it is possible to lower positive self-esteem by negative experiences.
Bushman, B. J., Baumeister, R. F.,Thomaes, S, Ehri, R., Begeer, S., & West, S. G.(2009). Looking again and harder, for a link between Low self-esteem and aggression. Journal of Personality, 77, 2,427-446.
Higgins, E. T. (1987). Self discrepancy: a theory relating self and affect. Psychological Review, 94, 319-340.
Sroufe, A. (1990). An organizational perspective of the self. In D. Cicchetti and M. Beeghly. (Eds.).The self in transition (pp. 281-307). Chicago:University of Chicago press.