THE FOLLOWING EXPERIMENT took place in Brooklyn: sixty-two teenagers were assembled in a room. Labels an inch and a half high were stuck at random on each person’s forehead. The labels were all different, saying things like: “Lazy,” “Ugly,” “Famous,” “Rich,” “Cool,” “Clumsy,” “Wimpy,” etc. Each person could see everyone elses’ label but his or her own, and it was against the rules to tell someone what their label said. They were told to treat each other according to the label on their foreheads. Then they mingled.
At the end of the experiment, one young man said, “I feel distrusted, like I’m some kind of thief. I don’t like it.” The label on his forehead read, “Dishonest.” As you might expect, the people wearing the labels “Rich” and “Famous” enjoyed the way people treated them. The participants could tell, just by the way people treated them, what their label said—maybe not the exact words, but the general idea was pretty clear to each of them.
This illustrates something very useful.
For years self-help authors have implored their readers to change the way they appear to others: Dress well, speak with confidence, move with assurance, smile. In other words, act like a well liked, successful person, even if you don’t feel like one. Believe it or not, this is practical advice. All these ways of expressing yourself are like signs on your forehead. They tell each person you meet, just as surely as if you had it written in big letters, how she or he should treat you. These ways of expressing yourself are signs that say, “I’m successful, well liked, and worthy of respect.”
No matter what you do or how you act, you are telling people how they should treat you, and you’re conveying that message whether you are trying or not. If the sign on your forehead is a good one, leave it alone. But if you’re not getting the response from people you want, make a new label.
Act like a person who is well liked and worthy of respect,
even when you don’t feel that way.
SELF-ESTEEM HAS BEEN a hot topic for years. And for a good reason: Low self-esteem is a source of trouble — bad marriages, social isolation, violence, lack of success, depression, conflict in the workplace, etc. Low self-esteem causes problems.
The obvious solution is to try to improve people’s self-esteem by pointing out their good traits. Psychologists told us we could give our children high self-esteem by complimenting and praising them often. And they said you could protect yourself by making an effort to think well of yourself — say good things to yourself, repeat affirmations, acknowledge your good traits, etc.
Recent research at Wake Forest University might be turning that popular philosophy completely upside down. The funny thing is, when all the smoke has cleared, what we have left bears a remarkable resemblance to simple common sense.
According to the research, self-esteem appears to be an internal guide to how well we’re doing socially, somewhat like our internal guide to the temperature.
When you feel hot, you take off some clothing or open a window. When you feel cold, you bundle up. Although you might be able to repeat to yourself over and over “I feel warm, I feel warm,” there are better things to do with your time. Might as well just put on a sweater and get on with it. It’s useful to have an internal guide — a feeling — that lets you know what’s happening in the world around you, and gives you some motivation to do something about it.
Apparently, that’s exactly what self-esteem is.
The feeling of low self-esteem is apparently nothing more than an indication you aren’t getting enough positive feedback from other people. You may not be getting rejected or criticized, but to really feel good about ourselves, we need something more than that. We need acknowledgment, compliments, appreciation. We need people to notice us and like us.
This is where it gets tricky. As a parent, you might want to improve your child’s self-esteem by giving him lots of compliments. But watch out. If you exaggerate your acknowledgments or if you sometimes make a big deal out of a small thing or resort to puffery, you may be setting your child’s internal gauge “off the beam.” You’ve set his social-status meter too high, and it no longer measures the situation accurately. Your child then grows up and goes out into the world and has difficulty dealing with people.
Some new research at Northeastern University showed that people who think well of themselves regardless of how others feel about them tend to be perceived by others as condescending and hostile.
Given this new information, a different approach to creating self-esteem seems in order: Giving honest and accurate feedback to our children, our spouses, and our employees. It’s relatively easy to compliment and praise people. It makes them feel good, and it makes us feel good to make them feel good. It’s more difficult to find something you genuinely appreciate and to say it without the slightest bit of puffery, but it just might do more good.
We can also help people do better. Of course! If someone is getting along well with her peers and she’s succeeding at something — trumpet, hobby, schoolwork, job, athletics — it will improve her self-esteem. So find a way to help her accomplish something. When people do well, they tend to feel better about themselves.
When you want to build your own self-esteem, it appears your best bet is to change your behavior. Do your tasks well and treat people well and you’ll feel good about yourself. Don’t worry so much about how you think about yourself. Change what you do to make yourself more appreciated by the people around you. Increase your value to other people and to the company you work for. Watch the reactions of other people. Pay attention to the reality outside your skin. Do more of what works. Do less of what doesn’t get the response you want. Your self-esteem, your internal “sociometer” will rise as an accurate reflection of your true abilities and where you stand with the people in your life.
To improve the self-esteem of others:
Give unexaggerated feedback
and help them gain ability.
To improve your own self-esteem:
Change what you do to make yourself more appreciated
by the people around you.