“What does everyone want, yet no one is entirely sure what it is, what it does or where it can be found?” The answer to this tongue-in-cheek riddle by Brown and Marshall (2006)—and this may surprise you—is self-esteem.
Commonly defined as “a person’s appraisal of his or her value” (Leary & Baumeister, 2000), self-esteem drew a lot of attention first in the 1970s (which marked the beginning of the self-esteem movement) and continues to do so to this day, from both researchers and the public.
For instance, researchers have published more than 24,000 papers on it (Eromo & Levy, 2017), and Amazon.com lists more than 20,000 titles under the heading of self-esteem.
According to Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, and Vohs (2003), “North American society” has readily come to accept that “high self-esteem is not only desirable in its own right, but also the central psychological source from which all manner of positive behaviors and outcomes spring.” These far-reaching assumptions have “permeate[d] popular belief” (Baumeister et al, 2003).
But questioning these kinds of assumptions, taken for granted by the public and even some politicians, researchers have reached divergent conclusions. And that is despite the fact that self-esteem is among the most studied personality-related concepts (Judge, Erez, & Bono, 2002).
Debates persist, not only regarding self-esteem’s causal influences on “important life outcomes,” but also about much more basic matters, such as whether it is “trait- or state-like” and whether (and in what way) it differs from other constructs such as “depression, neuroticism and narcissism” (Donnellan, Trzesniewski, & Robins, 2011).
These issues have led some psychologists to reexamine the concept of self-esteem and some to consider replacing or complementing its usage with other constructs (e.g. self-compassion).
Here I will consider the approach some investigators have taken to make sense of the inconsistent results of self-esteem studies.
Formulations of Self-Esteem
Brown and Marshall (2006) have discovered that different psychologists use different formulations of self-esteem in their studies, which is why they continue to obtain conflicting results. The authors divide these uses into three: One group of psychologists use the term self-esteem as a trait, a stable personality measure of how people “generally feel about themselves.” The authors believe what is being measured in these studies is trait self-esteem and global self-esteem.
A second group of researchers use the term not as a global indicator but as a domain-dependent one, a measure that describes how people “evaluate their various abilities and attributes” (Brown & Marshall, 2006). To illustrate, in this usage, it would be intelligible to claim to have high self-esteem in one domain (e.g. athletics) and a low one in another (e.g. arts). Though people commonly refer to this formulation of self-esteem as self-confidence, the authors use self-evaluations or self-appraisals.
The third group employ the term self-esteem as a way to gauge what the authors call feelings of self-worth: “self-evaluative emotion reactions to valenced events” (Brown & Marshall, 2006). Some researchers within this group, however, prefer the term state self-esteem.
State self-esteem refers to self-evaluations that correlate with personally significant events (e.g. promotion, divorce) and as a result fluctuate frequently. For this subgroup of psychologists, both feelings of self-worth and state self-esteem differ from trait self-esteem only in that the last term describes something enduring while the first two, something temporary.
But others in the third group disagree with this implied equivalency between feelings of self-worth and state self-esteem. Brown and Marshall, (2001), for instance, assert that experimental manipulations that provide “self-relevant” evaluation can affect the participants’ feelings of self-worth, but not their level of self-esteem. Why? Because these manipulations do not “change the manner in which people cope with positive and negative feedback”—manner of coping being “a defining feature of self-esteem.”
Brown and Marshall (2006) conclude their analysis by suggesting that these three uses of the term self-esteem refer to fundamentally different constructs and researchers must be mindful of which one they use—implying that by doing so, we can resolve the inconsistencies in research findings.
Other psychologists have attempted to solve less these definitional problems and more the negative consequences of the pursuit of self-esteem. They have sought constructs suitable for replacing that of self-esteem. It is to the work of these researchers that we now turn.
The pursuit of self-esteem has been associated with numerous negative outcomes: susceptibility to depression (because of the contingent and unstable nature of self-esteem); narcissistic tendencies; willingness to behave in unhealthy and irresponsible ways in order to obtain or maintain a high level of self-esteem (including discriminating and aggressing towards people perceived as threats to self-esteem (Neff & Vonk, 2009).
Reacting to these concerns, some psychologists have propounded a new construct called self-compassion. Compassion refers to “the feeling that arises in witnessing another’s suffering and that motivates a subsequent desire to help” (Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas, 2010), while self-compassion is compassion simply “turned inward,” and concerns “how we relate to ourselves in instances of perceived failure, inadequacy, or personal suffering” (Neff, 2016).
Neff (2011) believes increased self-compassion offers “similar benefits to [increased] self-esteem” but with “fewer downsides” because it emanates not from “positive judgments or evaluations” but from a special way of “relating to ourselves” (Neff & Germer, 2017).
Unlike self-esteem, self-compassion requires only that we admit to our “limitations with kindness,” instead of “changing our self-evaluations from negative to positive.” Neff (2011) adds that “we have self-compassion because we are human beings, not because we are special or above average.”
The concept of self-compassion originates from Buddhist philosophy and includes three components (Neff, 2003): Self-kindness (not judging oneself), common humanity (not giving in to the sense isolation that often accompanies distressing experiences), and mindfulness (not fusing with one’s own experiences but remaining self-aware and detached).
But could self-compassion, being outcome-independent, lead to smug self-satisfaction and reduced motivation to better oneself? The few studies conducted on the topic thus far suggest otherwise. Zhang and Chen (2016), for instance, suggest that through increased self-acceptance, self-compassion can, paradoxically, lead to greater motivation for self-improvement.
More research is needed. Only a few hundred articles were published on self-compassion in the decade following the appearance of a seminal article on its definition and measurement (Neff, 2003; Raab, 2014). But research interest in self-compassion continues to grow—with studies also examining its relationship with self-esteem (e.g. Donald et al, in press)—and a recent search for the term self-compassion in all EBSCO databases resulted in more than 1,400 related articles (K. D. Neff, personal communication, Octorber1, 2017).
Only time will tell whether the way we relate to ourselves (self-compassion) will garner as much scientific and clinical attention as the way we evaluate ourselves (self-esteem). It is clear, however, that despite what a task force in 1990 had hoped, increasing people’s self-esteem is not equivalent to administering a “social vaccine” that would protect against all sorts of social ills and personal problems (California State Department of Education, 1990).
And perhaps increasing self-compassion will not meet such high expectations either. What we can do, however, is try to make improvements in people’s lives, step by step. And that starts with persistent efforts at making things clear–one riddle at a time.
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