Self-esteem, feedback and motivation
Where does self-esteem come from?
Each of us has a picture of ourselves which we carry around with us everywhere and all the time. It is not a physical picture we can keep in a wallet or purse and show to others. Rather it is a picture in our mind, a picture which sometimes looks a little like the person who looks back at us from a mirror, but sometimes not.
This picture, also called the self-image, is built up from the myriads of psychological cues which we pick up every moment from the reactions of other people to what we say and do. It is not a process of which we are always conscious, but it is happening all the time, each and every waking moment.
The process is called feedback, and it is telling us how what we are doing or saying is impacting on the other person, how they are understanding us, and, perhaps most importantly, how they feel about us.
This process goes on constantly and most of the time we are not aware of it, and most often we are not aware of the implications of the information flooding into our minds. Nevertheless, this information is vital to our well-being, both psychologically and physically.
Self-esteem is the value we put on the picture we have of ourselves. Perhaps we like the picture, perhaps we don't. And that has an effect on the way we think about ourselves. Because as much as we have relationships with other people, we also have a relationship with ourselves. And as relationships with others can make us feel positive or negative, so the relationship we have with ourselves can make us feel positive or negative. We all know how much our attitude can affect us and our performance. If we are positive, then things seem to go well, when we are negative, everything feels like a burden, we have the weight of the world to carry around on our shoulders, which tend to buckle under the strain.
In sum, the better we like the picture of ourselves we have in our minds, the better we are able to cope with the inevitable ups and downs of daily life, the boredom and elation, the drudgery and the joy. So having a positive self-esteem is critical to getting on with life, to staying afloat and not giving up.
To understand this better two models have been developed over the past half century which give insights into the effects of feedback and how self-esteem affects motivation.
Firstly the famous Johari Window which helps to understand feedback and how to improve the quality of the feedback we give and receive. Secondly the Hierarchy of Needs developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1940s which is a model of human motivation.
A point I would like to make about models is that they are not reality. It is important to realise that, as a map is not the territory, so a model is not the reality. However, as a map, properly understood, can tell us a great deal about the territory, like where there are hills and valleys, rivers, roads, and perhaps even buildings; so a model can tell us a great deal about the reality which the model attempts to explain. A model is a framework on which to hang our experiences in such a way that we can get a better understanding of their meanings, so that perhaps we can more easily and effectively use the experiences to get on better with ourselves and others.
Through a glass, darkly
What happens when our self-esteem is based on an inaccurate self-assessment?
Clearly if our self-esteem is not based on fact then we are in danger, because a high self-esteem based on an inaccurate self-assessment is delusional. Such a high self-esteem, instead of being helpful to us, will actually lead us to behave inappropriately.
This is what happens most obviously in, for example, dictators or kings, who only hear the positive things about themselves because the people around them are too scared to tell the truth, often for fear of their lives. Remember the story of the Emperor's New Clothes?
I have heard it said that Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom thinks the smell of new paint is the smell of her whole country!
This is one of the great dangers of absolutism and authoritarian approaches to life – we get to smell only the new paint and don't see the old decrepit things festering and rotting out of our sight.
If we make no effort to discover the truth about ourselves we are likely to live in delusion, making decisions and generally living based on fiction and not fact.
Very often, if our self-esteem is delusional, we can even become violent when the truth confronts us. If we have built a life on falsehood and a self-esteem on lies, it is hard to adjust to reality, and we will do whatever we can to maintain the self-esteem we had. Bullies, psychopaths and murderers often have inflated and unrealistic self-esteem which they will defend at all costs.
Through a window, clearly
On the other hand, a self-esteem built on accurate self-knowledge, will lead to open and appropriate behaviour, and a genuine valuing of self and others.
Act I Scene II of Shakespeare's great play The Merchant of Venice gives an interesting example of the lovely Portia getting a dose of corrective feedback to her inaccurate self-image. She complains to her waiting-maid Nerissa, “My little body is aweary of this great world.” Nerissa replies, with considerable wisdom, and, I think, some bravery, “You would be, sweet madam, if your miseries were in the same abundance as your good fortunes are: and yet, for aught I see, they are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing.” In other words, get a grip, lady, and be grateful for what you have, stop moping and feeling sorry for yourself.
We are all prone to dramatise ourselves, to think we are the most unhappy, most clever, most anything, when we are usually pretty much the same as everyone else. What this implies is that we all have blind spots with regard to ourselves, we tend to not know with any great accuracy certain things about ourselves, and this leads us to unrealistic self-appraisals.
On the other hand, there are often things which we do know, but sometimes would prefer that others did not know – fears, feelings of inferiority, incompetencies, even secret joys – and we put up fronts to hide these things from others, we build a façade which we present to the world, believing that others will believe it and accept it, as we accept the false buildings in movies which are nothing but scenery made of cardboard painted to deceive us.
Then there is the vast sub-conscious, that dark and sometimes frightening aspect of ourselves that we cannot know, except to a limited extent in dreams and Freudian slips, which let us peep under the heavy curtain which hides this part of us. This part of ourselves is always on the go, always making us act, sometimes in ways which we do not expect or understand.
Then the is that part of ourselves where communication is en clair , open and available to all. Here communication is relatively easy, and we share a lot of ourselves with others, who respond in kind.
These aspects of ourselves were brilliantly captured in the Johari Window model developed in the 1950s by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham
The point of this model is that to know ourselves better and more accurately, we have both to share information about ourselves with others, and ask others to share information about ourselves with us. To tell us, in other words, more about ourselves. This is the process of giving and receiving feedback.
