The question of what affects self-esteem often arises when a person reflects back on their childhood. We often hear that our parents didn’t encourage us and that we were brought up in shame and embarrassment. Many adults, even those who grew up in traditional families, have similar tales to tell. Childhood experiences such as being picked on or made fun of at school can have a lasting impact on how an adult views himself or herself. Some of the effects are not always pleasant or constructive. They can be debilitating, resulting in low self-esteem and depression.
New research indicates that there may be some genetic and environmental factors that lead to low general self-esteem. In addition, new research is suggesting that some of the way we learn and respond to negative stimuli may help to shape our self-image even before we reach adulthood. These two studies provide important new perspectives on the question of what affects self-esteem.
One study examined twins when they were younger, finding that their reactions to negative stimuli did in fact make a difference. Those with higher self-esteem were calmer and did not run as fast as those with lower self-esteem. Another study found that physically abused children had lower self-esteem than controls. This study suggested that low self-esteem is indeed genetic and that poor or high self-esteem is passed down through generations.
Self-esteem also depends on a person’s beliefs about themselves. Some people believe that they are worthy of great rewards, while other people feel inadequate if they do not receive these rewards. Research is indicating that a person’s beliefs about his self can actually cause his or her self-esteem to drop even before he experiences any negative social consequences. If you have a positive childhood experiences and positive self-talk, your chances of reaching a state of self-esteem are increased. Conversely, if you have a negative childhood experiences and negative self-talk, your self-esteem drops even before you experience any negative social consequences.
The fourth area that is being studied with respect to self-esteem is the “maturity principle.” The maturity principle states that we acquire maturity, or skills, through experiences that occur prior to adulthood. For example, babies are rewarded for having complete control over their bladder and bowel control through early experiences with parents who can successfully guide them. Adults get mature by living successful and satisfying social lives. Therefore, researchers are looking at how people change over time to fit into society and how this affects self-esteem.
The fifth area that is being studied is how “incomplete” a person is at the different domains of life in which they participate. In incomplete participation means that a person’s self-esteem is not balanced across all domains. For example, when people are involved in sports, they have to be physically fit to be able to participate effectively and be successful. However, when people are not physically active, their self-esteem is compromised because it is not balanced across the domains of participation in sports, work, school, politics, religion, love, and so on.
The sixth domain in which we can learn about what affects self-esteem as you get older is your physical appearance. People’s physical appearance has profound consequences on their general self-esteem and so it is important for people to be aware of this. A person who is overweight or has a slow metabolism will have a low level of self-esteem because their physical appearance does not reflect their real self-image. For example, an older woman may be less confident when walking in a mall because she looks old and unattractive.
The seventh domain in which we can learn about what affects self-esteem as you get older is family dysfunction. Children who grow up in dysfunctional households where physical abuse is prevalent have low self-esteem and lower levels of overall confidence than children who grow up in stable, loving families. In fact, low self-esteem and low confidence may even become genetic traits, which means that if your parents or other family members have low self-esteem or lack self-confidence, you may also will. For example, there is a study that shows that the personality trait of irritability that is correlated with physical appearance self-esteem is actually genetic, which means that if your parents or other family members have low self-esteem, you may also will.