Defensive Mechanisms of Self-Esteem.
Self-esteem can be simply described as the worth that one assigns themselves. This self-appraisal can affect many aspects of one’s life such as self-confidence and assertiveness, and ultimately their relationships with others. Self-esteem is essentially an essential process designed to balance one’s attitudes and behaviors. Being an essential psychological process, humans have developed defenses to maintain and enhance one’s sense of self-worth.
For these defense mechanisms to become activated, two conditions are required; an event relevant to the person must transpire, and the event must contain processes showing relevancy to self-esteem (Snyder et al. 1978). Once the mind becomes aware that a threat to self-esteem exists, internal defense mechanisms are activated. Once this happens, people may try to distort the realities of the event in an effort to marginalize its impact, or they may altogether deny its relevancy (Rogers, 1965).
Examples of these defensive devices of self-esteem maintenance occur frequently and are easily observable in our society. The reaction to failure is a prime example of these processes. When someone perceives that they have failed at something, they tend to make excuses. These excuses range from unfair circumstances to directly blaming other people for their failure. This “blame game”, is directly related to the process of defending the self-esteem from a perceived threat by creating distance.
Conversely, when positive events occur, they will often have an enhancement effect on one’s self-esteem. Interestingly enough, people experiencing positive events will often take “credit” for the event. Instead of blaming others, they will attribute the success to their own abilities and their own decisions (Agostinelli, Sherman, Presson, & Chasson 1992; Bradley, 1978; Snyder et al., 1976, 1978; Taylor & Brown, 1988). While these defense mechanisms may initially seem somewhat self-serving, they are primarily an inherent process utilized by the psyche to achieve a healthy and fully functioning self-esteem.
To buffer against the actualization of negative self-esteem experiences, the mind has constructed several methods of carrying out denial and distortion. In order for an event to have a negative effect on the self-esteem, one must have had the initial expectation of a positive outcome. To combat this, people often engage in self-handicapping. Self-handicapping is an unconscious process that involves creating situations where the only possible outcome could be failure. In layman’s terms, you can’t fail if you never expected to win.
It is important to point out that even members of an entire social group may be affected by a form of self-handicapping known as a stereotype threat. Stereotypes are assumptions or generalizations assigned to all members of a certain group. An example of a stereotype would be to say that Caucasian men are bad at dancing. Stereotype threats are these negative assumptions about certain groups that have been internalized by members of that specific group. Therefore, it’s plausible that Caucasian men may be likely to assume that since it’s been said that men of their race cannot dance, they simply cannot dance. Essentially, stereotype threats breed negative thinking, and negative thinking breeds negative outcomes (Cadinu, Maass, Rosabianca, & Kiesner, 2005).
As mentioned earlier, self-esteem plays a significant role in many aspects of one’s life. And as we’ve discussed, people will go to great lengths to protect their self-esteem. As I discussed, positive events have the ability to enhance self-esteem. However, people with a poor sense of self-worth may have a very hard time attributing their successes to their abilities. This can have a very detrimental effect on their ability to live life to the fullest. Additionally, this type of thought pattern can lead to depression, aggressiveness, and a cornucopia of other mental health issues. While humans have developed these defense mechanisms to protect self-esteem, it is important to note that it is not a fool-proof system and some may need cognitive therapy to achieve a healthy self-esteem.