Although I previously wrote that there is no benefit to having high self-esteem, the fact remains that people still want to feel good about themselves. Psychologists have discovered four main ways that people manage to do that.
1. Upward social comparison.
Humans have a drive to gain accurate self-evaluations. We want to be able to compare our abilities and accomplishments to those of others. Upward social comparison is when we compare ourselves to people who are better off than we are.
This can be a source of misery, when done incorrectly (when it makes us feel jealous or inadequate)...
But it can also be a source of inspiration when done correctly. It can be a way for us to find role models and develop strategies for personal growth and improvement.
I like to use basketball examples, since I love basketball. (See also: Women Rarely Play Ball Sports After High School - Here's Why That Matters.) So here is a basketball example of upward social comparison:
Allen Iverson is an amazing basketball player. And he is exactly the same height as me! He's a lot better than I am at basketball -- but if I work really hard, I can improve an be more like him. (Though I can't say I admire his attitude about practice.)
Technically, these examples may not be ideal, since, according to social comparison theory, our tendency to compare ourselves to others decreases as our abilities or opinions become more divergent.
Maybe a better example is, "Tony is such a great player -- he has such great court vision, and, like, all his threes go in! And he's ten years older than I am! If I work hard and keep playing, I can be like Tony when I'm old!"
We all know that role models -- from NBA superstars to teachers and camp counselors -- are important for children. But don't underestimate how important they can be for you, as an adult.
2. Downward social comparison.
Another way to feel better about yourself is through downward social comparison -- or comparing yourself to people who are worse off than you.
For example, "I played horribly today! I only scored four points in my best game. But at least I scored more than that guy in the blue shirt -- I've never seen him make more than one basket in a game."
It sounds kind of snarky and unhealthy. And it kind of is. I don't think this is a very appealing way to look at life -- but, actually, research suggests that downward social comparison is (and I quote), "The number one best way to feel better about yourself."
For example, a 1985 a study determined whether different women with breast cancer were more likely to upward or downward social compare as a coping strategy. For example:
Upward: Melinda has the same kind of breast cancer as I do, and hers is in remission. That means mine could go into remission, too.
Downward: Kate has the same kind of breast cancer as I do -- and she doesn't even have a husband to support her through this. I'm glad my husband is so supportive.
Intuitively, I would have guessed that the upward social comparers would fare better than the downward ones. But Wood et al. found the opposite.
Women who downward social compared were less likely to show signs of depression... and actually had better health outcomes. Like, they were less likely to be dead.
Because upward and downward social comparisons play different roles. Upward social comparison provides hope and opportunities for social modeling. Downward social comparison helps us avoid self-pity. In a weird way, feeling better than other people is empowering.
And. Feeling better than others has a physiological effect on our brain, which directly affects our bodies and our emotions about our situation. Feeling powerful (as in, better than someone else) is better than feeling powerless.
See also: According to Harvard Psychologists, You Can Think Yourself Skinny.
Self-handicapping, to put it simply, is when you sabotage yourself so that you feel better about the outcome.
For example. I've got a big test coming up. If I study for the test and I do badly on it, it hurts my ego. It threatens my identity as a smart person. I worked so hard on something, and I still failed.
That way, you either do badly on the test --- but like, obvi! Right? Because you didn't study?
Or. You do well on the test, anyway, and then you feel especially good about yourself. Everyone else had to study to do as well as (or worse than) you.
Sometimes, when I read about the social justice movement that's so popular right now, I can't help but wonder(/worry) if what I'm seeing is a form of self-handicapping.
For example: "Activism responsibilities" are causing students at Brown to fail and/or drop out of classes.
First of all, if you are a marginalized person, one of the best possible ways to improve your group's situation is to empower yourself. Do well. Make new rules. Obliterate stereotypes. You will do a lot more to help others (and yourself) by doing that... than by learning chants and interrupting invited speakers.
Second... Does writing an op-ed, hanging up posters, or attending a protest really take that much time? I run a small business, and that takes a ton of time and it's kind of stressful. But, somehow, I also have time to play basketball and go rock climbing several times per week; surf, hike or go backpacking on the weekends; write my own music (my goal is to have some great recordings online by the end of the summer); and run The Happy Talent (which, admittedly, is also an income source for me -- but still. It's not, like, my main business).
But I digress. The point is, lots of people, consciously and unconsciously, use self-handicapping as a way to protect their ego and feel better about themselves. Do you? Take a moment to think about it, because the short-term benefits of feeling good today might be majorly holding you back from your dreams.
