The Fragility of Self-Esteem

Tornado Science, Facts and History

Do you feel good about yourself? Don't get defensive! It's just a question.

Placing yourself on a pedestal isn't all it's cracked up to be, a psychologist says. New research reveals people with "fragile high self-esteem" are more defensive if they feel attacked by others than those who have more stable and secure self-worth.

The recent study, detailed in the June issue of the Journal of Personality, adds to a mound of navel-gazing research that is painting a more complex picture of self-esteem.

"There are many kinds of high self-esteem, and in this study we found that for those in which it is fragile and shallow it's no better than having low self-esteem," said Michael Kernis of the University of Georgia. "People with fragile high self-esteem compensate for their self-doubts by engaging in exaggerated tendencies to defend, protect and enhance their feelings of self-worth."

Kernis says the results are not meant to knock down high self-esteem, which has been stamped as one of the keys to happiness and to moving up the popularity or professional ladder. The study only adds another layer to this psychological phenomenon.

Self value

In general, individuals with so-called secure high self-esteem tend to present an authentic self to the world; they are genuinely happy with themselves and accept their weaknesses. A fragile self-esteem is unstable, and can fluctuate from day to day or within one day. Without constant validation, this person's self-worth will take a dive.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Kernis and his colleagues got the self-value goods on 100 undergraduates, about 90 of whom were female. Questionnaires measured different types of self-esteem, life satisfaction and overall psychological well-being. Then, researchers measured verbal defensiveness by having each participant describe several challenging life experiences, including: 

  • A time when you have felt less sexually desirable than a friend
  • A time when you've broken the rules
  • A time when somebody has come to you for help and you didn't want to help them

Individuals with stable high self-esteem were the least verbally defensive while the unstable participants were the most verbally defensive. In addition, the researchers found that greater verbal defensiveness was associated with less life satisfaction and lower psychological well-being.

I'm better than you

One student, whose responses scored high on the defensiveness scale, described not helping another student in his geometry class, saying "… I didn't feel like there was any gain for me. Even if that sounds selfish, it was really justified, because I was a better student and he was not a good student … I felt good about not wanting to help him."

Another "defensive" participant described a time when she broke the rules, saying, "I have honestly never done anything bad. Like the worst thing I do is burn CDs … I've honestly never drank anything. The only time I have drank anything was in Mexico and I was 18 at the time so that was legal … I've never like broken any rules."

Basically, the "defensive" students took the questions as threats to their perhaps artificially elevated self-esteem. "Potential threats are in fact more threatening to people with low or fragile high self-esteem than those with secure high self-esteem," Kernis said, "and so they work harder to counteract them."

Individuals with secure high self-esteem accept themselves "warts and all," and so they are less threatened by the outside world, Kernis said.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.