I discovered an interesting paper by Ryan and Brown (1), which got me thinking. This paper proposes a view of self-esteem that I hadn’t come across before.
First, they explain their view of the self. Most researchers use the ‘self-as-object’ definition – we have a self-concept, which can be complex, simple, positive or negative based on our own appraisal and evaluation of it. These evaluative ‘schema’ make up self-esteem.
A second perspective is the ‘self-as-process’ idea, in which the self is not the object of evaluation, but is the process of assimilating and integrating experience. From this perspective, it is not important whether self-esteem is low or high; what is important is what is going on when these evaluations are made.
Staying with the self-determination theory (SDT) tradition, they argue from the self-as-process position that concern with the worth of the self is a byproduct of psychological need deprivation. In other words, most people don’t sit around thinking “How worthy am I?”; yet many other people obsess over this, and compare themselves continuously. The fact that they do this, Ryan and Brown propose, means there is a psychological need unfulfilled (the three psychological needs being relatedness to others, autonomy, and competence).
For example, an individual lacking in relatedness with others may try to conform to the standards of other people in order to gain their acceptance. They might get it, but the quest for self-esteem hinders their authenticity and personal growth. Likewise, a person may seek self-esteem in achievement, if they are insecure about their competence.
So if one has self-esteem, it is because their basic psychological needs are fulfilled. Therefore self-esteem can be beneficial to an individual – but only if they don’t need it! Seeking self-esteem it for its own sake may lead to conflicts in the basic needs, and therefore only temporary satisfaction.
Ryan and Brown suggest, based on this, that a life lived without concern for self-esteem might be optimal. When something bad happens, we are disappointed, but we do not integrate this into our self-concept and disparage ourselves (“I’m a loser!”). Likewise, when things go well, we are pleased, but again the self is not conceptualised as an object to be praised (“I’m awesome!”).
This phenomenon of not integrating positive or negative events with the self may be related to another interesting construct – locus of evaluation. This is the degree that an individual has integrated a set of standards or values by which to judge their actions, versus the extent that they rely on an external frame of reference. For example, if I had an internal locus of evaluation for blog writing, it would not matter how much traffic or tweets I got from this post – I do not judge my performance on that, so it would not affect me. Conversely, if I had an external locus of evaluation, I would be highly affected by the traffic I got, for I would need that external reference to know how well I did.
An external locus of evaluation is correlated with low self-esteem (2), just as the theories of SDT and self-esteem would predict: the need for another person to set the standard for our self-evaluations is a hallmark of the introjected style of motivation – this indicates the deprivation of a psychological need, and hence low self-esteem.
You can envision a dark side to an internal locus of evaluation too; if your own judgement is just plain wrong, for instance. But, in any case, this just seems to deflect the issue; if an internal locus of evaluation is a buffer protecting self-esteem, it would preserve both the positive and negative forms of self-esteem alike. The problem seems to be with the concept of the self itself.
To take this further, Ryan and Brown bring in ideas from Buddhist philosophy, which go something like this: when we form a self-concept (self-as-object) we often forget that this ‘me’ is merely a creation of thought, and is only one of an infinite number of possible ways that we can construe the self.
We know there is some truth to this idea from CBT and Seligman’s explanatory style of optimism – our self-concept, our self-esteem, the emotions we experience – even mental disorder in some cases – can be traced back to particular thoughts, beliefs and judgements we hold of ourselves.
Here’s the point: if the self can be constructed in any number of ways – which appears to be the case – is this really the self that we want ourselves and others to esteem? Perhaps the fickleness of the self-as-object construction is the reason that self-esteem is not a reliable route to well-being or growth.
But if not these constructions, then what? Is there a deeper ‘self’, beneath these constructions? Mindfulness is proposed as an answer – as long as we hold to a construction of the self-as-object to esteem, there will always be situations where we do not live up to the values on which the self is based. The idea is to disidentify with the self-as-object, and simply to have awareness of the processes that the self is made up of, without ever saying “That is me.”
And coming full circle, this is in accordance with the idea of healthy self-regulation – someone who has their basic psychological needs met, does not strive for self-esteem.
(1) Ryan, R., & Brown, K. (2003). Why We Don’t Need Self-Esteem: On Fundamental Needs, Contingent Love, and Mindfulness: Comment. Psychological Inquiry, 14(1), 71-76
(2) Bucus, D. (2008). Defining the self: Locus of evaluation, self-esteem, and personality. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A, 69, 122.