The Surprising Low Self Esteem Health Effects & High Self Esteem Benefits

There we go:

The second instalment of my 3-part series on self-esteem. I posted the first instalment about giving a definition of self-esteem and the science as to whether you can change your self-esteem levels a few weeks ago.

Right now, you're reading the follow up on the psychological attributes of self-esteem and benefits of high self-esteem.

Curious?

Want to know how hard the science on this topic actually is? 

Keep reading!

Before moving into the topic of this week, however, I will briefly recap the argument I made in my first blog post:

 

Recap Of Previous Blog Post On Self-Esteem

"Self-esteem" has different meanings to different people. Not even scientists such as psychologists can agree on a common definition.

Therefore, I defined self-esteem in my first blog post about the topic:

"Self-esteem is how you judge your own self-worth."

That sounds reasonably simple, but, appearances can be misguided! The science on this topic is pretty complex and many different perspectives exist. The concept of self-esteem has been studied for centuries, and decades by modern science.

Nevertheless, everyone intuitively understands that living with low self-esteem can be a problem in life. And yet, how to improve your levels is less clear of a topic

(Improvement of self-esteem is covered in the third and last installment of this series!)

Let's break down my definition a bit more though:

I define self-esteem as to how you value yourself in comparison to others.

With high self-esteem, you're thus judging yourself to be of "higher value". 

Now, I'm not talking about how some people are superior to others, not at all. I'm just saying that people see themselves as equal, superior, or inferior to others.

People with low-self esteem seem to be judging themselves to deserve less in similar situations. With high self-esteem, greater deservedness usually plays a role.

That process is mostly subconsious.

Now, I'm not saying that self-esteem is purely subjective. Instead, self-esteem is built in an interaction with the world and other human beings.

And based upon these interactions, we judge ourselves. 

There should be a balance though. If I falsely believe that I'm superior to other human beings, I might have "high" self-esteem but it's a very destructive belief that won't produce long-term good outcomes.

Why?

Simple: many humans generally figure out you're not so great over time!

I might think that I deserve the best treatment in a restaurant and that I'm a great salesman, but, keeping such beliefs in conflict with reality will backfire sooner rather than later.

So, even though self-esteem is based upon self-judgment, it's self-judgement that (hopefully) interacts with reality.

Also, according to the latest science, different types of self-esteem exist. I quote from my first blog post:

  • "Self-liking" and "self-competence" self-esteem.

    Self-liking signifies how much you like yourself. Self-competence, however, denotes how competent you see yourself in certain activities.

    Self-liking and self-competence are not the same. I can like myself really well, for instance, but I can also assess that I'm really incompetent in certain activities, such as repairing a car.

    My inability to repair a car does not entail that I don't like myself, however - that difference is simple.
  • "Defensive" versus "secure" self-esteem.

    In the former situation, you've got high self-esteem but you're actively defending that self-esteem towards others when it's challenged. The "secure" self-esteem entails that you worry less about what others think of you, even when challenged.

    The defensive variation is one of the reasons why self-esteem has received a bad rap in the last few decades.

    To me, defensive "self-esteem" is not true self-esteem because there's still a deep underlying insecurity expressed within this variation.With defensive self-esteem, you'll also have a higher desire to be famous, and less forgiving towards others, and more prone to take vengeance. 

    If you're less secure in your self-esteem, you're also more prone to be socially anxious, self-conscious, aggressive, and to avoid social situations.The defensive variation of self-esteem basically entails overcompensation for your own instability and insecurity.
  • "Implicit" or "explicit" self-esteem.

    The first entails that you have high(er) self-esteem on a subconscious level, while the second instance means that you're mostly expressing the behavior externally without necessarily having (or believing you have) high self-esteem on a deeper level.

    If you score high on explicit self-esteem and low on its implicit variation, you might fill out a questionnaire as if being a very high self-esteem person, but when challenged by a colleague, your first impulse will be behavior that's associated with low(er) self-esteem.

    Explicit self-esteem is thus more imitative and forged. Scoring high on explicit and low on implicit self-esteem is also related to "defensive" self-esteem again - which was still insecure.

 

Now you understand why I said the topic is quite complex!

In the best of all worlds, you'd score high on explicit and implicit self-esteem, high on secure and high on self-liking!

Now, the question of whether you can change your self-esteem. The good news? You can!

However, natural developments play a role in that process as well. As you age, self-esteem generally rises. Once you achieve old age, levels go lower again.

What kind of specific actions increase or decrease your levels are described in my first blog post.

For now, in this blog post, let's consider attributes of high and low self-esteem. I'll start with low. 

Why this specific topic? You'll learn that self-esteem can matter for your health, even though it's not commonly appreciated within the health community.

Let's go:

 

Low Self-Esteem: Six Psychological Attributes

So, the million-dollar question in your mind: "should having low self-esteem should keep me awake at night?"

Answer:

That depends...

While I'm not trying to cause panic or be an asshole, having self-esteem can be terrible. The upside is that by accepting that fact you may be able to change it.

And let me re-frame the problem even more:

What if I told you that low self-esteem is central to the human condition? In other words, we all have a voice inside our heads that's judgmental towards us in a bad way.

