When Grace Dearing, 19, is asked to stay late at her retail job, she usually doesn’t have the time. She’s a student at Ohio University who balances school life with an internship, plus work at the store. “I have to decline due to already having plans with friends and family, or just simply being too exhausted to exert myself any longer,” she said.
But saying no causes her stress and anxiety too. She starts to worry about what her supervisors are thinking about her. “I spend the rest of the night wondering if my bosses view me as lazy or unmotivated." The idea that someone might be thinking of her negatively rattles her sense of self-worth.
Dearing is describing a relatable scenario for many of us. Her self-esteem, or how she views her worth and abilities, is especially vulnerable to outside forces—other people’s opinions and thoughts, or what she imagines they might be thinking.
Psychologists have a name for this feeling: Contingent self-esteem. We all want to hold ourselves in high regard. But getting to that place through contingencies— I’m only worthwhile if my boss, friends, partner, or teacher thinks highly of me—can backfire. Self-esteem defined in this way can be an ill-fated desire, sprung up from a culture that puts an exaggerated amount of emphasis on the importance of self-esteem itself.
For decades, psychologists considered high self-esteem instrumental to a successful and positive life. But more recent self-esteem research has found it's not all it's cracked up to be, especially when it comes from what others think about you. Having someone else perceive you as hardworking or smart doesn't necessarily contribute to a long-term sense of worth, nor does it help people be independent or have meaningful relationships.
“We think of boosts to self-esteem as analogous to sugar: tasty but not nutritious," wrote Jennifer Crocker, a social psychologist at Ohio State University who has been researching self-esteem for 40 years, in a 2005 paper. A fixation on getting those brief hits of pleasure, especially if they’re contingent on other people saying nice things about you, she said, could instead make us miserable, adding to anxiety and depression.
“It's like a bottomless pit, because there's always another person who could be judging you, and they could have a higher standard or a different standard."
Humans have long been trying to determine how to gauge self worth, and self-esteem is one of the oldest concepts in social psychology. William James (often referred to as the father of American psychology) is credited with coming up with the term “self-esteem” back in 1890 as a way to try to understand how we regard ourselves through our own and others’ expectations.
The link between high self-esteem and achievement can be traced back to a 1969 research article called “The Psychology of Self-Esteem” by Nathaniel Branden that said that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life.”
In the 1980s, this blossomed into an unwavering belief that high self-esteem was something to be sought after. This period was referred to later as the “self-esteem movement.” In 1986, a state legislator in California named John Vasconcellos even helped create the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility, which assumed that improving self-esteem would help address social problems like violence, drug abuse, crime, failure in school, and child abuse. Though the task force was mocked nationally—including in the cartoon Doonesbury—more than40 out of the 58 counties in California had self-esteem task forces.
The self-esteem movement bled into schools, children’s books and media, parenting styles and more, until finally facing a tide of skepticism in the late 1990s and early 2000s when psych studies started to suggest that fostering high self-esteem didn't do much at all. Researchers now think that a correlation between high self-esteem and success might be because people feel good about what they've accomplished, not that the high self-esteem caused the success in the first place.
"It's time for people who have been claiming that improved self-esteem will improve performance to put up or shut up," Roy Baumeister, a Case Western psychologist, told the LA Times in 1999.
But the effects of the self-esteem movement have lingered. Many of us still hunger for the self-esteem boosts that come from external sources. Branden himself became concerned that his suggestion that self-esteem was the key to success was leading to people seeking out self-esteem at all cost. In a later book he clarified that he meant for it to arise out of one's own growth and behavior, not be “primarily determined by other people.”
Contingent self-esteem creates a yo-yoing sense of happiness and self-worth.
Gunner*, a 24-year-old accountant, doesn’t always have enough to do to fill the whole day, so he spends the hours with meaningless tasks to try and seem busy, for fear that others will judge him if they know he’s not busy. “This takes a serious toll on my mental health,” he said. “I find myself looking over my shoulder to see if the judging eyes are on me, questioning my every move.”
For Katia An Spencer, a 22-year-old living in Los Angeles, self-esteem can rest on the approval of friends. She recently teased a friend playfully, and days later was stuck on the possibility that he might think she had behaved unkindly.
