Self Esteem Psychology Essay Question

Low Self Esteem

Saul McLeod published 2012

Self-esteem should be viewed as a continuum, and can be high, medium or low, and is often quantified as a number in empirical research.

When considering self-esteem it is important to note that both high and low levels can be emotionally and socially harmful for the individual. Indeed it is thought an optimum level of self-esteem lies in the middle of the continuum. Individuals operating within this range are thought to be more socially dominant within relationships.

Empirical Research

Research has shown key differences between individuals with high and low self-esteem. For example, people with high self-esteem focus on growth and improvement, whereas people with low self-esteem focus on not making mistakes in life.

Low self-esteem has been shown to be correlated with a number of negative outcomes, such as depression (Silverstone & Salsali, 2003).

Rosenberg and Owen (2001) offer the following description of low self-esteem people based on empirical research. People with low self-esteem are more troubled by failure and tend to exaggerate events as being negative.

For example, they often interpret non critical comments as critical. They are more likely to experience social anxiety and low levels of interpersonal confidence. This in turn makes social interaction with others difficult as they feel awkward, shy, conspicuous, and unable to adequately express themselves when interacting with others (p. 409). Furthermore, low self-esteem individuals tend to be pessimistic towards people and groups within society.

Research has also shown that low self-esteem has to linked to an increased risk of teenage pregnancy.

Guindon (2002) asked school counsellors to list five characteristics that best describe students with low self-esteem. Over 1000 words were used and the most common are listed below:

  1. Withdrawn/shy/quiet
  2. Insecure
  3. Underachieving
  4. Negative (attitude)
  5. Unhappy
  6. Socially inept
  7. Angry/hostile
  8. Unmotivated
  9. Depressed
  10. Dependent/follower
  11. Poor self-image
  12. Non-risk-taker
  13. Lacks self-confidence
  14. Poor communication
  15. Acts out

Low Self-Esteem in Children

It should be noted that on average self-esteem during childhood is found to be relatively high. However, there are individual differences and some children are unfortunate to experience feelings of low self-esteem.

Low self-esteem in children tends to be related to physical punishment and withholding of love and affection by parents. Carl Rogers would describe this as conditional positive regard, whereby individuals only receive positive attention from significant others (such as parents) when they act in a certain way. This reinforces to the child that they are only a person of value when they act a certain way (e.g. achieving A grades on a test).

Children with low self-esteem rely on coping strategies that are counterproductive such as bullying, quitting, cheating, avoiding etc. Although all children will display some of these behaviors at times, low self-esteem is strongly indicated when these behaviors appear with regularity.

Socially children with low self-esteem can be withdrawn or shy, and find it difficult to have fun. Although they may have a wide circle of friends they are more likely to yield to group pressure and more vulnerable to being bullied. At school they avoid trying new things (for fear of failure) and will give up easily.

Low Self-Esteem in Teenagers

Self-esteem continues to decline during adolescence (particularly for girls). Researchers have explained this decline to body image and other problems associated with puberty.

Although boys and girls report similar levels of self-esteem during childhood, a gender gap emerges by adolescence, in that adolescent boys have higher self-esteem than adolescent girls (Robins et al., 2002).

Girls with low self-esteem appear to be more vulnerable to perceptions of the ideal body image perpetuated in western media (through methods such as airbrushing models on magazine covers).

References and Further Reading

Abraham, T. (1988). Toward a Self-Evaluation Maintenance Model of Social Behavior. In L. Berkowitz (Ed), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (pp. 181–227).Academic Press.

Coopersmith, S. (1967). The Antecedents of Self-esteem. Freeman.

Harter, S. 1993. Causes and Consequences of Low Self-esteem in Children and Adolescents. In Baumeister, R.F. (Ed.) Self-Esteem: The Puzzle of Low Self-regard (pp. 87-116).

Mruk, C. (1995). Self-Esteem: Research, Theory, and Practice. Springer.

Guindon, M. H. (2002). Toward Accountability in the Use of the Self‐Esteem Construct. Journal of Counseling & Development, 80(2), 204-214.

Robins, R.W., Trzesniewski, K.H., Tracy, J.L., Gosling, S.D., & Potter, J. (2002). Global self-esteem across the lifespan. Psychology and Aging, 17, 423-434.

Rosenberg, M. (1976). Beyond Self-Esteem: The Neglected Issues in Self-concept Research.Paper presented at the annual meetings of the ASA.

Rosenberg, M. (1979). Conceiving the Self. Basic Books.

