What do you think of yourself? Do you feel that you are kind or unkind, successful or unsuccessful, smart or not-so-smart? Somewhere in the middle? In general, is your self-esteem high or low?
Now, are your own self-opinions being supported by your experiences in the world? In other words, if you feel you have strong character, do your social experiences seem to back that up? Do people trust you? Do they come to you for help with their problems?
When your own self-esteem matches how you think the world views you, then psychologists would say you have high ‘self-clarity.’ When they don’t match—for instance, if you have negative thoughts about yourself but everyone says you’re great—you are said to have low self-clarity.
So why is self-clarity important? According to psychologists, greater self-clarity is linked to better psychological adjustment, lower neuroticism, stronger academic performance, and lowered chances that one will respond to failures with anger and aggression.
Earlier studies have found that higher self-clarity typically goes along with greater self-esteem. This makes sense, as those who feel good about themselves generally have a clearer sense of who they are.
In a new study, however, researchers at the University at Buffalo (UB) came across some surprising, almost counter-intuitive findings. They wanted to see how people’s self-esteem compared to their self-clarity after receiving long-term social feedback from their family experiences during childhood.
The findings showed that people with high self-esteem who came from negative home environments had lower self-clarity, while those with low self-esteem from negative home environments actually had greater self-clarity, . Furthermore, people with low self-esteem from good homes were especially likely to have low self-clarity.
So what’s that all about? In general, when a person’s self-esteem matches his early home environment—whether it’s low self-esteem and a negative home environment or high self-esteem and a good home environment —it confirms his ideas about himself (whether good or bad), leading to higher self-clarity.
“If I think I’m a good person and have positive expectations, I think good things are going to happen to me. So it makes sense when they do,” says study co-author Mark Seery, professor of psychology at UB in a press release.
“But if I have low self-esteem, things like getting a promotion at work or having a secret crush ask me out on a date may feel good, but they don’t entirely make sense to me, because I don’t expect to be treated as though I’m a person of worth.”
“These results show how important consistency is for people,” says Seery. “We have a strong motive to expect consistency and to find consistency in our lives. It includes us and how we fit in the world, and that can lead to some counterintuitive findings like we have in this study.”
So what can we take from this study? Obviously, having greater ‘self-clarity’ because your negative self-views are supported by your negative home environment is not a good thing. In fact, this type of situation is absolutely detrimental to one’s sense of well-being.
Instead, these findings help support the notion that as we work on building positive self-esteem, we should at the same time try to surround ourselves with people who support us and believe in us. This will result in greater—and more positive —self-clarity that is healthy and good for the soul.
How can we do this? First, we should put in the effort to build positive self-esteem on a daily basis. For example, if you catch yourself having a negative thought about yourself, write it down. Then switch what you’ve written to its opposite, writing yourself a message of positivity. For example, if you think, “I’m not good at anything. I am not a successful person,” write that down and then write its opposite, such as: “I am great at x,x, and x (fill in your own talents). I am capable of great success.” Scratch out the negative message and start reading the positive message to yourself everyday.
As you work on positive self-esteem, also do your best to surround yourself with people who support you and believe in you. As your self-esteem and self-clarity begin to rise to healthy levels—and begin to match one another at a higher level —you will feel a change in your whole perspective and being. Success will have no choice but to follow.