Last updated on 1st September 2008
People who are low in self-esteem are often self-defeatingly, self-protective. They would like other people to accept and respect them for the good qualities they have. However they fear that, if they are seen to have certain strengths, they will at some stage fail to live up to other's expectations and will end up being humiliated (Baumeister, Tice, & Hutton, 1989). This pattern extends into close relationships too. Because people who are low in self-esteem (LSE's) doubt their own worth, they tend to become anxious that, once the other person has got to know them better, they will end up being rejected.
As a general rule, it's helpful with forms of anxiety to see that, at their heart, there is concern about a perceived threat. It's also often helpful, in understanding our emotions better, to realize that many of our behaviours and ways of thinking make very good sense when viewed as mechanisms that evolved because they helped hunter-gatherers survive. There are strong parallels between the way a hunter-gatherer might behave when fearing they were at risk from a predator and the way a LSE might behave when fearing they are at risk of humiliation.
So there is good research showing that someone who feels insecure in relationships and fears rejection will tend to be on the alert for any sign of other people becoming more distant from them. They then tend to devalue the relationship - a kind of 'sour gapes' response. They also interpret ambiguous messages negatively, maintain excessive levels of tension/arousal, and act in ways that don't fit that well with the reality of particular relationship situations. There is a genuine danger that the insecurity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The very mechanisms that are apparently guarding against the risk of the other person becoming more distant, may in fact serve to drive them away.
One might think that one way this difficult situation can be improved is for the LSE to be told by the other person how much they are in fact appreciated and valued. Paradoxically this tends not to reassure the LSE nearly as much as one might expect - or as much as it might reassure someone with high self-esteem (HSE). It seems that the LSE fails to generalize from any compliment or appreciation. It's as if they think "Maybe I am appreciated at this particular moment for this particular thing, but in no way does this imply anything about how I can expect to be valued in the future." In fact, a compliment may even lead a LSE to feel worse as they may believe they will now be expected to live up to some new higher standard - and that they will be humiliated when they fail to maintain it.
This pattern led recently to some very interesting and encouraging research exploring whether LSE's can be taught to benefit more from appreciations and compliments. Denise Marigold and colleagues at the University of Waterloo in Canada explored this in a series of three experiments (Marigold, Holmes, & Ross, 2007). They asked young people in couple relationships to think of a compliment their romantic partner had made to them in the previous few days. LSE's seemed to be able to do this as easily as HSE's. They were then randomized to describing the compliment in different ways. The crucial finding was that when LSE's were directed to describe the compliment, and its implications, in general, abstract ways, they benefited from it much more than when they described it in more concrete, specific ways. HSE's did equally well with either type of description. It seemed that a concrete, specific description made it easy for the LSE to see the compliment as a 'once off' with little meaning for their value to their partner and for the relationship as a whole. In contrast, the more abstract description led to much more generalization of the compliment's meaning. (For more on this subject, see tomorrow's post as well)
Baumeister, R. F., D. M. Tice, et al (1989) "Self-presentational motivations and personality differences in self-esteem." Journal of Personality. 57(3): 547-579.
Marigold, D. C., J. G. Holmes, et al. (2007). "More than words: reframing compliments from romantic partners fosters security in low self-esteem individuals." J Pers Soc Psychol 92(2): 232-48. [PubMed]
Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale - rated on a 9 point scale (from 1, strongly disagree, to 9, strongly agree). To download a copy of this questionnaire, click here