Always placing yourself on a pedestal isn't all it's cracked up to be, says a leading psychologist, whose research reveals that people with 'fragile high self-esteem' are more defensive if they feel attacked by others than those who have more stable and secure self-worth.
According to Michael Kernis, a psychology professor from the University of Georgia, 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," said Kernis.
"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," he added.
In the research, Kernis and his colleagues designed a study, to see if respondents whose self-esteem is "fragile" were more verbally defensive than those whose self-esteem was "secure."
Using 100 undergraduates, they set up a study in three phases.
In the first part, students completed a basic demographic questionnaire and other measures to evaluate their levels and other aspects of self-esteem.
In phase 2, the team assessed the students' stability of self-esteem because the more unstable or variable one's self-esteem, the more fragile it is. And finally, in the last phase, the researchers conducted a structured "life experiences interview" to measure what they call "defensive verbalization."
"Our findings offer strong support for a multi-component model of self-esteem that highlights the distinction between its fragile and secure forms," said Kernis.
"Individuals with low self-esteem or fragile high self-esteem were more verbally defensive than individuals with secure high self-esteem. One reason for this is that potential threats are in fact more threatening to people with low or fragile high self-esteem than those with secure high self-esteem, and so they work harder to counteract them," he added.
On the other hand, individuals with secure high self-esteem appear to accept themselves "warts and all," and, feeling less threatened, they are less likely to be defensive by blaming others or providing excuses when they speak about past transgressions or threatening experiences.
One reason the study's findings are important, Kernis said, is that it shows that greater verbal defensiveness relates to lower psychological well-being and life satisfaction.
"These findings support the view that heightened defensiveness reflects insecurity, fragility and less-than-optimal functioning rather than a healthy psychological outlook," said 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," he added.
The study is published in the Journal of Personality.