I do too...

In fact, I know negative self-talk very well. For example, my mind is sometimes telling me that:

  • "Your blog is never going to take off, no matter how many posts you publish."
  • "Your blog posts are too short to rank well on Google (and bring in new readers)." Alternatively, the voice may say "your blog posts are too long to rank on Google--no-one is going to read them (fully)."
  • "You'll never make money with your blog and it's time to start thinking of getting a job at a supermarket" (yes, really!)

And so forth.

Fortunately, that voice is absent most of the times.

Why?

The reason is in part because I had a good upbringing and never had any (big) issues in my early youth.

So thanks, mom and dad!

I've also achieved some good successes through my years and learned who I am, which have benefited my self-esteem.

Additionally, starting a successful blog is harder than many people think - 99,5% of blogs out there fail big time. If you're functioning on the edge of your capacities, you're always going to have doubts (hopefully!).

Remember: even Elon Musk has daily doubts. 

Some people, however, had negative experiences in early childhood or later in life that has sent their inner voice berserk.

Let's explore that inner voice in more detail...

Assume, for instance, that you're currently 100 pounds overweight and deeply troubled by that fact.

In that case, your inner voice may be continually critical of yourself:

  • You're having a painful moment when you're walking up the stairs, not only because you're out of breath, but also due to judging yourself negatively for being out of shape.
  • Looking at the reflection of yourself in a window, you worry whether you're ever going to lose weight and you're even starting to wonder whether you even deserve to go through life that way.
  • At nighttime, you may be freaking out that you haven't exercised yet again today, and decide to go for a run tomorrow morning.
  • Come morning time, you'll tell yourself you'll watch your diet today instead of running, and yet still beat yourself up for failure once again.

 

So, are you fully responsible for that self-talk?

Again, the answer depends...

What if your parents have already called you fat from a young age, and other children in kindergarten and high-school peers did the same? Maybe a teacher made off-putting remarks as well.

Those moments affect you...

In that case, your inner voice may continually claim that you're not enough, fat, deprived, should do better and work harder. Your inner voice may even conclude your life is a tragedy, even though you're married and making a six-figure income.

Please observe that the self-talk displayed above has become completely irrational and out of touch with reality. That self-talk will negatively affect your behavior by continually draining the limited amount of energy that you have.

Of course, you don't necessarily need to be overweight - or have any other features that many people consider "unwanted" - to engage in negative self-talk.

Really?

Yes.

Example:

Even while being the number one bodybuilder in the worldArnold Schwarzenegger still had a very negative self-image.

In fact, Schwarzenegger literally said that he'd throw up when looking in the mirror. Overall, he'd only make negative observations about himself, see errors, and never observe how good he was actually doing.

That low self-esteem is very out of place.

Why?

Well, most young men would give up a kidney (and perhaps two) to look like Schwarzenegger. 

The lesson is that you can do really well in life and never develop high self-esteem. That's a bummer, as self-esteem has many advantages.

Why care?

Again, (low) self-esteem is intrinsically intertwined with how you judge yourself and how you function in the world.

Your health is affected by self-esteem.

Let's say I have acne scars on my face (I do, actually), and I would continually judge myself as having an ugly face (I don't, actually).

In that case, my judging through negative self-talk makes me go through life as a different person.

There's a big difference between judging myself as having "gruesome scars" and "an ugly face" as opposed to having acne scars from my youth. Observe that first instance is more problematic while the second one is more neutral.

Low self-esteem expresses itself in many ways.

Below I've categorized six different psychological attributes that adequately reflect low self-esteem thinking and behavior.

(Advanced explanation: unfortunately, there's very little medical research investigating the cause and effect relationships between self-esteem and the psychological phenomena described below. Nevertheless, I've tried to reconstruct the relationship between self-esteem and cognitive distortions as well as possible. The quality of evidence in psychological sciences - also regarding the subject of self-esteem - is notoriously low.[358-361] Multiple sources for each cognitive distortion have been cited to compensate for the weaker expected effect.)

Let's explore these six psychological attributes, besides negative self-talk of course. 

 

Characteristic 1: Black And White Thinking 

First, with lower self-esteem, you'll engage more frequently in "black and white" thinking.[248-251; 275]

Black and white thinking can also be understood as using lots of "categorical statements". Examples of categorical statements are "people never like me", or "every time I present I'm failing", or "nobody ever asks me on a date".

Categorical statements are often intertwined with negative self-talk.

Ask yourself this question:

Did other people really never like you, did you really fail every time you presented in front of a group and has not a single person ever asked you out on a date?

Of course not.

But that self-talk pattern makes it very difficult to get in the right mindset for whatever you're trying to accomplish:

  • If you're thinking that no-one ever likes you, you'll carry that expectation with you wherever you go.
  • If you're fooling yourself that you've never done well with presentations - ignoring the times you presented well - you're more prone to fail the next time around.
  • If you're telling yourself that no-one asks you on a date, you'll be projecting that attitude into the world wherever you go. That attitude may devastate your chances of getting a date in the first place.

It's hard to seize the day with negative self-talk.

Altering your self-talk takes effort though...

Let's look at another statement:

Categorical statements - exhibited as black and white thinking - does have health consequences.

