This need for self-enhancement or self-esteem has been regarded as a fundamental function of our humanity an has been called the “master sentiment” (McDougall, 1932), and”the basic law of human life” (Becker, 1971). It is also considered by Klaus Grawe as one of the four basic psychological needs (2007), and the only on of those needs that is distinctly a human need. For to have self-esteem means we have to have a conscious awareness of ourselves and an ability to think reflectively. This self-image is developed as we interact with others, as we develop language, so it is a need that crystallises later than the other needs. It is also the most complex need, especially from a neural perspective, and we can only understand in part how this need is represented in the brain. There are some assumptions we can make with some degree of confidence based on our current understanding of psychology.
If self-esteem is a basic need then it would be reasonable to assume that people would always try to enhance or protect this need. However, this is not what we observe; people can seem to maintain a low self-esteem? Why would this be so? One important point to remember with all the basic needs, and the motivational schemas that strive to fulfil the needs, is that they constitute an overall need. In other words, there may be distinct needs, but collectively their relative fulfilment or violation result in a net need satisfaction/dissatisfaction. In some cases, to protect a number of needs, one need may be ‘sacrificed’ to preserve the others. For example the maintenance of low self-esteem may be an avoidance pattern utilised to serve another need (like preventing pain, or preventing loss of control) or to protect existing self-esteem from further degradation. An activated avoidance schema may be sacrificing high self-esteem to attain another need, like attachment through acceptance, and by being accepted, in a round-about way, serves to satisfy some aspect of self-esteem. So the tendency to self-esteem enhancement can be regarded as part of the approach system and self-esteem protection can be regarded as part of the avoidance system. There are a lot of complexities as to why someone would be maintaining a low self-esteem, but in context with other needs, may well be a compromising strategy so the overall need fulfilment/protection is satisfied as best as the individual can.
People who do satisfy the need for enhanced self-esteem are characterized by better mental health. These people will take opportunities to enhance their self-esteem through approach motivational schemas. People with a healthy self-esteem will evaluate themselves more positively than objective observers. It has also been observed that having unrealistic perceptions of self satisfies the self-esteem enhancement need, and is a good indicator of overall mental health. Mentally healthy individuals also have a skewed perception of reality with regard to themselves—often seeing themselves as ‘above average’ in contrast to the general population. People with high self-esteem will also take advantage of opportunities to further enhance their self-esteem. Because those who have a healthy sense of self regard themselves ‘better than average’ in a multitude of areas, striving for an absolutely realistic self-evaluation may not be in the best interests of mental wellbeing. Deluding oneself about having basic needs met more than is actually the case leads to positive feelings and in turn leads the person to attain a better state—like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Depressed individuals, however have a more pessimistic view of reality, they do not share in this delusion and are prone to further mental problems. Such people (operating out of avoidance schemas) experience life, and take on roles, that are often detrimental to self-esteem.
This series on Neuropsychotherapy Basics is primarily sourced from Grawe, K. (2007). Neuropsychotherapy: How the Neurosciences Inform Effective Psychotherapy. New York: Psychology Press. For a more detailed description of what has been discussed in this blog, and for associated references, I encourage you to read this book.
Becker, E. (1971). The Birth and Death of Meaning: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Problem of Man (2 edition.). Free Press.
McDougall, W. (1932). The energies of men. London: Methuen.