April 28, 2008 -- A new study suggests that high self-esteem isn't necessarily healthy self-esteem because there are different types of high 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," says researcher Michael Kernis, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, in a news release. "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."
Researchers say it was once thought that more self-esteem was necessarily better self-esteem. But in recent years, self-esteem has come under closer examination after discovering links to aggressive behavior.
For example, Kernis says high self-esteem can become harmful when it is accompanied by verbal defensiveness, such as lashing out at others when a person's beliefs, statements, or values are threatened.
Self-Esteem Can Be Fragile
To help break down when high self-esteem turns from good to bad, researchers looked at whether people with "fragile" high self-esteem were more verbally defensive than those with more "secure" high self-esteem in a three-part study involving 100 undergraduates.
First, the students filled out questionnaires to determine their self-esteem levels. Then researchers assessed the stability of the students' self-esteem by evaluating it in different contexts.
Finally, the students participated in a "life experiences interview" in which they were asked questions about their past. The questions ranged from relatively neutral such as "How accepted did you feel growing up?" to more stressful questions, such as, "Tell me about a time when you have secretly acted in a self-destructive way."
The results, published in the Journal of Personality, show that people with secure high self-esteem appeared to accept themselves "warts and all" and were less likely to be verbally defensive by blaming others or providing excuses when discussing past transgressions or threatening experiences.
In contrast, those with low self-esteem or fragile high self-esteem were more verbally defensive.
"These findings support the view that heightened defensiveness reflects insecurity, fragility and less-than-optimal functioning rather than a healthy psychological outlook," says Kernis. "We aren't suggesting there's something wrong with people when they want to feel good about themselves. What we are saying is that when feeling good about themselves becomes a prime directive, for these people excessive defensiveness and self-promotion are likely to follow, the self-esteem is likely to be fragile rather than secure and any psychological benefits will be very limited."