Black and white thinking increases your chances of getting depressed and is increased in people who've previously experienced abuse. If you think black-and-white you also tend to have lower self-esteem, but it's not known whether it directly causes these self-esteem issues.

Black and white thinking, moreover, is also associated with having more (romantic) relationship issues.

Remember your "better half's" statement: "you're never spending any time with your family"?

That's black and white thinking right there. 

To be 100% honest:

I'm actually very guilty of this type of thinking as well from time to time. I'm actually thinking "this blog is going to succeed whatever it takes" or "if this blog fails my life will have failed."

(Back in 2018 I had my own company and wrote this blog post for that website. This blog was re-published for Alexfergus.com)

In doing so, I'm ignoring all the great things I've already achieved, such as completing three Master's degrees simultaneously (with great grades), creating a lean 220-pound body (even though I've given that sport up), being a good investor, and learning so much over the years.

Fortunately, I'm not dealing with black and white thinking most of the time. Usually, this type of thinking exists when I'm relaxing in my bed in the morning, ready to conquer the day.

The solution to black and white thinking is moving towards more fluid language. I'll tell you all about that option in section five where I consider many strategies to improve self-esteem.

The main problem with black and white thinking is that it's simply not true and completely illogical.

 

Black and white thinking is also exhibited in having many "musts" and "shoulds"

"I must lose 30 pounds of weight", "I should do the dishes tonight", "I must take actions x and y or else..."

In this regard, I stand guilty as charged yet again. I actually engage a lot in "musts" and "shoulds".

The absolute conditions entailed in musts and shoulds are not only illogical and irrational but also devastating for your well-being.

I can attest to that fact as well...

Let's consider the first example I've given: losing 30 pounds.

If you're currently working 70 hours a week trying to feed your children as a single mother while trying to move on from a failed romantic relationship, it might not be best to start a weight loss regimen.

In fact, even trying to lose 30 pounds in that instance will have negative consequences. "Shoulds" and "musts", in that instance, ensure more negative outcomes.

Please remember that you need to consider the viability of different actions depending on the unique circumstances - absolute values and demands of action (can) harm that flexibility. 

"Shoulds" and "musts" often control your actions and actually set you up for more failure down the road. In the obesity example I gave before, the woman would do much better if she tried to lose 30 pounds once her circumstances in life had settled down.

You cannot do achieve all your goals at once.

"Catastrophization", or expecting the worst possible outcome in certain situations, is yet another troublesome self-talk pattern.[287; 288]

Examples?

"If I stay 5 minutes longer with my friends, my wife will think I'm cheating"

"If I don't pay off debt this month I'll never retire"

"If I don't sleep well tonight I'll never do and get a disease"

Sounds familiar?

Catastrophization is almost always a very specific form of black and white thinking.

If you're very prone to imagine the worst possible outcomes, for example, your body deals with pain differently. Catastrophizing also leads to higher frequencies of depressions.

Having (irrationally) gloomy expectations about the future is yet another example:

Someone may congratulate me on having 10,000 visitors to my website a few years back, and I may say "that's nothing, other websites have millions of visitors per month, so I'm still going to fail".

Another example of having irrationally bad future expectations would be foreseeing bad things to happen every time I exit the house, such as getting mugged.

That belief is totally irrational.

But let's move to the next topic:

 

Characteristic 2: Excessive Self-Blame And Not Taking Credits For Good Things

Lower self-esteem, secondly, makes you blame yourself for things you're not personally responsible for--and not taking credit for achievements when you should.[252-257; 377]

Is taking the blame and not taking credit for achievements always wrong?

Of course not.

Taking responsibility can be a very effective communication (and life) strategy, as Jocko Willink has laid out in his excellent book "Extreme Ownership".

So I'll have to be very clear here: I'm not saying that you should avoid taking the blame for things you're personally responsible for - doing so would eventually come back to haunt you and undermine you.

What's I'm saying instead is that you shouldn't take the blame for anything you cannot control in the first place.

Phrased differently, the main question taking responsibility becomes "to whom or what do I attribute failure and success?"

If I'm studying really hard for an exam and still fail, I might attribute my failure to 1) a badly constructed test or 2) to my own poor studying method.

If I did study for the test incorrectly then blaming the test itself would be irrational and self-destructive in the long-term. Sure, my ego would get a quick boost by blaming the test, but in fact, I'd become more helpless over time if I dealt with my exam failures that way.

But:

Let's say you're married and coming home from a long day of work. You've taken a couple of dozen oysters with you but upon entering the door your husband (or wife) blames you for not buying potatoes and beef.

Imagine you're still taking the blame for the accusation even though your partner never mentioned the wish potatoes and beef before. In that case, you'd be blaming yourself for an outcome you couldn't have affected.

Improper blame can actually be extremely toxic for any social relationship you have: you're losing autonomy because you're now responsible for things outside your control.

That blame-taking process can also be utterly destructive for your own self-esteem...

With lower self-esteem, you'll also be more likely to attribute successes that you've created to random luck. Low self-esteem then becomes more difficult to correct because you're less likely to accept positive feedback in the first place.[347] 

Observe how the vicious cycle keeps itself in place...

