More powerful than thinking positive

A lot of good advice is available to help people increase their self-esteem. To the extent that we put it into practice, most of it works.

It's a challenge for me to write this article because it's a fine point and very nuanced, yet it could make a big difference.

A person with low self-esteem often dwells on the negatives. They may complain and find fault with others, or with themselves, depending on their personality. Some well-meaning advice asks us to measure how much negative thinking we tend to do over time. Then, they encourage us to look for the positives rather than the negatives, to see the silver lining in every cloud.

This has merit, of course. The problem is, many people who try techniques like this are not able to improve their self-esteem. In fact, it may even be counterproductive. Why?

An individual with high self-esteem is generally happier, accomplishes more, and performs better. So high SE is always a good thing, right? Actually, it depends.

Scientists have observed different types of high self-esteem. They can be grouped into the following:

  1. Contingent high SE
  2. Defensive high SE
  3. Secure high SE

Let's determine what each one means, and what this means for our effort to feel better about ourselves.

Contingent high SE

Contingent self-esteem refers to self-esteem that depends on external factors. When things are going well, people with contingent high SE feel good about themselves. Their appearance, performance, and relationships boost their self-esteem.

Their self-esteem plummets, however, when things go poorly for them. 

There is "a significant and consistent negative relationship" between contingent self-esteem and trait self-esteem, according to a study.Kang, Y. (2019). The relationship between contingent self-esteem and trait self-esteem. In Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal (Vol. 47, Issue 2, pp. 1–19). Scientific Journal Publishers Ltd.  In other words, having one's SE dependent on external factors means the person has poor overall self-esteem.

Defensive high SE

Similar to the first type, but in this case high self-esteem is a result of self-image rather than external factors. In addition to not needing good things to happen to feel good about themselves, people with defensive high SE tend to deny anything that contradicts their self-image. They abhor anything that suggests they are less than perfect, and they will vigorously deny or defend themselves against anyone who suggests otherwise. Common defensive tactics include:

  • Attacking the other person
  • Seeing hostile motives in others
  • Getting angry
  • Retreating or avoiding
  • Irrational thinking or behavior

Defensive high SE, is popularly known as narcissism. A 2015 study found that children tend to thrive when their parents praise them less and shower them with warmth and love instead. While the former tend to internalize self-superiority beliefs, the latter develop a healthy sense of self-worth.Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Nelemans, S. A., Orobio de Castro, B., Overbeek, G., & Bushman, B. J. (2015). Origins of narcissism in children. In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Vol. 112, Issue 12, pp. 3659–3662). 

Notice the mention of beliefs. In another blog post, I discussed how we tend to cling most strongly to beliefs that are socially beneficial. They are also linked to fears. When someone believes that the only alternative to perfection is helplessness and hopelessness, strong feelings of anxiety are triggered that they want to avoid as much as possible. Rather than embrace reality, they flee from it.

Secure high SE

According to R. J. Ruddell, individuals with optimal (secure) self-esteem have feelings of self-worth that are:

I examined two studies about the relationship between mindfulness and secure SE. A study published in 2013 examined the various aspects of mindfulness to determine which one had a greater impact on self-esteem.Pepping, C. A., O’Donovan, A., & Davis, P. J. (2013). The positive effects of mindfulness on self-esteem. In The Journal of Positive Psychology (Vol. 8, Issue 5, pp. 376–386). Informa UK Limited. 

Their findings indicated that the most important factor was a non-judgmental view of oneself and one's thoughts and emotions. The other helpful aspects of mindfulness are:

  • The ability to describe what one observes (including emotional literacy)
  • Awareness (paying attention, not acting mindlessly)
  • Not reacting (“I watch my feelings without getting lost in them”)

Another study published in 2017 examined a factor, namely self-concept clarity, that contributes to mindfulness and its effects on psychological well-being.Hanley, A. W., & Garland, E. L. (2017). Clarity of mind: Structural equation modeling of associations between dispositional mindfulness, self-concept clarity and psychological well-being. In Personality and Individual Differences (Vol. 106, pp. 334–339). Elsevier BV.  In essence, self-concept answers the question, "Who am I?" Since self-concept is how one thinks of oneself and self-esteem is how one feels about oneself, it only makes sense that there is a connection between the two. The study found that to be the case.

The study authors also linked self-concept with the narrative self. A self-concept “involves personal identity and continuity across time as well as conceptual thought.” It also involves awareness. Observing ourselves, recognizing and describing what we see, and weaving it into a useful narrative helps us make sense of our identities.

The 2017 study, with more than 1,000 participants, confirmed the findings of the first study. Interestingly, the authors of the first study wrote:

The mindfulness induction did not explicitly target self-esteem. Specifically, there was no focus on changing or altering thoughts, no focus on thinking more positively about oneself, and no focus on temporarily bolstering positive views of oneself. Rather, the focus of the induction (consistent with mindfulness) was to adopt a different relationship to thoughts and feelings.

How can we use this?

There's nothing wrong with positive thinking. But while it may sell a lot of books, it won't necessarily give you secure high self-esteem.It's ironic that Peale is accused of always reacting "to the image of harshness with flight.” See the above linked Wikipedia article. I find it very interesting that Donald Trump, whom many people identify as a narcissist, reportedly has a very high regard for Norman Vincent Peale.

A mindfulness approach focuses on:

  • Being aware of what's really there rather than seeing oneself in a more positive light
  • Seeing the truth rather than substituting self-judgments
  • Knowing how to deal with reality instead of resisting it or wishing it away
  • Learning from setbacks rather than feeling defeated by them
  • Integrating failures and disappointments into a narrative of hope and opportunity

Learning from life's experiences can help individuals become less self-judgmental. Youngjin Kang observed that contingent self-esteem tends to decrease with age. He also noted that the contingent component most strongly associated with self-esteem is a "psychological sensitivity to evaluations."Kang, Y. (2019) We need to learn how to be less judgmental of ourselves and others, and how to be less sensitive to others' judgments. Learning to be mindfully self-aware puts us ahead of the curve.

In this blog, I have emphasized time and time again that gaining a strong grip on reality is not only the course of wisdom, it's essential for future success.