Self-Esteem Stability Definition
Some people possess immediate feelings of self-worth that fluctuate considerably from day to day or even within a given day. These people are said to have unstable self-esteem. Other people possess immediate feelings of self-worth that rarely, if ever, change. These people are said to have stable self-esteem. Consider Ashley who, when asked to consider the question “How worthy a person do you feel at this moment?” each morning and evening for 5 days, gives answers that vary considerably from “I feel very worthy” to “I feel useless.” Ashley possesses unstable self-esteem. In contrast, Heather’s responses to that same question remain essentially the same over the same period (“I feel very worthy”), as do Mark’s responses (“I feel pretty useless”). Both Heather and Mark possess stable self-esteem. Importantly, considerable research indicates that the degree to which one’s self-esteem is stable or unstable has important implications for one’s psychological health and well-being.
Unstable self-esteem reflects fragile and vulnerable feelings of self-worth that are affected by positive and negative experiences that either are internally generated (i.e., a person’s own negative self-evaluations) or externally provided (e.g., getting an A+ on an exam). Moreover, people with unstable self-esteem are said to be highly ego-involved in their everyday activities, which means that they experience their self-esteem as continually being on the line as they go about their lives. For example, whereas someone with unstable self-esteem feels stupid and worthless (reactions that imply negative feelings of self-worth) after receiving a poor grade, someone with stable self-esteem feels badly (e.g., feels disappointed or frustrated) about his or her performance without implicating his or her overall feelings of self-worth. Researchers have examined a number of implications of the heightened self-esteem investment of individuals with unstable self-esteem.
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First, daily negative events have a greater adverse impact on individuals with unstable as opposed to stable self-esteem. Researchers found that daily hassles (those irritating events that people experience at times, such as having too much work to do or not enough money to buy what they want), or doing poorly on an important exam, triggers greater increases in depressive symptoms among people with unstable as opposed to stable self-esteem.
Second, people with unstable self-esteem are especially concerned about, and responsive to, potential self-esteem threats. Among sixth-grade children, those with unstable self-esteem report that they are more likely to get angry because of the self-esteem threat (e.g., feeling weak) rather than the goal-thwarting aspect (e.g., having to be thirsty longer) of negative interpersonal events (e.g., someone butting ahead of you in line at the water fountain).
Third, everyday positive and negative events have a greater immediate impact on the self-feelings of people with unstable as opposed to stable self-esteem. When asked to rate the extent to which their most positive and negative daily events made them feel better or worse about themselves over a 2-week period, college students with unstable as opposed to stable self-esteem reported that positive events made them feel better about themselves and negative events made them feel worse about themselves to a greater extent.
Fourth, people with unstable self-esteem have a weaker sense of self (i.e., are less self-determining, have relatively confused self-concepts) than do people with stable self-esteem. Possessing a strong sense of self is a marker of positive mental health. Research has shown that individuals who feel autonomous and self-determining (i.e., make choices about how to behave based on their own values and interests) have more positive mental health than do individuals who feel controlled and pressured about how to behave by outside people and events. The same is true for individuals who have a clear rather than confused sense of their identity. Researchers have shown that, compared with individuals with stable self-esteem, individuals with unstable self-esteem report feeling less autonomous and self-determining and have less clear self-concepts than do individuals with stable self-esteem.
Childhood Factors in Self-Esteem Stability
Of considerable importance is the role that family environments play in the development of children’s self-esteem. Researchers asked 12- and 13-year-old children to report individually on how their mothers and fathers communicated with them. Importantly, children’s perceptions of many aspects of parent-child communication patterns (especially with respect to fathers) related to the extent to which they possessed unstable self-esteem. For example, children who perceived their fathers to be highly critical, to engage in insulting name calling, and to use guilt arousal and love withdrawal as control techniques, had more unstable (as well as lower) self-esteem than did children who did not perceive their fathers in this manner. Moreover, compared with children with stable self-esteem, children with unstable self-esteem indicated that their fathers less frequently talked about the good things that they (the children) had done and were less likely to use value-affirming methods (e.g., hug or spend time with them) when they did show their approval. Still other findings indicated that, compared with fathers of children with low self-esteem, fathers of children with stable high self-esteem, but not unstable high self-esteem, were perceived as using better problem-solving methods to solve disagreements with their children. Perceptions of mothers’ communication styles more consistently related to children’s self-esteem level than to their self-esteem stability. The findings for self-esteem stability that did emerge, however, were largely consistent with those that emerged for fathers.
Levels of Self-Esteem
Level of self-esteem refers to people’s general or typical feelings of self-worth, whereas stability of self-esteem refers to whether people’s immediate feelings of self-worth exhibit considerable short-term fluctuations. These two self-esteem components (level, stability) are relatively independent of each other. Thus, people can have high self-esteem that is stable or unstable, or low self-esteem that is stable or unstable. Considerable research indicates that whereas unstable high self-esteem is fragile, stable high self-esteem is secure. For example, people with unstable high self-esteem are more defensive and self-promoting than are their stable high self-esteem counterparts, yet they are lower in psychological health and well-being. Feelings of self-worth are more brittle among unstable as compared with stable high self-esteem individuals. Compared with individuals with stable high self-esteem, individuals with unstable high self-esteem are more (a) prone to anger and hostility, (b) likely to show increased depression in the face of daily hassles, (c) verbally defensive when interviewed about potentially threatening events in their past, (d) likely to report increased tendencies to get even in response to hypothetical romantic partner transgressions, and (e) likely to report lower quality romantic relationships. These and other findings indicate that stable high self-esteem is a healthy form of self-esteem whereas unstable high self-esteem is an unhealthy form of self- esteem. Thus, a more complete understanding of self-esteem requires taking into consideration both level and stability of self-esteem.
- Kernis, M. H. (2003). Toward a conceptualization of optimal self-esteem. Psychological Inquiry, 14, 1-26.
- Kernis, M. H. (2005). Measuring self-esteem in context: The importance of stability of self-esteem in psychological functioning. Journal of Personality, 73, 1569-1605.
- Kernis, M. H., & Goldman, B. M. (2006). Assessing stability of self-esteem and contingent self-esteem. In M. H. Kernis (Ed.), Self-esteem issues and answers: A sourcebook of current perspectives (pp. 77-85). New York: Psychology Press.
- Kernis, M. H., Grannemann, B. D., & Barclay, L. C. (1989). Stability and level of self-esteem as predictors of anger arousal and hostility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 1013-1022.