Please do not that it's not scientifically settled yet how often people attribute successes and failures wrongly to themselves or others - and what its effects are on self-esteem. 

But let's move to the following topic:

 

Characteristic 3: Fear Of Failure & Perfectionism

Thirdly, with low self-esteem, you're more frequently afraid to make mistakes and more likely to be a perfectionist.[258-261; 266]

Both options are problematic - and often interrelated.

Let's first consider fear of failure - or being afraid of making mistakes.

Mistakes are very seldom as personal as people think. In fact, most mistakes can teach you great lessons.

If you're afraid of failure, you're often not (sufficiently) aware that failures are part of the pathway to success. Failing more often moves you forward quicker towards success--only doing nothing makes sure that you fail in both the short-term and long-term.

If you interpret mistakes as a "personal failure" or "moral failure" then your interpretation of mistakes incapacitates your ability to take proper action.

Why?

You're thinking you're not good enough to be up for the task, or you're worried about what other people think of you if you do fail.

Fear of failure makes you unable to act properly in life. With fear of failure, you'll have more (psychological) stress, experience more shame if things do turn south, and have a higher risk of getting burnouts.

Of course, I'm not saying that every type of mistake should be seen as "part of the learning curve": lying, cheating or violence will (almost) always move you backward in life, especially in the long-term, and are never part of a learning curve.

Secondly, there's perfectionism.[262-265]

Perfectionism--far from an individual drive to be the best person possible--more often than not denotes a psychological drive to be admired

Perfectionism is damaging if you're very concerned about the opinions of others and because you're you're afraid to make mistakes. It's precisely through the excessive pursuit of the opinions of others that fear of failure and perfectionism can be tightly interconnected.

Not all perfectionism is damaging though: the effects of perfectionism depend on the purpose of why you're engaging in it.

So what are signs of perfectionism's negative aspects?

This:

Procrastination, fixing on your mistakes as opposed to your successes, not completing projects because you're always assuming they're not good enough (yet), and having extreme (and often impossible) standards.


A brain teaser:
Perfection as a result of perfectionism?

Or perfection due to the absence of perfectionism?
Michelangelo was a hard worker!

 

In fact, the negative aspects of perfectionism are associated with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, heart disease, (chronic) stress, and more.

You'll have to realize that no one can reach true perfection - perfection sets unattainable goals. 

In a sense, perfectionism is a very illogical thinking pattern because it assures you always end up with lower quality rather than higher-quality outcomes.

Why?

The suffering created by perfectionism drains your energy levels and thereby inhibits your ability to act effectively.

Perfectionism can be a force for good if the activity you're engaged in gives you pleasure and you don't suffer because of the high standards you set.

As a (semi-)joke, I've been guilty of perfectionism as well. In college, I often used to tell people that I'm not a perfectionist "because I'm already happy with a 9 out of 10 grade". 

Perhaps that statement is the ultimate form of cognitive distortion, not only because it's the summum of perfectionist thinking, but also because I actively try to cover the perfectionism up.

Keeping the score: I thus end up with two characteristics of low self-esteem: black and white thinking and perfectionism.

Stay tuned...

 

Characteristic 4: Negative Self Labels

Fourthly, low(er) self-esteem makes you label yourself negatively.[267-273]

The way you label yourself has enormous consequences.

Observe,  for example, the following difference:

On the one hand, I could label myself as "a blogger who's eventually becoming very successful". On the other hand, I could see myself as "a blogger who will eventually be caught as a fraud".

Those two mutually exclusive labels will have very different effects on my behavior. 

Making fun of yourself (in a way that's not self-deprecating) is one reflection of having lower self-esteem as well.

Labels also have consequences for your health.

For example, how you label yourself can influence how psychological issues develop over time. Just labelling yourself as someone with "mental health problems" can already cause social (and personal) stigma.

The course of chronic illnesses is also affected by the labels you put on yourself.

More examples?

Sure...

People who label themselves as having "dyslexia" or "having learning problems" (generally) have lower self-esteem than those who do not give themselves that label.

Labels are a double-edged sword.

Why?

If I label myself as "being obese", for example, I might be acknowledging that I've got a problem. But labelling myself as "obese" also cements my identity as being an obese person which is not necessarily what I want to do.

Another example:

Labeling myself as a "drug addict" can be very dangerous as I might start living up to that term in the long-term. 

Why?

Negative labels create a "confirmation bias", where people start to treat themselves and others according to their expectations of that label.

Don't believe me on the labels?

Let me give yet another example:

Teacher's expectations regarding the intelligence of their children can have a dramatic effect on where these children end up in school. Lower intelligence expectations lead to lower performance, and higher intelligence expectation lead to higher performance of children.

That's bad news...

If you often label yourself as a bad presenter, moreover, or as non-confident, as shy, anxious, depressed, unhappy, you may be damaging yourself unnecessarily.

Of course, if you're really anxious or depressed, you should not avoid labeling yourself like that either. You don't want to deny having problems.

Solution?

My recommendation is to be aware of the label's effects instead.

It's also essential to choose labels that do not incapacitate you. Instead of yourself as a "bad presenter", it's better to label yourself as someone who "has 4 unsuccessful presentations, and 3 successful ones".

