Self-Esteem is About Others

Our state self-esteem is most sensitive to others’ evaluating us and is an in-the-moment measurement of how we experience the self [11, 12]. Global self-esteem, on the other hand, is how we evaluate ourselves along the dimensions of appearance, likability, and capabilities, but when it is measured on tests, it only detects our average feelings towards ourselves [22].

These two aspects of self-esteem, however, are more similar than we may think.  Global self-esteem, for example, can also be shown to be “a person’s general sense that he or she is the sort of person who is valued and accepted by other people” [28].  In order to show this sleight of hand or shift in perspective, I’ve constructed a simple argument and have followed up with explanations.

  • A system will point to its purpose by what it is most sensitive to,
  • and our self-esteem is most sensitive to how others evaluate us.
  • We also evaluate our own appearance, likability, and capabilities.
  • It is these attributes and not others since they bestow value on to others.
  • Standards to assess our attributes are only ours’ when they fall short,
  • but when it is safe to measure, we use the standards of others.
  • So self-acceptance is not about us but about others.

The trick to understanding the thesis that the self-esteem system was designed to help with social acceptance is that self-acceptance is not what we think it is and just because people are more content when they are not worrying what others think of them, this is irrelevant to the design’s purpose.  An expert of the self-esteem system, Dr. Mark R. Leary, explains the theory quite well.

The theory is based on the assumption that human beings possess a pervasive drive to maintain significant inter personal relationships, a drive that evolved because early human beings who belonged to social groups were more likely to survive and re produce than those who did not (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Given the disastrous implications of being ostracized in the ancestral environment in which human evolution occurred, early human beings may have developed a mechanism for monitoring the degree to which other people valued and accepted them. This psychological mechanism – the sociometer – continuously monitors the social environment for cues regarding the degree to which the individual is being accepted [28].

It Is Personal After All

If we were to look at the emotions that are involved in self-esteem, for example, shame or pride, we will conclude that they are all self-conscious emotions, that is they arise in the context of how we are being evaluated and perceived by others.  Research is quite clear in that we care a great deal what others think of us.  And this doesn’t make us superficial people with petty concerns since we need to know the extent to which others like or value us in order to increase our chances of belonging and fitting in.

Everyday observation and behavioral research confirm that people are, in fact, acutely attuned to how others perceive and evaluate them. Not only are they highly sensitive to indications of disinterest, disapproval, and disassociation, but they strategically adjust their behavior when they believe that others are not perceiving them in desirable ways.  [26]

Some, however, will argue that they aren’t ever concerned with what others think of them.  But this claim is self-refuting since the very fact that someone would say that gives it away that they in fact do care.  This is to persuade others that they are independent and strong, unlike those who look for approval, which can, unfortunately, be seen as a sign of weakness.

Therapists seem to believe that we can shut off these needs since the brain has “plasticity”.  This is false, dampen it, sure, but not shut off.  They are forgetting about the daily deference and attention they receive from coworkers and patients by virtue of their professional demeanor and self-presentation, in which the mind unconsciously picks up to create feelings of safety, approval, and belongingness [10, 26].

Design Points to its Purpose

But the most convincing clue is that any engineered system, even natural selection’s design, will result in a design such that what it is most sensitive to – others’ opinions – points to its purpose.  To help, a system is a feedback mechanism that takes in information, processes it based on decision-based rules in the mind, and then outputs a behavior or emotion in order to reinforce or discourage an outcome.

As an example, we get negative emotions (social-anxiety, hurt feelings, and shame) when we are dismissed, ignored, or criticized, and these negative feelings discourage us from pursuing relationships but also encourage self-enhancement strategies because we believe we are “not enough”.  On the other hand, we feel positive emotions (joy and pride) when we get approval, positive attention, and respect, and these positive feelings reinforce the behavior. [26].

The decision-based rule – the brain’s selection of an output to send in response to the input – is understood to be a two-step process: one is an automatic and unconscious appraisal of the social interaction as being either a threat or as safety-conferring to the self, and the other is a conscious and deliberate attempt to attribute the situation’s outcome to either internal (you) or external causes (them) [26, 40].

A Need to Bestow Value

Global self-esteem, which is about our self-worth and self-acceptance, is strongly correlated with our perceived physical appearance, likability, and competence [22].  We care about these qualities in particular not because of their own sake, as natural selection is not that wasteful, but because they have the potential to bestow positive value on to others.

But in order to bestow value, we must attract others, and we do this through our appearances and capabilities.  The drive to want to attract and be valued is obvious when we express our needs to “have something to offer” and “to be included.”  This bestowed value is shown in the positive affect (feelings) we create in the minds of others, which if successful we are rewarded with an elated mood (state self-esteem) [16, 26].

But despite this desire to be accepted and to attract others – which ultimately pays off since we engage in mutually beneficial activities like mating, etc. – we also compete over these desirable attributes because they are in limited supply.  And so we compete for prestige as it is the social currency for acceptance and one measure of success in this struggle is the amount of attention and deference we can obtain, also known as our SAHP or our Social Attention Holding Potential [10].

Self-Acceptance as an Artifact

An aspect to self-esteem that seems to be at odds with this perspective is the idea of self-acceptance, but it turns out to be a cog in the wheel – an illusion to promote a grander agenda [39].  I don’t want to downplay its significance since self-satisfaction is linked to happiness [24, 32], but it is more of a process that varies depending on standards used rather than a decision.

We may have troubles with this idea since it’s thought that self-acceptance is something like nirvana.  And although it may show some independence to others’ opinions, this does not mean its purpose is exclusive to making us happy.  Because global self-esteem is prone to self-serving biases which may serve to inflate our worth to others not just ourselves [22, 39].

And the standards we use to evaluate our self-acceptance are not arbitrary since they are being measured against what we believe would have utility to others.  Experts incorrectly once believed that private self-evaluations were what determined self-esteem but even if our motives are intrinsic [1], the outcome is referenced against others’ standards, and we don’t stop making self-comparisons [14, 28].

The attributes on which people’s self-esteem is based are precisely the characteristics that determine the degree to which people are valued and accepted by others (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).  Specifically, high trait self-esteem is associated with believing that one possesses socially desirable attributes such as competence personal likability, and psychical attractiveness. [28]

In conclusion, even if it breaks down to that we are “living for others”, with the exception of us going easy on ourselves by changing the standards, it still, in the end, is about us as we experience positive affect (feelings) and mood when our attributes meet standards, and this has positive health consequences that we often take for granted [5, 26, 29, 30].


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