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5 Psychology Theories That Will Transform The Way You See Yourself

#2 Your self-esteem is determined through others


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Jonas Ressem

3 years ago | 7 min read

People used to think the earth was flat. It was an implicit theory, because indeed, it appeared to be so.

You too, might carry such implicit theories about the world. And it’s not unusual to have a few. Formed through interactions with your parents, peers, and experience, they’ve been conceived, updated, and gradually established to the point they inform what you think and do.

But just as the flat-earth theory turned out, they might not be correct. It might just be you haven’t encountered something that violates their assumptions yet.

Studying for my master’s degree in psychology, I’ve encountered plenty of academic theories. And while many have taught me useful things, my most important realization is that it doesn’t matter what you initially believe, as long as you’re willing to update it. That’s the surest way to improve one’s understanding of the self and the world.

Now, although theories within academia might not be 100% correct either, they have the advantage of being scrutinized by the scientific method — having its assumptions tested through systematic collection of data. And that means they’re usually better than implicit theories.

Now, there are many cool theories out there, but below are 5 of my favorites. If thought through, they might transform the way you see yourself:

1. Your Beliefs Will Make or Break You (Self-Efficacy Theory)

Coined by psychologist Albert Bandura, self-efficacy theory explains how our beliefs affect our abilities. As Bandura explained it:

“People’s beliefs about their abilities have a profound effect on those abilities.”

This means having the belief you can do something increases your chances of doing it successfully. Conversely, it also means having the belief you can’t do something, increases your chances of failure.

What’s more, the abilities we end up displaying (success or failure) will in turn affect our beliefs. It’s a spiral of mutual influence, where beliefs affect your outcomes and your outcomes reinforces your beliefs.

No matter your current sense of self-efficacy, it’s possible to develop more of it. This is beneficial, as higher levels are linked to increased resilience, healthier habits, as well as academic and professional success.

  • The most effective way to develop it, is to practice something and achieve a sense of mastery. This makes it beneficial to start small, then gradually increase the challenge.
  • It can also develop through watching someone else master something — particularly someone similar to yourself. This can signal to you that you possess the same abilities.
  • Being persuaded into thinking you can do something also affects the belief you can do it. If you gain positive feedback from those around you, you can internalize that positivity and in turn increase your belief.
  • Relatedly, having a positive attitude or being in a good mood can also increase your self-efficacy.
  • Finally, visualizing you can do something increases your belief you can do it. This means you can picture yourself practicing something, then go about it in an easier manner.

2. Your Self-Esteem Is Determined Through Others (Sociometer Theory)

Developed by Mark Leary and colleagues, sociometer theory explains the nature of self-esteem, with its basic assumption being that it’s developed because of others.

It sees self-esteem is a crucial indicator of social acceptance. Having low self-esteem is a warning, indicating a risk of social exclusion and a need to repair the social situation. This aligns well with the basic need for belonging; to be part of a group was an important survival strategy in the time in which this need evolved.

Failing to act on this warning leads to poorer relationships, which increases the chances of social rejection, and in turn leads to lower self-esteem. Conversely, taking action to improve your social desirableness — through service, friendliness, status, etc. — gains you acceptance, which in turn affects your self-esteem in a positive way.

Now, even if self-esteem has evolved in the intersection with others, doesn’t mean you can’t learn to optimize it for yourself. After all, self-esteem isn’t really about others, but it’s right there in the name that it’s about your self.

Although others will always influence you to some degree, there are things you can do to mitigate it:

  • If you practice acceptance and gratitude towards yourself, you might start to build an internal sense of feeling good about yourself. Accept that you’re you; and be grateful for it.
  • Whenever you talk to yourself, aim it towards the positive. Try to view yourself in a better light, and have constructive conversations rather than destructive ones.
  • If you start to take responsibility for a bigger purpose, you develop your skills and character, which in turn makes you feel better about yourself (and it also provides value to those around you).

Ironically enough, if you focus on being and bettering yourself, it will likely lead to greater social acceptance, and in turn a greater self-esteem. There’s something admirable in being authentic and willing to improve oneself.

3. Your Highest Motivation Is Found Inside (Self-Determination Theory)

Formed by Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, the self-determination theory is one of the leading theories on human motivation. Here’s how Deci explains the concept:

“The term self-determination refers to a person’s own ability to manage themselves, to make confident choices, and to think on their own.”

To become self-determined, you need to fulfill your basic needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy. Competence refers to the need to be effective in dealing with your environment; relatedness refers to the need to have close, affectionate relationships; and autonomy refers to the need to feel self-directed and independent.

Fulfilling these needs forms the basis for the highest quality of motivation. But also performance, persistence, and creativity. In turn, they all contribute to an increased sense of well-being.

Another, related posit of the theory, is that humans can be motivated by both external rewards (such as money and fame), and internal rewards (such as interest and enjoyment). It’s argued, however, that internal motivation leads to the best outcomes, because you’re better able to fulfill the basic needs this way.

Besides aiming directly at need-fulfillment, there are also specific things you can do to develop self-determination:

  • Try to adopt an internal locus of control. This means attributing success or failure to your own efforts and abilities. Conversely, having an external locus of control means attributing these things to luck or fate. The former increases motivation, while the latter reduces it.
  • Relatedly, start to take responsibility for your actions and outcomes. This might help you accept that you’re capable of failure, but also that you’re able to own up to it and continue working despite it.
  • Believing in yourself also helps with self-determination (it’s similar to what the self-efficacy theory covers).
  • Remove external rewards and punishments. Contrary to adding to your motivation, external things can limit it because it devalues the internal sources of motivation.

4. Your Childhood Relationships Affects Your Adult Relationships (Attachment Theory)

First developed by John Bowlby, the attachment theory explains the nature of close relationships.

One of its main assumptions is that the same motivational systems that establish close bonds between parent and child, is responsible for the emotional bonds that develop between adults in intimate relationships. Although it’s uncertain to which degree your childhood affects you, there’s a consensus that it does.

In this theory, there are three types of attachment styles: secure, insecure, and avoidant. These are somewhat explained by their names. In adulthood, the different styles might look like this:

  • If you have a secure attachment style, you feel confident that your partner will be there for you when you need them. You will also be open to depend on others and have others depend on you.
  • If you have an insecure attachment style, you are likely to worry that others might not love you completely, and be frustrated or angry if your relational needs go unnoticed.
  • If you have an avoidant attachment style, you might not care too much about close relationships and prefer not to be dependent on other people or have others depend on you.

According to Bowlby, there’s a continuity in attachment across the lifespan. However, it’s possible to change attachment style if confronted with enough inconsistencies between initial beliefs and lived experience. That means people can go from insecure to secure if they encounter enough people that are there for them.

5. You Achieve Your Highest Potential Through Others (Sociocultural Theory)

Developed by Lev Vygotsky, the sociocultural theory holds a broad view of human development. It views development as a socially mediated process where children acquire beliefs, values, skills, etc., through collaboration with more knowledgeable others. As Vygotsky said:

“Through others we become ourselves.”

One interesting concept from this theory is the ‘zone of proximal development’. It describes the difference between your current level of development as determined by your independent behaviors, and your potential level of development as determined by behaviors in collaboration with others.

That is, if you work with someone more experienced than you, it can trigger your potential, and boost you to a higher level. It works especially well if you work with someone just slightly better than you rather than a world-class elite.

With proper support and guidance, you feel empowered to operate beyond your current abilities. And as you continue to spend time there, you’ll eventually adapt to that higher level yourself.

The Takeaway

Encountering these theories, you might start to see yourself, human behavior, or life as a whole in a different way.

While you don’t have to subscribe to any of the theories above, I hope, if nothing else, that you realize it doesn’t matter what you initially believe, as long as you’re willing to update it.

How will you interact with the world moving forward?

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Jonas Ressem

From Norway. Building onliving.life. Exploring life through psychology, philosophy and entrepreneurship. Come explore with me: http://eepurl.com/dAtfdv


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