The latter label is even more in touch with reality and can set you up for more future success.

Labels are often black or white.

You either have self-confidence or you don't, and if you don't display great confidence then you're "low-confidence".

That thinking is illogical and damaging...

That black and white label does no justice for your ability to slowly increase your confidence levels over time - even if you currently have lower confidence.

If you did average in the confidence department instead, you're also not taking credit for that performance by unnecessarily considering yourself being "low" in the confidence department. 

Disqualifying positive events in your life can thus be problematic.[275-280]

With lower self-esteem, you'll even automatically interpreting feedback about yourself as more negative. Even if others don't necessarily label you negatively, you will do so yourself.

I hope you're seeing a pattern here: many types of low self-esteem thinking are actually irrational and untrue thinking patterns.

Next:

 

Characteristic 5: Taking Events Too Personally 

Fifthly, with lower(er) self-esteem you'll take your own thoughts and feelings more personally.[281-286]

Ever heard of "emotional reasoning"?

In emotional reasoning, you're inferring consequences directly from an emotional state.

Let's say I'm having terrible social anxiety. In that case, I will infer from the presence of my anxiety that I must be in acute danger. I may also assume that people are going to laugh at my appearance when they see me, or that I'm going to be physically attacked.

Emotional reasoning is totally illogical...

Why?

There's an invalid logical inference from feeling anxiety to concluding that I must be in danger.

More examples?

Just have a look at how dangerous emotional reasoning can be:

"people are laughing, and therefore they must be making fun of me"

 "I'm depressed, I must thus have done something (morally) wrong."

"I feel lonely, and therefore other people would not like to talk to me"

"I feel fat, and therefore I am overweight"

Please remember that I'm not mounting a crusade against emotions here - I'm only warning of the dangers of drawing incorrect logical conclusions on the basis of emotions.

Emotions are great.

Making wrong conclusions on the basis of emotions is not so great...

Let's say you've got an anxiety disorder - which makes you more prone to engage in emotional reasoning in the first place. In that case, learning to engage less in emotional reasoning decreases your anxiety or fear you're having.

Big win...

Fortunately, having high(er) self-esteem may protect against some of the forms of emotional reasoning.

Why?

You're less likely to be offended because of comments that other make, for example. Again, people with higher self-esteem realize they are not necessarily their emotions.

In fact, a single feeling proves nothing.

Everyone feels down sometimes, but feeling down does not make you a bad person.

Other examples?

The feeling that you're fat does not mean much in face of the observation that you've got a 12% bodyfat percentage and that all your friends tell you that you're lean.

The goal for people who engage in lots of emotional reasoning is not just to become logically convince themselves that their conclusions don't make sense--they also need to train themselves so that feelings (or emotions) eventually re-align with reality.

Yes, that's easier said than done: I'll handle that topic in the next installment

 

Characteristic 6: Excessive Approval Seeking

Sixthly, you've got an inability of handling criticism and you'll seek more approval of others.[289-294; 296]

With lower self-esteem, you'll be more affected by criticism even if that criticism is incorrect. 

Interestingly enough, people with lower self-esteem (and anxiety) are more prone to consider that self-esteem dependent on the approval of others. With lower self-esteem, you're also more prone to discard compliments given to you.

With lower self-esteem, you're literally feeling more social pain when you're excluded from a game (or social situations and group).

People with low self-esteem, therefore, feel more invalidated when they're rejected by others - rejection is more personal.

Once you've got low self-esteem, you're also more prone to have psychological and social problems, which further cements that negative self-image. Having more conflicts additionally cause your self-esteem to develop more slowly from adolescence to adulthood.

So what's the point of laying all this information out?

Well, if you identify yourself in some of these six psychological attributes I've got a message for you: everyone (hopefully) does to some extent.

If you don't express any of these six psychological attributes to any extent then you're simply not human.

Remember that I also match with two of these attributes listed above, such as black and white thinking and perfectionism...

So what's the catch?

These psychological attributes only become damaging once they are excessive.

Excessively taking irrational feelings seriously, excessively giving yourself negative labels, or excessively blaming yourself for events outside your control is damaging. 

Low self-esteem becomes problematic when your life and health suffers under it. If you're frequently engaging in five out of six criteria, you may also have a problem...

(Again, I'm not fear mongering: I'll tell you how to solve these issues later.)

Let's first consider the causes of low self-esteem - many reasons exist, actually:[378-391]

  • Bullying as a kid (or adult)
  • Neglect during childhood 
  • Doing badly in school or academics
  • Drug use
  • Trauma or abuse, either as a child or adult
  • Upbringing - certain societies teach women that they're worth less than men
  • Systematic disapproval of your actions.

Of course, there can be many more reasons than the ones listed above. Surprisingly, social media use, such as Instagram and Facebook is mixed in terms of outcomes and depends on your popularity there.

(Advanced explanation: it's self-evident that no randomized controlled trials exist investigating the effects of trauma or bullying. Fortunately, some longitudinal cohort studies could be included in the subjects of bullying, sexual assault, drinking, and drug use (including marijuana), so cause and effect relationships can be posited in some instances.)

So that's it?