“I can't figure out what reality is, because I’m so distorted into assuming I’m doing something wrong when I’m not,” she said. If her friend did actually think that she was being cruel, or if friends were thinking other negative things about her, she said, “I have the impression that I would fully break down.”
This kind of instability is partially what leads to suffering, said Kristin Neff, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Some experts think that it's the stability of self-esteem—or having one constant level of self-worth—that is more important for a person’s happiness than how high or low it is.
Amy Canevello, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said keeping up with contingent self-esteem requires constant impression management.
Spencer wants to make sure she appears agreeable. Gunner and Dearing don’t want to be seen as lazy at work. Brylee Richmond, a 20-year-old in Lake Charles, said that when she fixated about what others thought about her when she first started college, “I was so worried about people knowing I wasn’t calm and collected and that school wasn’t easy that it was hard for me to even get out of my car and walk into the classroom some days.”
People who rely on contingencies for self-worth end up in a vicious circle of chasing approval, finding it, and then going on the hunt again. That’s exhausting, and can also make it harder to achieve your goals and be successful: Many people will actually sabotage themselves in order to have an excuse when they fail, Crocker said. This is called self-handicapping—say, for instance, getting drunk the night before taking a test so that if you do poorly you can say you were too hung over to have done well. People rely on it to prevent the low self-esteem that comes with not achieving something.
"I was a worthy and valuable person yesterday because I was able to do good work, but what about today?" Canevello said. "Can I make it happen again? That's part of the anxiety. If you've been successful, there's pressure to keep that success up.”
It’s tempting to say that millennials, because they were raised during the self-esteem movement, are more prone to seeking out self-esteem at all costs. But Crocker said she doesn’t know if there’s any data that shows specifically that contingent self-esteem is on the rise—though she acknowledged that the mental health issues that can result from an endless pursuit of approval, like depression and anxiety, are increasing in younger generations.
There might be some periods of life in which people are especially vulnerable to the temptations of contingent self-esteem. People often go out into the “real world” for the first time in college, or in their mid-to-late-20s, and are judged based on their performance both socially and professionally. Take those susceptible periods of life and combine them with private lives that are increasingly on display, an unstable job market, and proximity to the self-esteem movement, and you get an ongoing, desperate desire for approval from others.
But it's probably not possible to get rid of self-esteem altogether, and some of it might be part of our social evolution. In the mid-1990s, psychologist Mark Leary, along with Baumeister, proposed that self-esteem is a barometer for how we're doing in our social interactions, and called it sociometer theory.
When we get excluded or rejected, self-esteem drops, they said—which is a signal to reconnect with people or try to affiliate with different people. It likely evolved to promote group cooperation and social relationships. Canevello said to release the grip that self-esteem has on our lives, we should look at it as a kind of social litmus test—but not a sensation that is coupled with overall self-worth.
Ironically, impression management and contingent self-esteem can end up making a person a bit self-centered and hurt our relationships. When you are constantly worrying about how you’re being seen by others, you can stop paying attention to what other people really need Canevello said. "I think the message is not, 'Don't care about what other people think of you.'"
Crocker suggests instead asking yourself instead something like: “What is the contribution I'm trying to make in this situation?”
Maria Mora, a 29-year-old copywriter in New York City, is attempting to do this in her life—measuring her worth by how she treats others. “Being kind to people, being empathetic, understanding, a good listener, and being present,” she said. “I want to base my self worth on those qualities.”
Neff advised that people who suffer from the need for contingent self-esteem can find relief in self-compassion, telling yourself something along the lines of, “Of course I want people to like me, but it's not working out right now,” Neff said. “That's okay. I can still be there for myself, I can still support myself.”
Lastly, instead of making goals around validation, make them around learning, Crocker suggested. That way, failure—which happens to everyone—doesn't threaten self-esteem, it's just part of the process.
Ultimately, what all these strategies get at, is that asking yourself " am I a worthwhile human being" isn't very useful, Crocker said. Worth is subjective, and demanding such an existential question on ourselves all the time comes with great risk. “After all, to be a worthless human being is about as painful a thing as there is,” Crocker said.
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* First name only has been used to protect this person's identity.