According to psychological research, there are at least seven attributes or qualities that are common to those individuals who have low self-esteem. This article presents an overview of these qualities, together with a commentary.
KEYWORDS: coping, psychology, high self-esteem, low self-esteem, self-esteem, self-image.
According to an eminent article in the Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, scientific research in the area of self-esteem has shown that there are seven things that people with low self-esteem share.
In the course of this article I am thus presenting each and one of these things (qualities, attributes, traits, etc.), together with my own commentary.
The idea behind this article is that by getting to know these seven “obstacles”, we can easier identify them if we see them in our own life, and in the lives of others.
And knowing that these seven things are potentially hindering our (and others’) self-esteem from blooming, we may then be able to find other ways to think and act that instead promote a higher self-esteem.
The first “symptom” that people with low self-esteem have is that they seem, in some sense, partly disconnected from themselves. They seem to have little understanding of who they are; and the little conception of themselves that they do have may be contradictory or unstable.
Thus, Baumeister characterizes people with low self-esteem in the following way (1994, p. 85b):
“Their discussions of themselves tend to be inconsistent, contradictory, hesitant, uncertain, and confused, in contrast to the self-knowledge of people with high self-esteem”
In other words, there is an element of “nervousness” and “uncertainty” that seems to penetrate the character of persons with low self-esteem.
This “nervousness”, in my view, is a clear sign that their total emotional vibration is too low. Because their overall emotional state of affairs is too negative (typically N2, or even N3), they do not appear “stable” (see my negativity-positivity spectrum).
It is also important to point out that the observations of Baumeister above seem to be a combination of both behavioral issues as well as belief and knowledge issues.
This fits well with the theory of “leakage” that Lillian Glass is working with, as seen in her book I Know What You’re Thinking (Glass 2002).
As Glass points out, both “facial leakage” (as researched by Paul Ekman of the University of California, San Francisco) and “verbal & vocal leakage” (as defined by Glass herself) may be used to let experienced observers understand what type of “condition” (e.g., low self-esteem) other people are in (Glass , pp. 71ff, 109ff).
As for “verbal leakage”, those with low self-esteem are frequently found in the personality types “the Self-Effacing Syndrome” (p. 89) and “The Mumbler Syndrome” (p. 99). And for “voice leakage”, those with low self-esteem are frequently found in the “Fading out at the End of Sentences” category (pp. 125-126) and in the “Pitching the Voice Upward at the End of Sentences” category (pp. 138-139).
2. Desire for High Self-Esteem
According to some previous theories, people with low self-esteem just did not have the desire to have high thoughts of themselves, and that they actually (consciously or subconsciously) were engaged in a practice of self-failure in order to “successfully” prove their unworthiness [Note 1].
But according to Baumeister, this is not so; those with low self-esteem are just as interested in having high self-esteem as those who already have it (Baumeister 1994, p. 86).
Since those with low self-esteem now are no different from those with high self-esteem in terms having a desire for high self-esteem, what is it then that especially characterizes those with low self esteem?
Baumeister’s idea is that low self-esteem is a product of not fulfilling the need of self-esteem; it’s a “lack” symptom, of sorts, where one’s self-esteem is not “nourished” enough.
Thus he says (Baumeister 1994, p. 86a):
“Put another way, low self-esteem is marked more by the absence of positive things rather than the presence of negative things to say about oneself”
What Baumeister does not mention however, is that there is a difference between wanting something and deserving something. So although we may accept the idea that all people indeed are longing for high self-esteem, the common trait among those with low self-esteem is that they do not think, on some level, that they really deserve it. So it is, in my opinion, essentially a self-image problem and a worthiness problem [Note 2].
For if they, deep down, think that they don’t deserve success in life, why even bother with another two thousand positive affirmations about oneself? That will not be very helpful, unless they can somehow get their worthiness problem resolved first.
Another perspective is that there also may be deep existential questions involved, that, in a sense, may “nullify” the importance of improving one’s self-esteem: What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of this universe? Why am I here? Why must I go to work, at all? Why bother with “society” and its demands?
3. Some Positive Areas
Another common thing about people with low esteem is that they seldom are devoid of all positive opinions of themselves. They usually have a few areas in which they have positive feelings about themselves (e.g., being proud of some ability or some trait; being confident about a certain type of knowledge or skill, etc.)
The interesting thing is that people with low esteem seem to protect themselves in regard to these areas (Baumeister 1994, p. 86a):
“People with low self-esteem tend to guard these isolated positive qualities jealously”
When Baumeister mentions the word “jealously”, I am not entirely sure what he refers to. My guess is that he is indicating that whatever quality is to be guarded, it is done so vigorously; for if that quality is to be lost, then the person with already low self-esteem would be in an even worse situation, maybe having nothing about himself or herself to appreciate.