"Avoid low self-esteem at all cost?"

Hopefully, yes. But as often, it's not that simple:

Very high self-esteem - or excessive self-esteem - can be just as dangerous as its diminished variation. Yes, contrary to the perception that most people have, you can have too much self-esteem.

I'll treat excessive self-esteem in the next blog post

Let's first consider the (many) advantages higher self-esteem can have. 

 

Science-Backed Benefits Of High Self-Esteem  

Finally, the section you've been waiting for: 

Let's consider the benefits of (high) self-esteem...

  • Higher self-esteem protects you against depression and improves your well-being.[3; 4; 7; 13-15; 20-23; 57]

    Being in a depression also negatively affects your self-esteem all by itself. And if you're undergoing therapy for depression, increasing your self-esteem can decrease the depression's intensity. 

    Of course, self-esteem is not the only characteristic determining whether you'll become depressed--self-esteem only contributes partially to depression.

    In addition to depression, your overall anxiety levels are associated with lower self-esteem.

    Self-esteem affects mental health and well-being in many ways: the higher your self-esteem, for example, the lower the chances you're intentionally hurting yourself - called "non-suicidal self-injury".

    Moreover, with higher self-esteem you'll achieve greater levels of life satisfaction and well-being. 

    Who you are living with matters for well-being: romantic partners are prone to influence the amount of positive and negative emotions you're experiencing, your propensity for depression, and of development of your self-esteem.

    How you're feeling in your home is of tremendous import there, not only for adults but also for children.

    Overall, the scientific proof for the well-being enhancing effects of self-esteem are very solid.

  • Some types of higher self-esteem lower your chances of engaging in self-destructive behaviors.[6; 38-52; 148; 149; 240; 362-364] 

    Having lower self-esteem predicts higher chances of engaging in criminal behavior in your later life - as well as poorer health. Lower self-esteem during childhood even tends to lead to more anti-social behavior when you grow up.

    Drug use, theft, hostility, violence, suicide attempts, and prostitution are also associated with low self-esteem. In teenagers, early pregnancies and high-school dropouts can be effects of low self-esteem.

    You might be thinking: "what do violence and theft have to do with my health? I'm reading a health blog?"

    Yes, you are.

    But ending up in prison is not that great for your health. Prisons may actually set you up for worse health for life--avoid at all cost. 

    Engaging in criminal behavior additionally leads to self-stigmatization (through negative labels), further undermining your self-esteem and health.

    Although there's some conflict of evidence, even drug use and other addictions are associated with having lower self-esteem. With lower self-esteem as a kid, you're more prone to smoke and use drugs in high school, for example.

    Why?

    Well, people with lower self-esteem are generally anxious and drug use reduces that anxiety. Shame may be yet another state of mind that's inhibited by drug use--drugs can thus function as "self-medication"

    Lower self-esteem is even associated with thinking more positively about smoking, especially in males.

    Nevertheless, lower self-esteem also has effects on more mundane vices such as making you more prone to watch television and to be obese. Of course, you always have to question what comes first: the chicken or the egg - the low self-esteem or the vices.

    I'm not done yet though: some types of higher self-esteem are also associated with more destructive behaviors - I'm specifically talking about the defensive type of "high" self-esteem here.

    Defensive here entails that you're likely to protect your ego if that's under threat. If you're of the self-defensive higher self-esteem type you're more prone to be a bully, for example.

    High self-esteem also leads to other unwanted behaviors, for example, such as sexual activity at a young age.

    All things considered, however, promoting self-esteem nonetheless helps you avoid many toxic habits that you'd rather be without.

  • Higher self-esteem may help you prevent illness and cope better with disease.[70; 73-80; 129; 137]

     
    Surprise?

    If you've got a chronic illness, better self-esteem makes you experience more positive emotions and fewer negative ones. You'll also have less severe stress and even decreases the severity of the disease's symptoms.

    There are many examples of that dynamic:

    If you've got arthritis - a joint disease - higher self-esteem levels decrease the joint pain and give you greater well-being.

    In diabetes - where your cells don't properly take up (or better: use) sugars or carbohydrates - self-esteem is associated with better long-term blood glucose control.

    In multiple sclerosis - a disease in which your body attacks its own nervous system - higher self-esteem levels make you more outgoing and therefore better able to deal with the disease. 

    In cancer, self-esteem helps your social quality of life.

    If you've got a disease with excessive bleeding and bruising, low(er) self-esteem lowers your lower quality of life.

    And so forth...

    Interestingly enough, in some diseases, there's a negative relationship between self-esteem and resilience, such as heart disease. Self-esteem does, however, positively affect the progression of that heart disease.

    Let's look at another important benefit:

  • More self-esteem equals higher-quality social relationships.[54; 55; 58-69; 82-93; 245; 246; 376]

    I've talked a lot about the essential role of social relationships for improving health in the past.

    For example, a better social life decreases your chances of dying from all types of diseases and helps create a buffer against setbacks in life. With better social relationships you'll also tend to become much older.

    The lower your self-esteem, however, the more social difficulties you'll have.

    Why?

    You'll be more inhibited, have problems asserting yourself, and you'll be more prone to let others have their way at your cost. Instead of being proactive, you may also become cold or angry if you've got problems.

