Dayto Day Changes in Self Esteem

Most personality psychologists who study self-esteem focus on a person's average level, whether the person is generally high, low, or average in terms of his or her self-esteem. A few studies have been done on changes in self-esteem over long time spans in people's lives—for example, in the years from adolescence to adulthood. However, with some reflection, most of us would realize that we often change from day to day in how we feel about ourselves. Some days are better than other days when it comes to self-esteem. Some days we feel incompetent, that things are out of our control, and that we even feel a little worthless. Other days we feel satisfied with ourselves, that we are particularly strong or competent and that we are satisfied with who we are and what we can become. In other words, it seems that feelings of self-esteem can change, not just from year to year but also from day to day.

Psychologist Michael Kernis has become interested in how changeable or variable people are in their self-esteem in terms of day-to-day fluctuations. Self-esteem variability is the magnitude of short-term changes in ongoing self-esteem (Kernis, Grannemann, & Mathis, 1991). Self-esteem variability is measured by having people keep records of how they feel about themselves for several consecutive days, sometimes for weeks or months. From these daily records, the researchers can determine just how much each person fluctuates, as well as his or her average level of self-esteem.

Researchers make a distinction between level and variability of self-esteem. These two aspects of self-esteem turn out to be unrelated to each other and are hypothesized to interact in predicting important life outcomes, such as depression (Kernis, Grannemann, & Barclay, 1992). For example, variability in self-esteem is an indicator that the person's self-esteem, even if high, is fragile and the person is vulnerable to stress. Consequently, we can think of level and variability as defining two qualities of self-esteem as in the following figure:

Self-esteem level

Low

High

Stable

Self-esteem

variability

Variable

Level of self-esteem (whether one is high or low) and variability in self-esteem (whether one is stable or variable from day to day) are unrelated to each other. This makes it possible to find people with different combinations, such as a person who has a high level of self-estem, but is also variable.

high scorers on the femininity scale tend to do such things as send cards to friends on holidays and remember an acquaintance' s birthday, even though no one else did. Low scorers, in contrast, tend to take char ge of committee meetings and take the initiative in sexual encounters (Gough, 1996).

A fascinating change occurred in this sample of educated women—they showed a consistent drop in femininity as they moved from their early forties to their early

Kernis et al. (1991, 1992) have suggested that self-esteem variability is related to the extent to which one's self-view can be influenced by events, particularly social events. Some people's self-esteem is pushed and pulled by the happenings of life more than is other people's self-esteem. For example, for some people, self-esteem might soar with a compliment and plummet with a social slight, whereas others, who can better roll with the punches of life, might be more stable in their self-esteem, weathering both the slights as well as the uplifts of life without much change in their self-view. This stability versus changeability of self-esteem is the psychological disposition referred to as self-esteem variability.

Several studies have been conducted to examine whether self-esteem variability predicts life outcomes, such as depressive reactions to stress, differently than does self-esteem level. In one study (Kernis et al., 1991), self-esteem level was related to depression, but this relation was much stronger for persons higher in self-esteem variability than for persons lower in self-esteem variability. In other words, at all levels of self-esteem, the participants who were low in variability showed less of a relation between self-esteem and depression than did the participants who were high in variability. Similar results were obtained by Butler, Hokanson, and Flynn (1994), who showed that self-esteem variability is a good predictor of who would become depressed six months later, especially when there was life stress in the intervening months. These authors also concluded that variability indicates that the person may have a fragile sense of self-value and that, with stress, he or she may become more chronically depressed than someone whose self-esteem is more stable.

Based on findings from studies like these, researchers have come to view self-esteem variability as a vulnerability to stressful life events (Roberts & Monroe, 1992). That is, variability is thought to result from a particular sensitivity in one's sense of self-worth. Psychologists Ryan and Deci (2000) have suggested that variable persons are dependent for their self-worth on the approval of others. Variable persons are very sensitive to social feedback and they judge themselves primarily through the eyes of others. High-variability persons show (1) an enhanced sensitivity to evaluative events, (2) an increased concern about their self-concept, (3) an overreliance on social sources for self-evaluation, and (4) reactions of anger and hostility when things don't go their way.

fifties—a group level change in this personality variable. It is not known precisel why this drop in femininity occurs. Perhaps it is linked with the known decreases in levels of the hormone estrogen during this decade.

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