And that is, in my opinion, a good reason for such a person to “guard” himself or herself. So the usage of the word “jealously” seems strange; for to my ears, Baumeister seems to say, by using that word, that there is something “abnormal” with that situation.
Sure, it may be “abnormal” to only have one trait or quality that one can feel good about. But if one is in such a situation, then, I think, it would be perfectly natural to feel that one has something to lose. For losing one’s last quality to be positive about is not a small thing.
4. Lack of Coping Resources
As we just have pointed out, people with low self-esteem have relatively few things to appreciate about themselves. And this leads automatically to the “coping” issue (Baumeister 1994, p. 86a):
“low self-esteem can be understood as a lack of coping resources”
The idea here is that in times of trouble, when serious situations appear in one’s life (whether diseases, or “failures”, or personal loss, and other stressful situations), a person with low self-esteem typically has a harder time managing the situation than a person with high self-esteem [Note 3].
The reason for this is that the person with high self-esteem has such a broad spectrum of positive things to contemplate. Thus, an isolated misfortune in one area does not affect him so much, since he has his “safety net” of all of his other successes and positive traits and qualities to lean back on.
However, for a person with low self-esteem, such a “serious situation” may be devastating, since he or she does not have such a wide “safety net” of good-feeling thoughts and beliefs for coping. And thus, once again, it is not so strange or unnatural that a person with low self-esteem would be extra protective of the few areas of qualities that he or she is positive about. For they know what’s at stake.
5. Minimizing Risk
This leads us then to the fifth thing that people with low self-esteem share: the propensity to carefully stay away from risk-taking, as much as possible.
This is why Baumeister says the following (1994, p. 86a; my square brackets):
“They [the people with low self-esteem] seek to minimize risks and avoid situations containing any possibility of losing self-esteem”
So the common trait is that there is an aversion again taking risks, since their self-esteem is already so “shaky” or “wobbly” [Note 4].
The worry, as I see it, is not only that they might “fail” or “lose face” in a particular situation (say when giving a lecture, or when asking for a date), but also that their self-esteem as a whole may become so damaged that they cannot (quickly) bounce back from it.
This is in stark contradistinction to those with high self-esteem who are not very worried about losing their self-esteem. Rather they are more occupied with “exercising” and “expanding” their esteem, thus raising the bar for themselves, both in relation to areas of their life that they previously have experience in, as well as into new areas of interest.
6. Different Focus
There is a difference in focus for people with low self-esteem, compared to those with high self-esteem. People with high self-esteem tend to look at the world as “half-full” and their goal is to fill it even more, for “we are already half-way there”.
In contrast, people with low self-esteem tend to look at the world in a more negative light, as “half-empty”, and their attitude is typically to focus in on why their glass is almost empty, in order to “fix” the situation.
Thus, Baumester points out the following (1994, p. 86b):
“people with low self-esteem tend to be more concerned with problems, deficiencies, and inadequacies, and so to them the most pressing need is to remedy these deficiencies rather than to build their strengths”
So rather than trying to “master” one’s strengths and “actualizing” one’s capabilities (as those with high self-esteem typically do; see also Note 5), people with low self-esteem rather go for the more modest quality of “passable” (1994, p. 86b).
There is usually an ongoing internal conflict going on within the minds of people with low self-esteem. On the one hand they do want to succeed and do well; but on the other hand, they know very well that success often requires exposure to various workplace pressures, including expectations of high productivity and efficiency.
Alhough Baumester does admit that ideas such as “fear of success” and “rejection of success” have, to a great extent, been dismissed, he still points out the following (1994, p. 86b):
“there is still some evidence that people with low self-esteem respond to success with mixed feelings, particularly if they may have to repeat or sustain that success in further performances”
So the idea, it seems, is that there is something about “pressure” and “stress” that is common to people with low self-esteem. Maybe the idea is that “success is not worth it, if it requires as much stress and hard work as this”, or something along those lines.
Another way of looking at it is through the lens of my negativity-positivity spectrum. A person with low self-esteem, say an N2 (“medium negativity”), does not, on average, enjoy life. For them, everything is more or less a struggle [Note 6].
For them, there is no expectation of any lasting happiness and joy, so why try to hard? It’s not that they don’t want (material) success; it’s just that they are so far from a joyful mood that they just cannot see how anything, even some (material) success, could possibly change their life into a state of lasting happiness and joy.