    You're even more prone to experience distress when having social issues. 

    The antidote against that distress is having both a good quantity and quality of social interactions. A greater quantity of social interactions stimulates the reward circuits in your brain and increases the amount of meaning you attribute to life.

    Interestingly enough, having high-quality social interactions cannot always outweigh having (a few) very negative experiences - demonstrating some proof for the advice of cutting out toxic people from your life.

    In other words, having great social interactions while having intense conflicts here and there is still sub-optimal.

    Social conflict, poor social support, disruptive social exchanges or disruptions in your social network in general, and unwanted social interactions all put emphasis on that negative dimension of your social life.

    Let's explore the effects of self-esteem on your social life:

    If you're supported well by your mother as a child, you're more prone to have higher self-esteem later on in life. Maternal support is also associated with lower risks for depression and may even (partially) compensate for a good paternal relationship.

    Of course, the final outcome of your self-esteem depends on many circumstances...

    The higher your self-esteem, moreover, the lower your anxiety levels tend to be. As stated before, higher anxiety levels are associated with a lower quality of life. If you've got anxiety then you're also more prone to avoid social interactions in the first place.

    Anxiety, in turn, can create a (yet another) vicious cycle between fewer social interactions, more anxiety, and fewer social interactions again. High self-esteem, on the contrary, leads to an upward virtuous cycle.

    There's more:

    Low self-esteem even makes you relate to and connect with people who treat your poorly - further reinforcing your self-image. Why? You're very prone to associate with people who personally like you, for example, and especially people who are more like yourself.

    Disease itself can also place a big burden on your social life. That burden does not affect you, but also those around you.

    How?

    Even caregivers of people with diseases are negatively affected by increases in distress. Of course, I'm not claiming that you should not help others in need--you just need to be aware of how such circumstances affect you and compensate.

    Does high self-esteem only have benefits then? 

    No.

    With higher self-esteem, you're more prone to leave social relationships and switch to new ones. That strategy ensures that you'll less likely build long-term social relationships over your lifetime.

    Social connections can also build self-esteem:

    Being part of groups already increases your self-esteem - strangely enough, even your number of Facebook friends contributes in that regard...

    All things considered nevertheless, the social benefits of high self-esteem do outweigh those of its lower variation.

  • Higher self-esteem helps you deal with stress and makes you take more responsibility.[56; 58-60; 103-108; 111; 307; 355; 356] 

    How?

    Let's first consider stress. 

    The creation of the stress hormone "cortisol" is altered when you have lower self-esteem due to childhood adversity. 

    Children who've experienced childhood adversity are less able to create cortisol during the daytime. In turn, these children have less wakefulness during the morning time.

    Adulthood shows a contrary case: people with lower self-esteem have higher cortisol levels while people with higher self-esteem tend to have lower cortisol levels. Higher self-esteem is also associated with lower overall stress levels.

    The discrepancy between children and adults can be explained through cortisol's different roles: cortisol wakes you up but is also created when you have a stress reaction.

    With lower self-esteem, additionally, you'll also have more trouble regulating your emotions and exerting control over yourself. Low self-esteem thus causes you to both experience more stress and to handle that stress more poorly.

    Higher self-esteem also protects against age-related cognitive declines - declines that partially occur due to hormonal changes.

    Self-esteem even affects how you experience stress in social situations:

    Just being socially evaluated can already increase the levels of the "cortisol" stress hormone in your body. Why? Being evaluated acts as a threat to your self-image and leads to potential shame.

    Fascinating fact:

    When high self-esteem people are threatened in terms of their ego, they are rated as less likable than when the same thing occurs to low self-esteem people. 

    Again, it's primarily the "defensive" high self-esteem type that's threatened in their ego - leading to worse behavior.

    High self-esteem people do become more independent after threats, which is the opposite of people who have low self-esteem - the latter become more socially interdependent.

    There's a strong link between independence and self-esteem:

    The higher your self-esteem, moreover, the more you'll have what is called an "internal locus of control". 

    With an internal locus of control, you'll more likely assume that the outcomes in life depend on your actions instead of circumstances.

    You guessed it...

    There's a clear winner once again.

    Next:

  • Higher self-esteem promotes resilience against setbacks.[392-395]

    Yes, this one is simple:

    With higher self-esteem you'll simply have greater persistence levels - setbacks don't affect you as negatively as they otherwise would.

    With higher self-esteem, you'll simply persist longer in the face of failure...

    Higher self-esteem may also protect against loneliness and the negative effects of poverty - another win for some people...

  • Lower self-esteem increases the chances that you're making poorer food choices.[110; 117-128]

    Yes, really.

    There's even an association between lower self-esteem and eating disorders. Remember I've talked about two different dimensions of self-esteem earlier, one of which was "self-liking"? 

    Eating disorders are specifically associated with lower self-liking.

    Taking a higher-level view--even though there's some conflicting evidence---self-esteem is also more related to the overall food choices you make.

    Consequence?

    Self-esteem can (partially) predict how much weight you'll gain over a period of many years. Of course, weight gain depends on many variables...

