Posted on 11 May 2014.
There is a general opinion that people with high self-esteem live happier lives and are
less susceptible to depression should they face obstacles, or even encounter failure. The
wellness industry is filled with advice on how to acquire and improve self-esteem.
Furthermore, the general advice is, more often than not, different variations on how to
learn to increase one’s self-esteem.
Although there are loose correlations between happiness or success and self-esteem, there
is no proof of causality. With regard to happiness and success (factors often attributed to
self-esteem), even scientists are not sure whether self-esteem is the cause or the
consequence. In fact, it was even suggested that both self-esteem and happiness could be
the product of a genetic predisposition, in the same way that depression is.
One of the most overlooked issues with regard to this subject is the fact that there are
two kinds of self-esteem:
1. Explicit Self-Esteem
2. Implicit Self-Esteem
In a research report entitled, “Unconscious Unease and Self-Handicapping: Behavioral
Consequences of Individual Differences in Implicit and Explicit Self-Esteem” written by
Leah R. Spalding and Curtis D. Hardin, the researchers explained the distinction between
explicit and implicit self-esteem.
The explicit version is primarily a collection of positive opinions we consciously
recognize in ourselves. Implicit self-esteem is the automatic positive responses we have
when we encounter symbols and stimuli that we associate with ourselves.
The bigger distinction is probably in the formation of both forms of self-esteem. Explicit
self-esteem is the product of rational and conscious processing. When good looking guys
like us look in the mirror and tell ourselves, “Damn, I’m sexy,” we’re exhibiting a form of
explicit self-esteem. In other words, it’s our perception of our own actual self.
Implicit self-esteem is more intuitive. It comes from our earliest unconscious processing
of experiences that affect us. It’s similar to the Oedipus Complex. How our primary
caregiver has treated us in our youth can affect us deeply until we are old. Researchers
say that this type of self-esteem reflects our intuition about how we should be treated, or
is a reflection of the ideal self.
A. High Implicit Self-esteem
The first point I found really interesting was the devastating emotional damage
discrepancies between a person’s explicit and implicit self-esteem can bring.
A study was done by Daan H. M. Creemers and company called, “Damaged self-esteem is
associated with internalizing problems.” In this study it was revealed that the discrepancy
between a person’s implicit and explicit self-esteem is associated with depressive
symptoms, suicidal thoughts, and general loneliness.
Initially, the assumption I made was that these negative emotional symptoms came from
having high explicit self-esteem (bragging) and having low implicit self-esteem (being
insecure). I’ve always thought that bragging about something untrue or demonstrating a
value that isn’t there (e.g. fake confidence) can be bad for a person’s psyche.
However, research suggests otherwise. It’s actually worse to have a high implicit
(subconscious) self-esteem and a low explicit (conscious) self-esteem.
Researchers write, “Damaged self-esteem (high implicit self-esteem and low explicit self-
esteem) was related to increased levels of depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, and
loneliness, while defensive or fragile self-esteem (low implicit self-esteem and high
explicit self-esteem) was not.”
As it was explained in the article, this has to do with how each variant of self-esteem is
developed. Here are two simple scenarios that would further clarify the situation:
Scenario 1 – a person with low implicit self-esteem and a high explicit self-esteem:
A girl with a predisposition towards chubbiness is bullied throughout her formative years.
She’s called “fatty” from preschool to college. After college, she loses her baby fat. One
day, she looks at the mirror and realizes, “Whoa! I’m hot now” (high explicit self-esteem).
She may appreciate her looks, the actual self she has now. She may receive compliments here
and there. However, her years of being chubby (low implicit self-esteem) will not make her
feel entitled to such compliments, and if ever she doesn’t receive one, she’s not going to
Scenario 2 – a person with high implicit self-esteem and a low explicit self-esteem:
An attractive quarterback is worshipped throughout his formative years. After college, he
gains weight and loses his popularity, but he still feels entitled to female worship (high
implicit self-esteem). However, when he tries to approach women, he consciously recognizes
the he gets rejected 9 times out of 10 (low explicit self-esteem). His actual self, and his
reality, does not live up to the ideal self that is ingrained in his subconscious.
People with high implicit self-esteem have an ingrained sense of entitlement. When reality
does not represent their expectations of what they deserve, the problems become
internalized in the form of depressive symptoms.
Given the negative consequences of high implicit self-esteem, one might think that it’s
safer to focus on a high explicit self-esteem instead. However, doing so has its own set of
B. High Explicit Self-Esteem
There’s an article from The Atlas Society called, “Is High Self-Esteem Bad for You?” by
Robert Campbell. In that article, Campbell discussed the research of Jennifer Crocker, a
professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. According to her study, self-esteem
has a tendency to fluctuate. And these fluctuations maybe unhealthy, especially when a
person derives his self-esteem from external factors such as good looks, academic
performance, income, etc.
Campbell writes, “Deriving one’s self-esteem from certain “external” contingencies, such as
appearance, is associated with potentially destructive behavior, including alcohol and drug
use, and eating disorders.”