Rosenberg, M., & Owens, T.J. (2001). Low self-esteem people: A collective portrait. In T.J. Owens. S. Stryker, & N. Goodmanm (Eds.), Extending self-esteem theory and research (pp. 400-436). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Silverstone, P. H., & Salsali, M. (2003). Low self-esteem and psychiatric patients: Part I–The relationship between low self-esteem and psychiatric diagnosis. Annals of General Psychiatry, 2(1), 2.

Viktor, G. (1982). The Self-Concept. Annual Review of Sociology, 8:1–33.

Viktor, G., & Schwalbe, M.L. (1983). Beyond the Looking-glass Self: Social Structure and Efficacy-Based Self-Esteem. Social Psychology Quarterly, 46:77–88.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2012). Low self esteem. Retrieved from

Further Information

Self Concept

Saul McLeod published 2008

The term self-concept is a general term used to refer to how someone thinks about, evaluates or perceives themselves. To be aware of oneself is to have a concept of oneself.

Baumeister (1999) provides the following self-concept definition:

"The individual's belief about himself or herself, including the person's attributes and who and what the self is".

The self-concept is an important term for both social and humanistic psychology. Lewis (1990) suggests that development of a concept of self has two aspects:

(1) The Existential Self

This is 'the most basic part of the self-scheme or self-concept; the sense of being separate and distinct from others and the awareness of the constancy of the self' (Bee, 1992).

The child realizes that they exist as a separate entity from others and that they continue to exist over time and space.

According to Lewis awareness of the existential self begins as young as two to three months old and arises in part due to the relation the child has with the world. For example, the child smiles and someone smiles back, or the child touches a mobile and sees it move.

(2) The Categorical Self

Having realized that he or she exists as a separate experiencing being, the child next becomes aware that he or she is also an object in the world.

Just as other objects including people have properties that can be experienced (big, small, red, smooth and so on) so the child is becoming aware of him or her self as an object which can be experienced and which has properties.

The self too can be put into categories such as age, gender, size or skill. Two of the first categories to be applied are age (“I am 3”) and gender (“I am a girl”).

In early childhood. the categories children apply to themselves are very concrete (e.g., hair color, height and favorite things). Later, self-description also begins to include reference to internal psychological traits, comparative evaluations and to how others see them.

Carl Rogers (1959) believes that the self-concept has three different components:

• The view you have of yourself (self-image)

• How much value you place on yourself (self-esteem or self-worth)

• What you wish you were really like (ideal-self)

Self-image (how you see yourself)

This does not necessarily have to reflect reality. Indeed a person with anorexia who is thin may have a self image in which the person believes they are fat. A person's self image is affected by many factors, such as parental influences, friends, the media etc.

Kuhn (1960) investigated the self-image by using The Twenty Statements Test.

He asked people to answer the question 'Who am I?' in 20 different ways. He found that the responses could be divided into two major groups. These were social roles (external or objective aspects of oneself such as son, teacher, friend) and personality traits (internal or affective aspects of oneself such as gregarious, impatient, humorous).

The list of answers to the question “Who Am I?” probably include examples of each of the following four types of responses:

1) Physical Description: I’m tall, have blue eyes...etc.

2) Social Roles: We are all social beings whose behavior is shaped to some extent by the roles we play. Such roles as student, housewife, or member of the football team not only help others to recognize us but also help us to know what is expected of us in various situations.

3) Personal Traits: These are the third dimension of our self-descriptions. “I’m impulsive...I’m generous...I tend to worry a lot”...etc.

4) Existential Statements (abstract ones): These can range from "I’m a child of the universe" to "I’m a human being" to "I’m a spiritual being"...etc.

Typically young people describe themselves more in terms of personal traits, whereas older people feel defined to a greater extent by their social roles.

Self-esteem (the extent to which you value yourself)

Self-esteem (also known as self-worth) refers to the extent to which we like accept or approve of ourselves, or how much we value ourselves. Self-esteem always involves a degree of evaluation and we may have either a positive or a negative view of ourselves.

High self-esteem (we have a positive view of ourselves)

This tends to lead to

  • Confidence in our own abilities
  • Self-acceptance
  • Not worrying about what others think
  • Optimism

Low self-esteem (we have a negative view of ourselves)

This tends to lead to

  • Lack of confidence
  • Want to be/look like someone else
  • Always worrying what others might think
  • Pessimism

There are several ways of measuring self-esteem. For example, Harrill Self Esteem Inventory is a questionnaire comprising 15 statements about a range of interest. Another example is the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), which is a neutral cartoon given to the participant who then has to devise a story about what's going on.