    But let's end on a positive note: 

    Improving your diet will also increase self-esteem - there are thus opportunities to turn your situation around (if necessary). 

    Just weight loss alone is not enough for improved self-esteem though--only good dietary behavior improves self-esteem.

    Principle: no crash dieting allowed, just self-love expressed through better food choices.

  • Higher self-esteem reduces your chances of getting psychiatric disorders.[95; 97-99; 101; 417]

    Examples of psychiatric disorders are being compulsive with certain behaviors, having delusions, losing contact with reality (psychosis), or heavy depressions.

    People with psychiatric disorders also tend to have lower self-esteem. 

    But does improving self-esteem also protect you against psychiatric disorders? 

    Such a causal relationship does indeed exist: higher self-esteem literally protects you against these disorders.

    Another vicious cycle can be found here:

    Having mental problems lowers self-esteem, which in turn increases your chances of getting psychiatric problems. Psychiatric problems, in turn, increase your chances of having lower self... 

    You get the point!

    On a more positive note:

  • Self-esteem increases your ability for self-control.[131-135]

    Example?

    With higher self-esteem, you'll lose less self-control and are more comfortable after a rejection.

    (I presuppose that rejection-proof effect is only applicable if you score higher in stable self-esteem instead of its defensive variation.)

    Self-esteem is also associated with better emotional control in distress and may even improve how well you do in the procrastination department.

    What's extremely fascinating is that you can end up with lower self-control in some cases, even if you have high(er) self-esteem. That loss of self-control specifically happens when self-esteem itself is threatened.

    Interestingly enough, high and low self-esteem people deal with self-control differently. If you've got low self-esteem, you're more prone to engage in avoidance behavior, while with high(er) self-esteem are more assertive - sometimes in a bad way.

    Remember that confident uncle who became aggressive when somebody told him he should not make lots of noise late at night? He may have scored high in one specific type of self-esteem - you know which type by now.

    I'll end with an interesting societal fact:

  • Self-esteem may even keep "social structures" in place.[139-143; 339]

    If your dad had higher self-esteem, you're more prone to have higher self-esteem (and a college education) as well.

    In an experiment where people of lower social classes (I hate that word) were allocated a lower sum of money during a game - a sum they could not influence - they reported experiencing more negative emotions than people with higher self-esteem.

    All by itself, self-esteem may also improve your academic achievement, further reinforcing the dynamic that people who are better off have higher self-esteem in general.

 

That's it.

The full list of self-esteem benefits...

Overall, not only does low self-esteem cause issues--diseases also cause problems for your self-esteem.[96; 100; 112; 138; 150; 302; 345]

Let's consider children, teenagers, and adolescents, for example. Adolescents:

  • who've experienced brain trauma have decreased self-esteem compared to their peers. 
  • have lower self-esteem when they have a condition where the body creates excessive stress hormones - called "Cushing's syndrome". 
  • if you have acne you will, surprisingly, not end up with lower self-esteem, although acne does lower their quality of life if you're a teenager.

Obesity, arthritis, or diabetes as a kid??

Lower self-esteem again...

Interestingly enough, in some instances of chronic disease children have higher rather than lower self-esteem. The reason for that higher self-esteem might be that these children have successfully dealt with lots of hardship.

Competence breeds confidence, even though that statement sounds rough.

Even in adults, most (but not all) diseases tend to lower your self-esteem, creating a potentially vicious cycle between self-esteem and disease.

With lower self-esteem you are more likely to be hopeless, and it may be the hopelessness that better explains worse disease outcomes in longer-term health developments than self-esteem.

The effects of self-esteem upon disease may thus partially be derived from the mindset you're upholding.

So, can you conclude that self-esteem is the greatest invention since sliced bread?

Not at all.

Sliced bread - or grains in general - made our ancestors lives much shorter and decreased their health.

Self-esteem (can) come with its own problems, just like sliced bread.

Overall though, you will have tremendous advantages in the health department with higher self-esteem, especially in social situations, resilience, and combating stress.

I'll nevertheless tell you all you need to know about the problems of self-esteem in the next installment.

In the following installment, you'll also learn about several strategies to build genuine self-esteem. 

You'll change from a geek into a total Arnold Schwarzenegger... oh no, Schwarzenegger had low self-esteem in some ways.

(I know I'm not taking women into account with that statement. Women, pick your favorite high self-esteem hero - whether that's Catwoman, Dagny Taggart, or Daenerys Targaryen.)

Hubris, here we come...

 

Finishing Thoughts: Understanding the Problem Is The First Step To Improvement

Hopefully, you get it now!

Self-esteem does influence your health - which is why I wrote this blog post in the first place!

 just like social relationships and happiness weren't given much attention in the health space, the same is true for self-esteem.

That's a shame, because you can probably tell that I've integrated a lot of science on this subject to support my argument.

Yes, you could be sleeping perfectly, or exercising a lot, but if you have self-esteem issues they can be a problem that's holding you back in the health department.

And stay tuned..

Soon I'll publish the third and last installment on this topic about improving your self-esteem & the topic of self-compassion!

 

 

This is a post by Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MS - with distinction), and Clinical Health Science (MS), and is currently a health consultant at Alexfergus.com. 

 

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