The research suggests that when good looking guys like us look in the mirror and tell
ourselves, “Damn, I’m sexy,” we’re deriving esteem from an external contingent (our good
looks), which could lead to potentially destructive behavior, especially, if the contingent
This idea is further emphasized in a report written by Roy F. Baumeister called, “When Ego
Threats lead to Self-Regulation Failure.”
C. Self-regulation Failure
There are three hypotheses that are crucial in Baumeister’s research:
1. High self-esteem causes people to overestimate what they can accomplish and therefore
select goals that may be too difficult for them.
2. The hypothesized advantage of people with high self-esteem depends on superior and
3. Their hypothesized disadvantage depends on the intrusion of egotism into the decision
process as to inflate their predictions and distort their judgment.
To simplify, people with high self-esteem often overestimate their abilities. If they have
extensive self-knowledge, if they know their limitations, they will have many advantages.
However, people with high self-esteem sometimes have an inflated ego, and the presence of
this ego causes these people to make irrational decisions.
Three basic observations were made by the researchers to exhibit different types of self-
regulation failure after an ego threat:
1. When people with high self-esteem fail, they respond by being more persistent, even when
2. When people with high self-esteem are criticized, they try to “repair” their public
image by insisting on rating themselves even more favorably than they did before.
3. When their high opinion of themselves is challenged, they have a tendency for self-
sabotage. Sometimes they handicap themselves or under-prepare so they can take more credit
if they succeed.
When the high self-esteem person’s view of himself is threatened by another person or
circumstance, an ego threat, they behave irrationally.
Upon further investigation on the type of irrational behavior high self-esteem people get
involved with, it was discovered that there are direct correlations between high self-
esteem and violence, especially when an ego threat is present.
Erica Goode, in her article, “Deflating Self-Esteem’s Role in Society’s Ills” discusses how
self-esteem’s role has been inflated and how low self-esteem has been demonized by society.
In this article, Erica Goode talked about a study done by Dr. Nicholas Emler. The study
mentioned how “no link was found between low self-esteem and delinquency, violence against
others, teenage smoking, drug use or racism.” High self-esteem, however, “was positively
correlated with racist attitudes, drunken driving and other risky behaviors.”
This tendency towards violence is something Baumeister has previously implied in the study,
“Relation of threatened egotism to violence and aggression: The dark side of high self-
According to that study, low self-esteem does not cause aggression, crime, or violence.
Instead, violence and aggression are often a result of threatened egotism. A person who has
an inflated, unstable, or tentative belief in his own superiority may be most prone to
causing violence. People like these have a tendency to express hostility when they are
confronted with an inferior version of their self-concept.
There are many problems on the issue of high self-esteem. Another problem with regard to
high self-esteem is the general assumption that it’s a good indicator of ability. However,
as Dr. Baumeister says, “You can think well of yourself because you accurately appreciate
what you’re good at. You can also think well of yourself just ’cause you’re a conceited
snob. And the self-esteem is the same in either case.”
Dr. Baumeister seems to be the main antagonist of self-esteem promotion. He challenges the
idea that high self-esteem is worth developing. For years, he’s been trying to point out
that the self-help industry, with its blind promotion of self-confidence, is moving in the
I would have to agree with Dr. Baumeister here. I think high self-esteem is overrated. For
one, it’s not an indicator of a person’s ability. Any asshole can have high self-esteem. In
fact, most assholes do. People who have high self-esteem are prone to arrogance, they take
pointless risks, and they have a tendency to resort to violence when their self-concept,
however distorted, is threatened by another person or a difficult situation.
I think it’s time people take a closer look on the actual science behind the common
misconception that improving a person’s self-esteem is a reliable umbrella solution to
solving personal issues.
Baumeister, R. Boden, J. Smart, L. (1996). “Relation of threatened egotism to violence and
aggression: The dark side of high self-esteem” Retrieved on April 23, 2014. From: http://www.emotionalcompetency.com/papers/baumeistersmartboden1996%5B1%5D.pdf
Baumeister, R. (1993). “When Ego Threats lead to Self-Regulation Failure” Retrieved on
April 23, 2014. From: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~thlab/pubs/93_Baumeister_etal_JPSP_64.pdf
Campbell, R. (2003, July). “Is High Self-Esteem Bad for You?” Retrieved on April 23, 2014.
Creemers, H. M. Daan. (2013, April). “Damaged self-esteem is associated with internalizing
problems.” Retrieved on April 15, 2014. From: http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00152/full
Goode, E. (2002, October). “Deflating Self-Esteem’s Role in Society’s Ills.” Retrieved on
April 23, 2014. From: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/01/health/deflating-self-esteem-s-
Hardin, C. & Spalding, L. Psychological Science (1999). “Unconscious Unease and Self-
Handicapping: Behavioral Consequences of Individual Differences in Implicit and Explicit
Self-Esteem” Retrieved on April 23, 2014. From: http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/userhome/psych/chardin/Spalding_Hardin_1999.pdf
Harvard Health Publications. (2007, June) “Importance of high self-esteem: Implicit vs.
explicit self-esteem.” Retrieved on April 23, 2014. From: http://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/importance-of-self-esteem