Giving feedback, telling others about ourselves, reduces the size of the façade and simultaneously increases the size of the open pane of the window .
Asking for feedback reduces the size of the blind spot also while increasing the size of the open pane. In this way, if we are deliberate about it, we get an increasingly accurate self-image, so that our self-esteem can be based more and more on fact and less and less on fantasy.
A self-esteem based on fact is strong and will not be shaken too easily, nor will we feel threatened by others and thus have to take defensive action to keep our self-esteem as we would if that self-esteem was based on fantasy.
Human needs and motivation
Motivation, according to Wikipedia, is “the activation or energization of goal-orientated behavior.” There are many theories about motivation and what motivates people. The one which has over the years had a great deal of currency is that of Abraham Maslow, who devised his famous triangular “Hierarchy” diagram as a kind of visual prompt to assist people to understand his theory.
Motivation is often thought of as either extrinsic, in the form usually of either punishment or reward, or intrinsic, which is values based. Maslow, after careful observation of the behaviour of monkeys, during which he found that the needs of the monkeys were in a sense prioritised. Some needs seemed to take precedence over others. This led him to think about needs as having a hierarchy, that certain heeds would have to be satisfied before other needs could be satisfied.
The first four levels he termed “Deficit” or “D-needs” meaning that they were only operative as motivators when they were absent – as soon as they were satisfied they would cease to motivate. He used the metaphor of homoeostasis to illustrate this – without adequate food the body will seek such food, without adequate shelter the person will do all in his or her power to obtain shelter. But once the food and shelter are taken care of other needs will come into play.
In the 1980s in South Africa there was an interesting example of how this could work even on a societal level. Considerable pressure was being put on the apartheid government, and on corporations within the country, by threats of sanctions and disinvestment, by the strictures of the so-called “Sullivan Code” initiated by the Rev Louis Sullivan. Many companies within the country attempted to meet these pressures by improving the way blacks were treated within their organisations. One tactic used by some companies was participative management, a popular management style at the time.
Participative management appeals to the belonging and esteem needs of people. But for most black workers the needs that motivated them were physiological and safety needs – they perceived themselves to be under paid, they lived in often appalling conditions in segregated townships where crime and disease were rampant, where the security forces were seen more as oppressors than as providing any kind of safety.
Many attempts were made to implement such schemes through employee share options, quality circles, and so on. Many of these attempts failed. The reaction of many white managers was that blacks were not able to deal with these processes. I think the real reason was that black workers in those companies were rather more concerned about physiological and safety needs than belonging or esteem needs. Participative management within a divided and extremely unequal society seems not to be a viable option. I think Maslow could have told the companies this and saved them a lot of trouble and expense!
The fourth level of the hierarchy is the esteem needs level. In this level Maslow distinguished between a higher and a lower order of needs. The lower order he saw as in a sense external to the individual – the need for respect, status, glory, reputation, appreciation of others. The higher order was more internal to the individual – a need for competence, self-respect, achievement, confidence, independence and freedom.
The level of the saints and the gurus
The fifth level of the hierarchy is what Maslow termed “self-actualisation”, a term he borrowed from his colleague Kurt Goldstein, author of the book The Organism. The self-actualisation needs are what Maslow termed “Being Needs” or “B-needs” and a person motivated at this level is free of the needs in the other levels. This is the level of the saints and gurus.
According to Maslow the self-actualised person has the following values:
Truth, rather than dishonesty.
Goodness, rather than evil.
Beauty, not ugliness or vulgarity.
Unity, wholeness, and transcendence of opposites, not arbitrariness or forced choices.
Aliveness, not deadness or the mechanization of life.
Uniqueness, not bland uniformity.
Perfection and necessity, not sloppiness, inconsistency, or accident.
Completion, rather than incompleteness.
Justice and order, not injustice and lawlessness.
Simplicity, not unnecessary complexity.
Richness, not environmental impoverishment.
Effortlessness, not strain.
Playfulness, not grim, humourless, drudgery.
Self-sufficiency, not dependency.
Meaningfulness, rather than senselessness.
The role of values
"Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices but honestly and courageously uses his intelligence."- Albert Einstein
All behaviour is value-driven. What we say, what we do, how we live, all are driven by our values. That is why understanding our values is so important, because then we can make informed choices instead of blindly following what everyone else is doing or thinking.
Which brings us back to the issue of self-esteem, which earlier I defined as the value we place on our self-image. If I value my self-image positively, and if my self-image is accurate, then I will have confidence, I will not need to defend my self-image and my self-esteem will be maintained.
I will likely attract to myself others who are similarly comfortable with themselves. We will value ourselves and each other and so treat ourselves and each other with compassion, respect and unconditional positive regard.
If I am confident about my self-esteem I will be able to put myself into the shoes of a person very different from myself without having to prove myself or to dominate or control the other person.
A high self-esteem based on an accurate self-image is critical to the health of the individual and the society in which he or she lives. And part of the accuracy of the self-image is knowing what one's values are.
Finally, I found this great passage on a blog by Ann Brock called "The Old Black Church" and I thought it really sums up a lot of what I have written here:
You can't touch it, but it affects how you feel. You can't see it, but it's there when you look at yourself in the mirror...You can't hear it, but it's there every time you talk about yourself.... What is this important but mysterious thing? It's your self-esteem!Self-esteem isn't bragging about how great you are.... It's more like quietly knowing that you're worth a lot (priceless, in fact!). It's not about thinking you're perfect — because nobody is — but knowing that you're worthy of being loved and accepted.
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2010
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