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High Self-Esteem May Mask Defensiveness

If personal feelings are 'fragile,' it's no better than having a poor view of one's self

WEDNESDAY, April 30 (HealthDay News) -- There's a big difference between "secure" high self-esteem and "fragile" self-esteem, according to University of Georgia researchers, who found that those with the secure form are less likely to be verbally defensive.

"There are many kinds of high self-esteem, and in this study, we found that for those in which it is fragile and shallow, it's no better than having low self-esteem," Michael Kernis, a professor of psychology, said in a prepared statement. "People with fragile self-esteem compensate for their self doubts by engaging in exaggerated tendencies to defend, protect and enhance their feelings of self-worth."

Kernis and his colleagues studied 100 undergraduate students to determine how they responded to perceived challenges to their self-esteem.

"Individuals with low self-esteem or fragile high self-esteem were more verbally defensive than individuals with secure high self-esteem. One reason for this is that potential threats are, in fact, more threatening to people with low or fragile high self-esteem than those with secure high self-esteem, and so they work harder to counteract them," Kernis said.

But people with secure high self-esteem are better able to accept themselves, "warts and all." Because they feel less threatened, they're less likely to be defensive by blaming others or providing excuses when they discuss past transgressions or threatening experiences.

The study was published in the current issue of the Journal of Personality.

The findings are important, because they show that greater verbal defensiveness is associated with lower psychological well-being and life satisfaction, according to Kernis.

"These findings support the view that heightened defensiveness reflects insecurity, fragility and less-than-optimal functioning rather than a healthy psychological outlook," he said.

"We aren't suggesting there's something wrong with people when they want to feel good about themselves," the researchers wrote. "What we are saying is that when feeling good about themselves becomes a prime directive, for these people, excessive defensiveness and self-promotion are likely to follow, the self-esteem is likely to be fragile rather than secure, and any psychological benefits will be very limited."

More information

The American Psychological Association has more about self-esteem.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: University of Georgia, news release, April 28, 2008

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