Low Self-Esteem Is Adaptive

This post addresses number two from Facts that Impact Therapy.

2.  low (global) self-esteem* is an innate survival strategy that does not need treatment [1, 5, 18]

* low self-esteem is defined here as trait self-esteem in the absence of aversive social experiences

Low self-esteem has been stigmatized and misunderstood, especially in a culture that glorifies narcissism, i.e., the pursuit of high self-esteem.  It has been suggested, however, that a considerable number of those classified as having low self-esteem are this way because of innate temperament, such as the discovered trait of sensory-processing sensitivity by Dr. Elaine Aron [18].

In fact, one-fifth, and always in this ratio, of over one hundred species of animals, including humans, adapt a survival strategy of being observant before acting and often appear as shy or inhibited [5, 18].  The cause for low self-esteem is not that people choose to be negative and rank themselves low as those are the effects of an unconscious strategy to protect from worst-case scenarios and from being challenged or criticized should they fall short of standards.

It’s a “lay low” and “play it safe” approach that is due to their temperament and is not learned.  Moreover, low self-esteem people don’t necessarily harbor feelings of dislike towards themselves as that is learned through negative social experiences and unfavorable social comparisons.  It only means that they readily describe themselves in disparaging terms when under the prospect of being judged by others since they are sensitive to the rankings of others.

These tendencies, which are automatic and unconscious, have the effect of saying that “I’m no threat” and make one submit and ingratiate more easily.  Whether or not low self-esteem people are at higher risk for depression and social anxiety, however, will be discussed in the next post.  Regardless, low self-esteem is better described as those that are “cautious and uncertain in order to reduce exposure of deficiencies” than as a “maladaptive coping strategy in the face of adversity” [3].


[1] Aron, Elaine.  Ranking and Linking, For Better and For Worse. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/attending-the-undervalued-self/201001/ranking-and-linking-better-and-worse

[2] Baumeister, Roy.  Advanced Social Psychology. Oxford University Press.

[3] Baumeister, Roy.  Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?

[4] Brown, J. D., & Marshall, M. A. (2006). The three faces of self-esteem. In M. Kernis (Ed.), Self-esteem: Issues and answers (pp. 4-9). New York: Psychology Press.

[5] Caine, Susan.  NYT.  Shyness: Evolutionary Tactic?

[6] Crozier, Ray.  Shyness and Embarrassment. Perspectives from Social Psychology.  Cambridge University Press.

[7] Gilbert, Paul. Subordination and Defeat: An Evolutionary Approach To Mood Disorders and Their Therapy.

[8] Gilbert, Paul. Genes on the Couch.

[9] Harris, Judith Rich. The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do.

[10] Heatherton, Todd. development and evaluation of a scale for measuring state self-esteem.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

[11] Hoyle, Rick. Selfhood. Taylor and Francis.

[12] Knopik, Valerie.  Behavioral Genetics.  Worth Publishers.

[13]  Leary, Mark R. Interpersonal Rejection.

[14] Leary, Mark R. The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life.

[15] Leary, Mark R.  Making Sense of Self-Esteem.  Current Directions in Psychological Science.

[16] Nesse, Randolph M.. Good Reasons for Bad Feelings. Penguin Publishing Group.

[17] Rosenberg, Morris. Global Self-Esteem and Specific Self-Esteem: Different Concepts, Different Outcomes.  American Sociological Review.

[18] Schmidt and Schulkin. Extreme Fear, Shyness, and Social Phobia (Series in Affective Science).

[19] Simpson, Jeffrey.  Evolutionary Social Psychology.  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers.

[20] Tracy, Jessica.  The Self-Conscious Emotions. Guilford Publication.

[21] Waytz, Adam.  The Psychology of Social Status. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-psychology-of-social/

[22] Wood, Joanne V.  Positive Self-Statements. Psychological Science.


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