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When you ask people why they want to undertake difficult projects like pass tough exams, find a long term partner or lose weight, many of the responses ultimately revolve around an idea that they will end up feeling better about themselves.
For example, if you are more attractive looking physically or have better exam grades, then you feel better about your body or your mind, and this means your feelings about yourself improve. When we have raised self-esteem, we are more confident and assertive. We ask for more and tend to as a result obtain better outcomes from the world. If you don’t ask you won’t get.


A paradox is that if you have high self-esteem, you start a weight loss programme with the expectation of eventual success, and this assists in motivating you to keep going. If you have low self-esteem, you embark in a more psychologically precarious manner. When it doesn’t go smoothly you assume it’s because you tend to be unsuccessful at everything, and therefore, quelle surprise, you are failing again.


However, when you embark on a difficult project like trying to lose weight or obtain a tough qualification, rarely is the journey smooth. When things go wrong, a key predictor of your long term eventual success, is how you explain to yourself negative events as well as positive ones. People with high self-esteem have been found by psychological research to accomplish a fascinating intellectual somersault.


Whenever a good thing happens (they lose weight that week or month) they explain it by assuming it’s down to them. For example, their own hard work and perseverance. If, in contrast, a bad thing happens, they have a terrible week or month, in terms of weight loss, they make what’s referred to by psychologists as an external attribution. They assume it’s down to bad luck on disruption in their exercise plan; the kids got in the way, or circumstance or another person provided the key obstacle.


So ‘good’ is down to me, ‘bad’ is down to forces outside of me. If I made an excellent dinner last night for the guests then I am a genius chef, if it was terrible, then its Jamie Oliver’s fault for his crappy recipe.  If you do this all the time, it’s relatively easy to see why higher self-esteem tends to be the result.


Interesting to note, that those with low self-esteem, tend to move in the opposite direction. If the kids do well at school, then it’s down to the children’s own efforts, if they headmaster rings wanting a word because of their terrible behaviour, it’s because I am an awful parent. All good things are down to events outside of myself, all bad things that happen are because of me screwing up, yet again. 


It’s also easy to see how this kind of thing can become a vicious cycle. If you suffer from low self-esteem and therefore expect to fail, then it makes sense that if bad things happen it’s because of your old useless self acting up again. If you expect to succeed because you feel you’re generally marvelous, it’s easy to see how mystifying a cock up must be, and can only be down to circumstances which have nothing to do with yourself.


The flaw with this approach has been how to explain the fact that if you are to overcome difficulty, as in lose weight, you have to be able to confront reality and observe accurately when you are actually at fault so you can do something about it.


If you always censure your alarm clock for not ringing loud enough first thing in the morning, and this explains why you never get up in time for the dawn jog, then you will never probably end up running before breakfast. It’s taking responsibility and accepting the blame, that allows the opportunity for change and improvement.


Here a relatively new concept in psychology becomes relevant. This is referred to as ‘Growth Motivation’ by a psychologists and the concept was pioneered by a US Psychologist Jack Bauer, based at the University of Dayton, in Ohio, USA.


A recent study by psychologists Sun Park, Jack Bauer and Nicole Arbuckle all from the same department of psychology at the University of Dayton, adds weight to Dr Bauer’s theory that its growth motivation which accounts for those who eventually succeed as opposed to those who don’t.


The theory is that you have to be interested in personal change, and once you are then you become vigilant for ways in which you are going to need to change in order to achieve your goals. If your number one goal is to preserve high self-esteem then this often leads to what psychologists term ‘safety behaviours’. This means you take no risks. You try to hang on to what you have already so you don’t lose it. This refers to not wanting to go to the gym for the first time, or join a weight loss class, because you don’t want to look silly in front of others. If your number one priority is not to feel bad about yourself in the short term, then this can lead to not trying new things.


If, on the other hand, you are motivated to develop and grow and become a better person, then this means you seize opportunities for personal growth, even if they come at the risk of pain and sacrifice. And this means that your self-esteem eventually goes up because you feel good about your personal development. You are interested in the parts of you that need to change and in improving them you feel better about yourself.


The best kind of high self-esteem comes from confidence that you can improve yourself, not feeling that you are wonderful and perfect human being already. If you do that then you become complacent. The only way you can develop the confidence and expectation that you can progress, is from past experience of success in that area.


Growth Motivation therefore explains the key difference between fragile and secure high self-esteem. Those with fragile high self-esteem appear confident outwardly but collapse on the inside when they detect the possibility they are not perfect. Those with secure high self-esteem are actually interested in finding out where they need to improve, their deficits in other words, because they are confident they can get better.


The best self-esteem of all doesn’t come from where you feel you are in the race of life, but in your confidence in your ability to improve your position.




Sun W. Park, Jack J. Bauer, Nicole B. Arbuckle. Growth motivation attenuates the self-serving attribution. Journal of Research in Personality 43 (2009) 914–917


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