Or, as James Emry wrote in How to Be Happy, Even When You're Programmed Not to Be,
Well wake the hell up because you could have more. You know that, don’t you? More happiness, more fulfillment, better relationships.
4. Basking in the reflected glory of others (or BIRGing).
When people we know -- or don't know, but are somehow affiliated with -- succeed, we feel good about ourselves. Let me give a very relevant and timely example.
Today, I saw my friend Elizabeth Iorns, who also happens to be a Ph.D. and the CEO and founder of Science Exchange, in an episode of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. (It's only one of the greatest shows on television.)
Check it out -- like, seriously, watch this entire thing, because it's really important. And because my friend is in it.
I felt cool.
I'm not close with Elizabeth. I didn't even know she was going to be on TV. But still -- seeing someone I know on TV made me feel cool.
And I'm not the only one.
Basking in the reflected glory research has been around since the 1970s, when Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, found that, after winning a football game, college football fans were up to twice as likely to wear clothing that endorsed the football team.
Moreover, they were more likely to use the pronoun "we" to describe events of the game than they were after a loss.
The opposite of BIRGing is CORFing, or Cutting Off Reflected Failure. As in the case of Cialdini's research, you can see CORFing when students are less likely to wear college clothes after a loss and more likely to say "they" than "we." (E.g., "They really blew it.")
I suppose there is a good reason for this, evolutionarily. We should want to associate ourselves with those who are successful -- even if it means feeling good about an unearned victory.
We want others to associate us with powerful individuals (or groups), because then they will value us more -- and because the perception of power is important for charisma.
But, taken to the extreme, BIRGing isn't all that good for you. You can lose your sense of individuality and self. And it might eventually backfire and make people like you less. No one likes a name dropper, a one-upper, or someone who is constantly "bragging" about their location or connections on social media.
To use an extreme example -- meet Shirley Hornstein:
Her social media feed was full of photos of her with big shots and celebrities -- and she used these apparent connections to manipulate startups and founders into giving her things she wanted.
In the words of Anthony Ha in his TechCrunch piece, The Talented Ms. Hornstein: How @Shirls Fooled the Silicon Valley,
She’d drop lots of names, claiming she was well-connected with celebrities and Silicon Valley bigshots. (One example: She said she was one of the first angel investors in Dropbox and helped them get into Y Combinator.) She’d find a way to get involved in each company, using promises of introductions to and meetings with those aforementioned celebrities and bigshots. Then if she’d didn’t get caught fairly quickly on a falsehood, the charade could drag on for a while, though with suspicions about things like her celeb-packed Instagram feed and the excuses about why she couldn’t deliver. Until finally there was a lie too big to sustain, and everything came crashing down. Sometimes it was just embarrassing, in other cases reputations or deals were damaged by the deception.
As for that photo with Justin Timberlake? Well, here's the original:
And if she had focused more on setting goals and developing herself, rather than BIRGing, she might have gone far.
Another example: the infamous Azia Kim, a Stanford freshman who, eight months into her time at Stanford, was discovered to be an imposter. She'd never been accepted to Stanford. She'd lied to her parents about getting accepted -- then showed up on move-in day, lied and schemed her way into being the third roommate in a double room, and attended the same classes and parties as everyone else.
Eight months! That's crazy. Think of the energy, determination, and craftiness it would require to live illegally on Stanford campus in dorms that other people lived in. She could have been very successful in college -- instead, she spent almost an entire school year trying to be someone she wasn't. Trying to bask in the unearned, reflected glory of Stanford.
It's especially sad because going to Stanford doesn't mean you'll get a Stanford education -- and going to a state school doesn't mean you won't. Azia Kim could have applied all that energy to learning and leading and improving herself. Instead, she applied it to BIRGing.
So there you go -- the four ways psychologists say you can feel better about yourself. Obviously, not all are created equal -- but each serves a purpose. Pick good role models. Set goals for yourself. Avoid self-pity.
Go easy on yourself when you're overcoming an injury or getting back into "the game" (whatever that means to you) after a long break. Recognize when you are tired, need more sleep - or need more time to prepare. Learn to say no to projects you don't have time to take on right now to avoid self-handicapping.
And finally: connections, relationships and networking are important -- but only if you have something to offer. That could mean friendship and kindness, or it could mean skills and determination. Your connections will make you look/feel cool. They may open doors for you. But you need to be able to back it up with something more.
See also: Achievement isn't normal. It's log-normal. Here's what that means for your future.