Positive Self-Esteem Is Overrated, Here’s What You Need Instead

Acting as if everything is fine is not going to make you feel better.

Positive Self-Esteem Is Overrated, Here’s What You Need Instead
[Illustration: Wikimedia Commons]

In a 2007 study, researchers asked people to come into a lab, sit down in front of a camera, and tell a made-up fairy tale or some other kind of children’s story as it recorded them. There was just one rule: It had to start with the sentence, “Once upon a time, there was a little bear . . . ”


After subjects told their stories, the researchers played them a recording–either their own, or that of a different participant in the study, and asked them to evaluate the bear story.

The researchers found that those who didn’t have much so-called “self-clarity” hated their own recordings. Psychologists define self-clarity as the understanding of who we are. It reflects how well we know our own strengths and weaknesses, as well as our ability to accept them. Self-esteem, on the other hand, is the degree of self-worth we attach to those strengths and weaknesses. The difference is crucial, and as the researchers found in the “little bear story” study, it helps explain why some people cringe at their own appearances on FaceTime–and many other experiences we tend to find inexplicably embarrassing.

Related: Why Embarrassment Can Be A Good Thing (And 3 Ways To Deal) 

Hacking Your Way To Self-Clarity

The study participants with low self-clarity were more likely to call their own made-up stories “very bad” or at least “somewhat bad”; they also tended to describe their personal demeanor in the recordings as awkward or foolish. They were embarrassed, irritable, and nervous as they were made to watch themselves tell their stories about the little bear, and on average they rated their own performances lower than others did. People high in self-clarity, in contrast, weren’t as bothered by watching themselves on video. And they tended to rate their own recordings just as other people rated them.

Studies on self-esteem and performance evaluation usually find, unsurprisingly, that people with a lot of self-esteem really love themselves and their performance on a given task, and they tend to rate their own performance and personalities much more favorably than others do. That’s because high self-esteem inflates your ego, which can make the reality of how others see you harder to bear. With high self-clarity, though, you can see and accept yourself much more easily–even your flaws. But this form of self-acceptance doesn’t leave you there, gaping at your imperfections.

If self-clarity doesn’t come naturally to you, there are ways to learn it. You can try this right now, if you want: Think about some awkward moment from high school or college, something that really made you feel bad about yourself. Think the moment carefully through: What happened right before? Who was there? How did you feel at the time?


Related: This Emotional Intelligence Test Was So Accurate It Was Creepy

It’s true that focusing on the unemotional aspects of one of these memories can help lessen its impact, but there’s also a case to spend a little time doing the opposite: Let the feelings in. That’s what this exercise is meant to do. Once you let that awkwardness back in, you can put the memory in its place with these three questions.

Cringeworthy: A Theory Of Awkwardness by Melissa Dahl

First, how many times have other people experienced the same thing or something similar? Or, to get more specific about it: How many times have other people, say, exited a public restroom with their skirt stuffed into their tights? A lot! Sure, this is an extremely embarrassing moment, but it’s one that many people have experienced.

Second, If a friend came to you and told you about this memory, how would you respond to her? In this situation, I think I’d say that if she told it right, it could be a really funny story; beyond that, I’d probably tell her it’s endearing.

Third, can you try thinking about the moment from someone else’s point of view? For instance, now that I’m older, I know how out of place interns sometimes seem in an office environment. Sometimes, to those of us who are used to being in an office environment, watching interns try to get the hang of things is really amusing, even if we feel like jerks laughing about it.

Seeing Yourself, And Seeing Beyond Yourself

The researchers in that same storytelling study found that asking these three questions when we’re thinking about a negative memory works much better than many other common responses to crippling embarrassment, like compartmentalization or just stewing in shame.


Here’s what doesn’t work: Convincing yourself it was someone else’s fault. Distracting yourself by focusing on your positive characteristics. Telling yourself that the memory “does not really indicate anything about the kind of person I am.”

Related: The Unexpected Drawbacks To Positive Thinking

Deliberately practicing self-clarity in uncomfortable moments like these allows you to acknowledge that you are the “kind of person” who makes mistakes–while also putting those mistakes in perspective. You definitely tucked your skirt into your tights that one time, and people definitely saw. You’re kind of a screw-up sometimes. But so is everyone else! As psychologist Kristin Neff wrote in her 2011 book Self-Compassion, achieving real self­ awareness means that “when we fail, it’s not ‘poor me,’ it’s, ‘Well, everyone fails.’ Everyone struggles. This is what it means to be human.”

It helps to see yourself–on camera and off. More importantly, it also helps to see beyond yourself.

This article is adapted from Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness. It is reprinted with permission from Portfolio/Penguin, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC