There Are Different Types of Low Self-Esteem—and One of Them Is Especially Detrimental
Before you can improve your self-esteem, you need to know which type of self-esteem you might be. It's the first key step to better yourself and your life.
Do you think you suffer from low self-esteem? Before you think of strategies to improve it, you might want to ask yourself some questions: on a scale of 1 to 9,
Is my self-esteem always low (= 1), or does it actually fluctuate a lot (= 9)?
Do I constantly feel angry but suppress it? Like I tend to hold grudges but don’t tell others?
Am I a super perfectionist, that everything has to be 100% perfect? That I have an intense fear of making any mistake? Fear that things will go wrong no matter what?
Do I constantly feel lonely?
Everyone will have some self-doubt, but do I constantly doubt myself intensely?
If your answers to these questions are at least 5 or above, you might want to keep reading.
Conscious vs unconscious self-esteem
Self-esteem is a huge topic; google this term and you’ll find more than 100 million hits about the definition and how to improve it. And yet, not many of them mentioned a crucial distinction: Explicit vs. implicit self-esteem—or, to oversimplify, conscious vs. unconscious self-esteem. This distinction, in fact, makes a significant difference; to understand it is the first key to understand ourselves and thinking about improving it.
Moss (2016) explained these two dimensions of self-esteem. To give a super brief sum-up, conscious self-esteem is people believing that “I am satisfied with myself.” Unconscious self-esteem, on the other hand, is people’s more intuitive and automatic feeling about themselves.
What’s very interesting is: these two dimensions are independent of each other. In other words, a person can have one of the following four combinations:
1. High conscious self-esteem and high unconscious self-esteem. So these people consciously see themselves in a positive light, and deep in their subconscious mind, they feel good about themselves too. Let’s call this type of self-esteem the “lucky type.”
2. Low conscious self-esteem and low unconscious self-esteem. These people see and feel themselves negatively. Let’s call it the “unlucky type.”
3. High conscious self-esteem but low unconscious self-esteem. If you ask these people, right on your face they’ll shout: “Of course I’m the best!” But if you measure their subconscious feeling about themselves, that’s another picture. They tend to be super sensitive and very defensive because their “high” self-esteem is actually very fragile. People of narcissism tend to be this type, so let’s call it the “narcissist type.”
4. Low conscious self-esteem but high unconscious self-esteem. Now this is an interesting type: They tend to be so modest to a point of self-depreciation or even self-belittling. I know you might say: “Dude, they just do that to fish compliments!” But not necessarily: in many cases, they DO believe they’re not good enough. At the same time, however, they unconsciously feel they’re in fact quite amazing; superior to anyone else maybe. It’s possible that they are the “lucky type” in the beginning but then due to certain reasons (something drastic happens in their lives, or their standards are simply way too high) that damage their conscious self-esteem. Let’s call it the “damaged type.”
The consequences of the most destructive type
So, a one-million-dollar question: Which type is the most destructive to the self?
I know what you’re thinking: “The unlucky type, of course! They’re all low across the board!”
But a different pattern was revealed in research. A study shows that people of the damaged type, NOT the unlucky type, are more likely to bottle up anger, be depressed, have trouble with concentration and memory, feel stressed, and be physically sick (Schroder-Abe, Rudolph, and Schutz, 2007). Others show that they are more likely to be suicidal and feel lonely (Creemers et al., 2012; Franck et al., 2007). They also seem to be more likely to have borderline personality disorder (Vater et al., 2010). At least one study even suggested this damaged type is associated with bulimia (Cockerham et al., 2009).
Why is that? Shouldn’t their positive subconscious feeling about themselves protect them?
Researchers believed that the difference between conscious (“I’m nothing”) and unconscious systems (“I’m good”) creates tension that leads to psychological conflict and self-doubt. The point is: if there’s no expectation, you don’t feel bad when you fail. But if the unconscious you scream to the conscious you: “But how can you be this bad? You should be the best!” Then everything you do is a test you simply can NOT fail, or it’ll be a defeat. With that kind of mindset, life becomes hard; very hard.
Let me try to make an analogy. When Mark was young, he played basketball with his buddies and was praised by them: “You jump so high!” “You’re a shooter!” (well, maybe because his buddies happened to be shorter). So Mark was very confident, consciously and unconsciously. In terms of self-esteem, he was the lucky type at this point.
But then he went to college and played with others, and to his surprise, many were way, way better than him. Now his self-esteem was bruised, and he was forced to admit that he wasn’t that good. However, one’s subconscious mind isn’t so easy to change; he will always have this feeling that he’s good at it.
Now there’s a conflict. Every time he misses a shot, his unconscious mind shouts: “How can you miss that? You should be the best!” Every time he loses a game, that’s a huge blow to his ego. Now every game becomes a test—a test that he can NOT fail because that will “prove” that he’s not a good player. He becomes stressed and depressed.
See the trouble here? Research (Zeigler-Hill & Terry, 2007) found that one big problem for the people of damaged type is perfectionism—they are more likely to set unrealistic, ridiculously unattainable goals for themselves (“I have to make 100% baskets and win every single game or I’m a loser”), and as a consequence have an intense fear of failure.
Does that mean Mark will be depressed all the time? Not necessarily—because sometimes, either luck or his practice pays off, he plays a good game. According to Jordan et al. (2013), a positive event will enhance his self-esteem; he feels good about himself, and his well-being increases. But you can see the challenge here: one can NEVER be good all the time. Even Michael Jordan loses sometimes. As a consequence, Mark’s self-esteem fluctuates, depending heavily on things he most likely doesn’t have control over. He seeks positive feedback or approval all the time; and if he inevitably fails sometimes, he is even more depressed. This eventually will cause a lot of mental problems. In fact, in Jordan et al.’s study, college students of the damaged type experienced significantly MORE severe depressive symptoms than the unlucky type over a failed exam even two weeks later.
See, that’s why I’m never a fan of the “participation trophy” thing. You’re sending the children a dangerous message: “I don’t have to work hard and I’m still the best.” See how they feel about themselves when they go out to the real world.
Possible coping strategies
So, if you find that you belong to the damaged type, what can you do about it?
I’m a social psychologist, not a counselor, and I haven’t found any research depicting the treatment or therapy for the damaged type. But from the studies I reviewed, I think some strategies might be hopeful. They are just my suggestions though and cannot replace a professional consultant.
First, according to research, people of the damaged type tend to take negative events or failures extremely personally (“It’s all my fault”), believe them to be long-term (“I’ll be the loser forever and it’s not gonna change”), and see them as “global” (“Everything I do flops like this”). After losing a game, Mark ruminates for 3 days: “I suck! Why didn’t I make that basket/get that rebound? I’m such a loser, all the practices are wasted and I’m never gonna be better. I’m a loser on everything.” He awfulizes a simple game to his whole world, and his self-esteem plummets.
These are irrational, maladaptive thoughts that only aim to destroy you. Try to challenge these thoughts: Do you have to be so perfect 100% of the time? Is it realistic or fair to put that kind of expectation on anyone? Is a small game that important? Does it matter or will anyone still remember it 3 days later? And does that game determine the value of your whole life?
Beware of the cues when you start awfulizing and stop yourself: “That’s irrational and not helpful. It’s just a game and shouldn’t be such a big part of your life. Focus on something else more meaningful/positive.”
Second, in the same vein, work on flawed perfectionism in your mindset. It’s great to constantly set high goals for yourself and work your heart out to achieve them, but remember making mistakes is part of the learning process, and therefore you should welcome them—because in many cases, success doesn’t teach us anything. Always remember that talents mean nothing without effort, and effort can change talents. So when you fail, that doesn’t mean you’re doomed, that you’re hopeless; far from it, it only means you’ve learned something, and there are other strategies for you to explore.
Perfectionists also love to compare themselves to others and feel discouraged. They forget that everyone is different, with different talents, opportunities, focuses, and timelines. Don’t fall into that rabbit hole.
Third, boost up your conscious self-esteem. I think the pieces of advice from Mayo Clinic are good and I encourage everyone to carefully read them, but I want to put a special emphasis on the last two items: Do things you enjoy, and spend time with people who make you happy. When you enjoy an activity, you don’t focus on yourself. And social support is one key factor to well-being and happy life. Plus, they are the things that last; no one will give a shit about Mark winning a game last week, but his family will appreciate his time with them for a long time.
Finally, when it becomes too tough to handle, especially when the thought of hurting yourself/ending your life becomes salient, SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP IMMEDIATELY. This is NOT something you can overcome only by your willpower.
In fact, whenever you feel like it, make an appointment for counseling is a good idea. Find a counselor you can trust. Remember: you’re dealing with a tough issue that requires a long-term plan, relying only on yourself might not be realistic.
I’m an associate professor in psychology at a small university in southern New Mexico. I like playing musical instruments, basketball, and writing stories.