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The Black-and-White Of Low Self-Esteem

Posted Jan 07 2009 6:52pm
People who see their relationships as either all good or all bad tend to have low self-esteem, according to a series of seven studies by Yale researchers published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The findings suggest that those who had low self esteem found it hard to think of their partners as a mix of positive and negative characteristics at a given point in time. Those with higher self-esteem were able to hold onto both the good and bad aspects of their partner and see them in the gray, instead of in black-and-white.

Researcher Dr. Margaret Clark says, " In good times, those low in self-esteem tend to idealize partners, rendering those partners safe for approach and likely to reflect positively upon them. At the first sign of a partner not being perfect, however, they switch to focusing on all possible negatives about the partner so as to justify withdrawing from that partner and not risking vulnerability."

Low self-esteem can have other devastating consequences.

* It can create anxiety, stress, loneliness and increased likelihood for depression.

* It can cause problems with friendships and relationships.

* It can seriously impair academic and job performance.

* It can lead to underachievement and increased vulnerability to many self destructive behaviors.

* Worst of all, these negative consequences themselves reinforce the negative self-image and can take a person into a downward spiral of lower and lower self-esteem.

The Good News

The good news is that though self-esteem is largely developed during childhood, it can be increased and strengthened. According to the University of Texas at Austin Counseling Center, three steps can help you get there.

Step 1: Rebut the Inner Critic: Challenge the negative messages of your critical inner voice. This means that you have to counter your negative self-thinking with positive mantras.

Step 2: Practice Self-Nurturing: Healthy self-esteem begins when you treat yourself as a worthwhile person. Start to challenge past negative experiences or messages by nurturing and caring for yourself in ways that show that you are valuable, competent, deserving and lovable.

Step 3: Get Help from Others: This can be the hardest step. People with low self-esteem often don't ask for help because they feel they don't deserve it. But since low self-esteem is often caused by how other people treated you in the past, you may need the help of other people in the present to challenge the critical messages that come from negative past experiences. Find good role models, healthy loving people with whom you can share your time, thoughts and experiences.

Viewing yourself, your partner or the world in black-and-white short-changes everything. Life should be filled with a palette of colors.


Clark, M. & Graham, S. (2006) Self-esteem and organization of valenced information about others: The jekyll and hyde-ing of relationship partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 90(4): 652-665.

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