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Worlds of self-esteem

The way you feel about yourself can affect what other people think of you.

12:00am, August 25, 2004

Everyone has good days and bad days.

Sometimes, you feel as if you're on top of the world. Everybody laughs at your jokes. All the questions on your math test seem easy. You catch sight of yourself in the mirror and think, "Boy, do I look great today!"

On bad days, gum gets stuck in your hair. Your face sprouts zits as big as gerbils. Your friends make fun of you. You feel horrible about yourself, and everything else seems to fall apart as a result. You can't focus on your schoolwork. You lose things. You spill spaghetti sauce on your new shirt.


Some kids, however, seem to have many more good days than bad days, and others experience the opposite. Such tendencies can affect how they feel about themselves in general.

For more than 20 years, scientists have suggested that high self-esteem is the key to success. Kids who feel good about themselves are supposed to do better in school, get in less trouble, and have fewer emotional and behavioral problems than do kids who have a low opinion of themselves.

Now, research is showing that a focus just on building self-esteem may not be helpful. In some cases, having high self-esteem can actually backfire—making people less likeable, more apt to get into fights, or more upset when they fail at something.

Instead of trying to boost your self-esteem, some researchers say, it's time to accept your faults and move on with your life.

"Forget about self-esteem," says Jennifer Crocker, a psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "It's not the important thing."

Feeling good

Crocker's advice may sound a bit strange. After all, it feels good to feel good. And feeling good can be good for you, too.

Studies show that people with high self-esteem are less likely to be depressed, anxious, shy, or lonely than those having low self-esteem. They develop fewer eating disorders, they speak out more, and it's easier for them to strike up friendships. And some therapies that boost self-esteem have positive effects.


So, no one's saying that you should try to act or feel like a loser. Imagine scoring a goal in a soccer game, getting elected president of a club, doing well on a test, or making a new friend. Events such as these generally give you confidence and make you feel great. There's nothing wrong with that.

It's just that focusing solely on boosting your self-esteem probably won't solve all your problems and might even cause you more distress, says Roy Baumeister. He's a psychologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

After reviewing about 18,000 studies on self-esteem, Baumeister has turned up a number of surprising results. For one thing, he found that building up your self-esteem won't necessarily make you a better person.

New studies show that violent and wicked people often have the highest self-esteem of all, Baumeister says.

And studies in Finland have shown that bullies think very highly of themselves, as do the people who stand up to them. Only victims tend to have low self-esteem. That's surprising because many psychologists have long assumed that kids who pick on other kids do it as a way to hide their own low opinions of themselves.

Likewise, teachers often think that low self-esteem prevents kids from focusing on their schoolwork. That's not true either, Baumeister says. "There's no evidence that kids with high self-esteem do better in school."

It might work the other way around, though. Doing well in school could end up boosting your self-esteem.

Problems, problems

The trouble with studying self-esteem is that people who say they have lots of it also tend to think of themselves as smarter, more attractive, and more likeable than the Average Joe. Their friends and teachers, however, don't always agree. Neither do psychological tests.

In the end, all types of people have problems. "People with low self-esteem do things to screw up their relationships," Baumeister says, and "people with high self-esteem do different things to screw up their relationships."


In fact, people with high self-esteem can have big egos that might even make them less likeable than their more insecure peers in certain situations, said Kathleen Vohs. She's a professor of marketing science and consumer psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

In one study, Vohs and a colleague at Dartmouth College looked at how high or low self-esteem may affect likeability. They gave certain students a tough quiz, which involved finding one word that links three seemingly unrelated words. For example, "learn," "summer," and "house" would go with "school." Half of the participants were told that the test results were extremely important. They were put under a lot of pressure to succeed.

After the test was graded, each student met with another student who had not taken the test. They asked each other a set of prepared questions, starting with simple queries, such as "How old are you?" and ending with topics such as feelings about loneliness and early childhood memories. The conversation gave them a chance to get to know each other. The students in each pair were then separated, and they each rated the other on how likeable that person was.

The results showed that students with high self-esteem, who had felt threatened by the test, appeared less likeable to their partners than those with low-esteem, even when they were threatened by the test.

That may be because people with high self-esteem tend to focus on protecting themselves in threatening situations, Vohs says. They become more aggressive and determined to defend their sense of self. People with low self-esteem, on the other hand, are more likely to realize how important their friends are when they're in threatening situations. That makes them easier to like.

In such cases, making yourself feel better seems to make you less likeable, Vohs says.


Getting too invested in self-esteem can also set you up for disappointment, Crocker says.

If you base your entire sense of self-worth on doing well in sports, for example, what happens if you get hurt? If getting good grades defines your identity, what happens if you fail a test?

"Trying to prove we are good enough actually creates the opposite of what we want," Crocker says. "We get stuck in our own misery without realizing it."


The best advice for now, researchers say, is to stop focusing on yourself and look around you at the world instead. Listen to and support other people. Try setting goals that are larger than your self. Set out to create or build something. Find positive ways to contribute to society.

And if something sets you back, don't get down on yourself. Instead, try to find something you can learn from the situation.

"The best therapy is to recognize your faults," Vohs says. "It's OK to say, 'I'm not so good at that,' and then move on."

Word Find: Self-Esteem

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