A person's self image is the mental picture, generally of a kind that is quite resistant to change, that depicts not only details that are potentially available to objective investigation by others (height, weight, hair color, sex, I.Q. score, is this person double-jointed, etc.), but also items that have been learned by that person about himself or herself, either from personal experiences or by internalizing the judgments of others. Those items include the answers to such questions as:
* Am I skinny?
* Am I fat?
* Am I attractive?
* Am I weak?
* Am I strong?
* Am I intelligent?
* Am I stupid?
* Am I a good person?
* Am I a bad person?
* Am I masculine?
* Am I feminine?
* Am I likable?
A simple definition of your self image is your answer to this question - "What do you believe people think about you?" A more technical term for self image that is commonly used by social and cognitive psychologists is self-schema. Like any schema, self-schemas store information and influence the way we think and remember. For example, research indicates that information which refers to the self is preferentially encoded and recalled in memory tests, a phenomenon known as "Self-Referential Encoding" (Rogers et al. 1977).
The formation of a healthy self image can be challenging for an individual, especially when family, peers, community, or the general society issues very negative evaluations of a person that happen to be inaccurate. The consequences can be severe for the individual, who may learn self-hatred. They can also be severe for the society. As a European folk saying instructs, "Call a man a thief and he will steal."
The correction of an inaccurate self image can be aided by reality testing. However, when social forces directed against the individual have been strongly manipulative, it may be very helpful for the individual to secure professional help in rectifying matters. Such rectification is most often directed at the individual, but corrective efforts could also be applied to members of the general community and/or social institutions that have manipulated individuals in a detrimental way. (See child abuse, racism, sexism, etc.)
It should be noted that some information about an individual is not directly available to others, and that information may be very pertinent to the formation of an accurate and well functioning self image. For instance, only the individual may know whether certain of his or her acts were malicious or benevolent in intent. Only individuals know whether in their internal experience they are male or female or, perhaps, something else.
Poor self image may be the result of accumulated invalid criticisms that the person collected as a child which have led to damaging his own view of himself. Children in particular are vulnerable to accepting false negative judgments from authority figures because they have yet to develop competency in evaluating such reports.
Major definitions of self-esteem
The term "self-esteem", one of the oldest concepts in psychology, first appeared as a coinage of American psychologist and philosopher William James in 1890. It involves one's mental perception of one's qualities, not of one's physical features.
Self-esteem has become the third most frequently occurring theme in psychological literature: as of 2003 over 25,000 articles, chapters, and books referred to the topic.
Given a long and varied history, the term has, unsurprisingly, no less than three major types of definitions in the field, each of which has generated its own tradition of research, findings, and practical applications.
1. The original definition presents self-esteem as a ratio found by dividing one's successes in areas of life of importance to a given individual by the failures in them or one's "success / pretensions". Problems with this approach come from making self-esteem contingent upon success: this implies inherent instability because failure can occur at any moment.
2. In the mid 1960s Maurice Rosenberg and social-learning theorists defined self-esteem in terms of a stable sense of personal worth or worthiness, measurable by self-report testing. This became the most frequently used definition for research, but involves problems of boundary-definition, making self-esteem indistinguishable from such things as narcissism or simple bragging.
* Nathaniel Branden in 1969 briefly defined self-esteem as "...the experience of being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and being worthy of happiness". This two-factor approach, as some have also called it, provides a balanced definition that seems to be capable of dealing with limits of defining self-esteem primarily in terms of competence or worth alone.
In Branden's description (1969) self-esteem includes the following primary properties:
1. self-esteem as a basic human need, i.e., "...it makes an essential contribution to the life process", "...is indispensable to normal and healthy self-development, and has a value for survival."
2. self-esteem as an automatic and inevitable consequence of the sum of individuals' choices in using their consciousness
3. something experienced as a part of, or background to, all of the individual's thoughts, feelings and actions
For the purposes of empirical research, psychologists typically assess self-esteem by a self-report questionnaire yielding a quantitative result. They establish the validity and reliability of the questionnaire prior to its use.
Maslow described two kinds of esteem needs - the need for respect from others and the need for self-respect. Self-esteem entails competence, confidence, mastery, achievement, independence, and freedom. Respect from others entails recognition, acceptance, status, and appreciation. Without the fulfillment of these needs, an individual feels discouraged, weak and inferior. For most people, the need for regard from others diminshes with age (because they have already received it) and the need for self-regard becomes more important.
Increasing One's Self-Esteem
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A number of methods have been widely-used to increase one's self-esteem. These include:
* spiritual or religious activities
Quality and level of self-esteem
Level and quality of self-esteem, though correlated, remain distinct. Self-esteem can be high but fragile (e.g., narcissism) and low but stable. (e.g., humility). However, the quality of self-esteem can be indirectly assessed in several ways: (I) in terms of its constancy over time (stability), (II) in terms of its independence upon particular conditions being met (non-contingency), and (III) in terms of how ingrained it is at a basic psychological level (implicitness or automaticity).
Critics see the all pervading importance given to self-esteem in popular culture and in modern psychology as misleading and over-positive. A review of self-esteem literature by Roy Baumeister confirmed that high self-regard per se is not necessarily good nor does it translate into higher estimates by others of a person's intellect, appearance or virtue.