In other words, they lack the inspiration and positive passion that persons on the positive half of the scale have [Note 7].
As we have seen in this article, there are (at least) seven qualities or traits that all (or most) people with low self-esteem share.
And I am hoping that these observations will make it easier for all of us to navigate around moments of low self-esteem, so that we gradually can raise our personal “self-esteem bar” to new heights.
- Although Baumeister probably did not refer to the statements made by Maxwell Maltz in his Psycho-Cybernetics (as judged by the list of ten references that Baumeister used in his article; 1994, p. 87b), I still think that Maltz has a point. In several places in Psycho-Cybernetics he discusses the idea of a “failure-type” personality, and its relation to one’s self-image: the schoolboy who sees himself as an “F” type student and who has a score card to prove it (p. 1); or the businessman who finds his actual experiences “proving” that his self-image is correct (p. 1). And Maltz’s explanation is approximately this: our self-image “drives” our actual experiences. So if we have a bad self-image we will experience bad things (which then verifies that our self-image was correct, thus reinforcing that self-image). So Maltz’s account is, essentially, a lesson in the Law of Attraction, where our own thoughts create our own reality.
- The idea that (some of) the “key” to low self-esteem is hidden in our self-image is not new. For Abraham Tesser points out in his article the following: “But there is a more subtle structural relationship between self-esteem and self-concept: the more clearly defined one’s self-concept, the higher one’s self-esteem” (Tesser 2000, p. 214b).
- The difficulty in managing or “coping with” the situation is exacerbated by the intensity of the emotional response in individuals with low self-esteem. Kernis and Goldman say: “research consistently has shown that people with low self-esteem have more adverse emotional reactions to failure than do people with high self-esteem” (1999, p. 596b).
- This “shakiness” or “wobbliness” might explain why people with low self-esteem are more prone to display an uncertain stance, and a “malleability”, and therefore often fall victim of attempts at persuasion. This is confirmed by Robert Helmreich, who says: “Research has shown that individuals with low self-esteem are more influenced by persuasive communication and more conforming in social situations than those with positive self-concepts” (1996, p. 506a).
- Christopher Mruk says in his article in the Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology: “Some empirical research on self-esteem indicates that individuals who have high, healthy self-esteem are more able to take the risks necessary for self-actualization, such as exploring one’s own interests or making independent decisions, than are others” (2010, p. 1537b).
- Compare here my observations in regard to the Darwinian idea of “survival of the fittest” that I made in my article called “Seth on Darwin and Darwinian Evolution“.
- Compare Table 4.1 in Peterson 2006 (p. 92). Here, “self-esteem” is located in the rightmost “Large” column of the table (named “Positive Correlations With Happiness and Life Satisfaction”). Thus, people with low self-esteem typically are experiencing low happiness and low life satisfaction.
- Baumeister, Roy F. (1994), “Self-Esteem” in V. S. Ramachandran, ed., Encyclopedia of Human Behavior. 4 vols. Volume 4: Reading – Work Efficiency and Motivation; Contributors; Index. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, Inc. [Link to book]
- Glass, Lillian (2002), I Know What You’re Thinking: Using the Four Codes of Reading People to Improve Your Life. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. [Link to book]
- Helmreich, Robert L. (1996), “Self-Esteem and Social Behavior” in Benjamin B. Wolman, ed., The Encyclopedia of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Psychoanalysis. New York: Henry Holt and Company. [Link to book]
- Kernis, Michael H., and Brian N. Goldman (1999), “Self-Esteem” in David Levinson, James J. Ponzetti, Jr., and Peter F. Jorgensen, eds., Encyclopedia of Human Emotions. 2 vols. Volume 2: Illness – Zeal; Bibliography Index; Subject Index. New York: Macmillan Reference USA. [Link to book]
- Maltz, Maxwell (2007), Psycho-Cybernetics. New York: Pocket Books. [Link to book]
- Mruk, Christopher J. (2010), “Self-Esteem” in Irving B. Weiner and W. Edward Craighead, eds., The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology. Fourth Edition. 4 vols. Volume 4: Racial Differences – Zeigarnik Effect; Brief Biographies; Author Index; Subject Index. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. [Link to book]
- Peterson, Christopher (2006), A Primer in Positive Psychology. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. [Link to book]
- Tesser, Abraham (2000), “Self-Esteem” in Alan E. Kazdin, ed., Encyclopedia of Psychology. 8 vols. Volume 7: Rape – Systems Theory. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; and Oxford: Oxford University Press. [Link to book]
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