Morse and Gergen (1970) showed that in uncertain or anxiety-arousing situations our self-esteem may change rapidly. Participants were waiting for a job interview in a waiting room. They were sat with another candidate (a confederate of the experimenter) in one of two conditions:

A) Mr. Clean - dressed in a smart suit, carrying a briefcase opened to reveal a slide rule and books.

B) Mr. Dirty - dressed in an old T-shirt and jeans, slouched over a cheap sex novel.

Self-esteem of participants with Mr. Dirty increased whilst those with Mr. Clean decreased! No mention made of how this affected subjects’ performance in interview. Level of self-esteem affects performance at numerous tasks though (Coopersmith, 1967) so could expect Mr. Dirty subjects to perform better than Mr. Clean.

Even though self-esteem might fluctuate, there are times when we continue to believe good things about ourselves even when evidence to the contrary exists. This is known as the perseverance effect.

Miller and Ross (1975) showed that people who believed they had socially desirable characteristics continued in this belief even when the experimenters tried to get them to believe the opposite. Does the same thing happen with bad things if we have low self-esteem?  Maybe not, perhaps with very low self-esteem, all we believe about ourselves might be bad.

Argyle (2008) believes there are 4 major factors that influence self-esteem.

1. The Reaction of Others

If people admire us, flatter us, seek out our company, listen attentively and agree with us we tend to develop a positive self-image. If they avoid us, neglect us, tell us things about ourselves that we don’t want to hear we develop a negative self-image.

2. Comparison with of Others

If the people we compare ourselves with (our reference group) appear to be more successful, happier, richer, better looking than ourselves we tend to develop a negative self-image BUT if they are less successful than us our image will be positive.

3. Social Roles

Some social roles carry prestige e.g., doctor, airline pilot, TV. presenter, premiership footballer and this promotes self-esteem. Other roles carry stigma. E.g., a prisoner, mental hospital patient, refuse collector or unemployed person.

4. Identification

Roles aren’t just “out there.” They also become part of our personality i.e. we identity with the positions we occupy, the roles we play and the groups we belong to.

But just as important as all these factors, are the influence of our parents! (See Coopersmith’s research.)

Ideal Self (what you'd like to be)

If there is a mismatch between how you see yourself (e.g., your self-image) and what you’d like to be (e.g., your ideal-self ) then this is likely to affect how much you value yourself.

Therefore, there is an intimate relationship between self-image, ego-ideal and self-esteem. Humanistic psychologists study this using the Q-Sort Method.

A person’s ideal self may not be consistent with what actually happens in life and experiences of the person. Hence, a difference may exist between a person’s ideal self and actual experience. This is called incongruence.

Where a person’s ideal self and actual experience are consistent or very similar, a state of congruence exists. Rarely, if ever does a total state of congruence exist; all people experience a certain amount of incongruence. The development of congruence is dependent on unconditional positive regard. Roger’s believed that for a person to achieve self-actualization they must be in a state of congruence.

Michael Argyle (2008) says there are four major factors which influence its development:

  1. The ways in which others (particularly significant others) react to us.
  2. How we think we compare to others
  3. Our social roles
  4. The extent to which we identify with other people


Argyle, M. (2008). Social encounters: Contributions to social interaction. Aldine Transaction

Baumeister, R. F. (Ed.) (1999). The self in social psychology. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press (Taylor & Francis).

Bee, H. L. (1992). The developing child. London: HarperCollins.

Coopersmith, S. (1967). The antecedents of self-esteem. San Francisco: Freeman.

Kuhn, M. H. (1960). Self-attitudes by age, sex and professional training. Sociological Quarterly, 1, 39-56.

Lewis, M. (1990). Self-knowledge and social development in early life. In L. A. Pervin (Ed.), Handbook of personality (pp. 277-300). New York: Guilford.

Miller, D. T., & Ross, M. (1975). Self-serving biases in the attribution of causality: Fact or fiction? Psychological Bulletin, 82, 213–225

Morse, S. J. & Gergen, K. J. (1970). Social comparison, self-consistency and the concept of self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 16, 148-156.

Rogers, C. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. In (ed.) S. Koch,Psychology: A study of a science. Vol. 3: Formulations of the person and the social context. New York: McGraw Hill.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2008). Self concept. Retrieved from

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Who Are you? The Psychology of the Self (MIT Lecture).

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