Self-esteem as panacea is "a very compelling illusion," because it correlates with happiness and other good things, says Baumeister, but psychologists "were a little too eager in promoting the program before the data were in." Some social constructionists argue that modern day America with its overwhelming cultural bias towards self-enhancement has fabricated and validated the dogma of self-esteem as a universal human goal that all must strive towards perfecting. This fails to consider the absence of such an emphasis in other flourishing cultures, where high self-esteem is not as celebrated and central a concept.
Psychological literature and popular culture both concentrate on the presence or absence of high self-esteem, however there is evidence that the overemphasis on the self-esteem mantra can lead to rapid falls when the self is invalidated in the domains that one considers important. In addition this pursuit may have negative consequences on the welfare of society as a whole. Eastern philosophy, particularly Buddhist and Hindu thought, see the self in its limited form as illusory; the 'true self' is perceived to be a sublime and transcendent entity, whose nature is hidden from the limited or egoic self.
See also the study in this area by Jean M. Twenge: Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before, Free press: 2007. ISBN 978-0743276986
Self-esteem, grades and relationships
From the late 1970s to the early 1990s Americans assumed as a matter of course that a student's self-esteem was a critical factor in the grades that they earn in school, in their relationships with their peers, and in their later success in life. That being the case, many American groups created programs to increase the self-esteem of students, assuming that grades would increase, conflicts would decrease, and that this would lead to a happier and more successful life. Until the 1990s little peer-reviewed and controlled research was done on this topic.
" The concept of self-improvement has undergone dramatic change since 1911, when Ambrose Bierce mockingly defined self-esteem as "an erroneous appraisement." Good and bad character are now known as "personality differences". Rights have replaced responsibilities. The research on egocentrism and ethnocentrism that informed discussion of human growth and development in the mid-20th century is ignored; indeed, the terms themselves are considered politically incorrect.
A revolution has taken place in the vocabulary of self. Words that imply responsibility or accountability--self-criticism, self-denial, self-discipline, self-control, self-effacement, self-mastery, self-reproach, and self-sacrifice -- are no longer in fashion. The language most in favor is that which exalts the self -- self-expression, self-assertion, self-indulgence, self-realization, self-approval, self-acceptance, self-love, and the ubiquitous self-esteem. "
Peer-reviewed research undertaken since then has not validated previous assumptions. Recent research indicates that inflating students' self-esteem in and of itself has no positive effect on grades. One study has shown that inflating self-esteem by itself can actually decrease grades.
High self-esteem correlates highly with self-reported happiness. However, it is not clear which, if either, necessarily leads to the other.
Bullying, violence and murder
Some of the most interesting results of recent studies center on the relationships between bullying, violence, and self-esteem. It used to be assumed that bullies acted violently towards others because they suffered from low self-esteem (although no controlled studies were offered to back up this position).
" These findings suggest that the low-esteem theory is wrong. But none involves what social psychologists regard as the most convincing form of evidence: controlled laboratory experiments. When we conducted our initial review of the literature, we uncovered no lab studies that probed the link between self-esteem and aggression. "
In contrast to old beliefs, recent research indicates that bullies act the way that they do because they suffer from unearned high self-esteem.
" Violent criminals often describe themselves as superior to others - as special, elite persons who deserve preferential treatment. Many murders and assaults are committed in response to blows to self-esteem such as insults and humiliation. (To be sure, some perpetrators live in settings where insults threaten more than their opinions of themselves. Esteem and respect are linked to status in the social hierarchy, and to put someone down can have tangible and even life-threatening consequences.) "
" The same conclusion has emerged from studies of other categories of violent people. Street-gang members have been reported to hold favourable opinions of themselves and turn to violence when these estimations are shaken. Playground bullies regard themselves as superior to other children; low self-esteem is found among the victims of bullies, but not among bullies themselves. Violent groups generally have overt belief systems that emphasise their superiority over others.
The presence of superiority-complexes can be seen both in individual cases, such as the criminals Baumeister studied, and in whole societies, such as Germany under the Nazi regime.
The findings of this research does not take into account that the concept of self-esteem has not been clearly defined and that there are differing views of the precise definition of self-esteem. In his own work, Baumeister often uses a "common use" definition: self-esteem is how you regard yourself (or how you appear to regard yourself) regardless of how this view was cultivated.
Other psychologists believe that a "self esteem" that depends on external validation of the self (or other people's approval), such as what seems to be relevant in the discussion of violent people, is not, in fact, "true" self-esteem. Nathaniel Branden labelled this 'pseudo self-esteem', arguing that true self-esteem comes from internal sources, such as self responsibility, self sufficiency and the knowledge of one's own competence and capablity to deal with obstacles and adversity, regardless of what other people think.
Psychologists who agree with this view dismiss Baumeister's findings and say that what he mistakes as "high self-esteem" in criminals is in fact narcissism and because it is an inflated opinion of self that is built on shaky grounds and that violence comes when that opinion is threatened. Those with "true" self-esteem who valued themselves and believed wholly in their own competence and worth would have no need to resort to violence or indeed have any need to believe in superiority or prove superiority.