Although “self” is a simple four-letter word, establishing a strong, confident sense of self requires our ability to battle through self-doubt and a great deal of work, patience, and understanding. People often say that failure is a normal and expected part of life’s journey, so why is it that some individuals can overcome their failures better than others? It all comes down to resilience and the ability to detach failure when we define ourselves. Meet Shannon Lupien, expert on self-esteem in social psychology. We at Psych2Go hope that you find her research, insights, and experiences enlightening, inspiring, and encouraging!
1. First off, tell our fans and I a little bit about yourself! What do you do specifically in psychology? What areas are your interested in the most and do research on?
I am a social psychologist with areas of expertise in the psychology of the self and self-esteem as well as factors that affect resilience and vulnerability. During my graduate career, I investigated two main lines of research. One focused on an intriguing paradox regarding self-esteem. The belief that high self-esteem is related to positive outcomes is supported in the literature and endorsed strongly by popular culture, as indicated by the thousands of self-help books and programs that exist to help boost one’s self-esteem. However, high self-esteem also has a dark side and has been associated with higher levels of narcissism, anger, and aggression.
More recent research suggests that fragile versus secure high self-esteem is associated with these defensive reactions. For example, those with fragile high self-esteem have been shown to possess greater self-doubt with the prospect of potential failure. My research has further examined the psychological experiences of self-doubt that may be responsible for this defensiveness. Specifically, the self-doubts of people with fragile high self-esteem occur particularly within the prospect of failing to demonstrate excellence, but not failure in general. They typically have the confidence to perform well in many situations, but may be particularly threatened if they are unsure whether or not they will be able to demonstrate exceptionally high performance, which helps to validate their fragile self-views.
Thus, the defensive reactions among those with fragile high self-esteem may be driven by the motivation to stop specific self-doubts activated during these situations in which their high status, and thus their self-esteem, is on the line. The second line of research focused on how evaluations of situational demands and personal resources can determine to what extent an individual experiences challenge (a positive psychological state) versus threat (a negative psychological state) while performing a task.
Challenge occurs when a person evaluates their resources as meeting or exceeding demands, whereas threat occurs when a person evaluates demands exceeding their resources. The psychological experiences of challenge and threat can be thought of as possessing a certain confidence versus doubt in one’s ability to meet the demands of the situation at hand. This is related to resilience or vulnerability in the face of a demanding situation.
However, most recently, I am expanding my interest in self-esteem and investigating how this may relate to the positive and negative effects of social media as well as how consuming certain types of media and identifying with media characters or celebrities affects social relationships and personal wellbeing.
2. How does psychology impact your life? Why did you choose to go into it?
Psychology is amazing. It is a wonderful tool in which to investigate the world. Because it is a science, it gives people who study it the ability to think critically and intelligently digest information that is presented to them. This is especially important when there are so many things, scientific findings included, that are sensationalized, exaggerated, and misrepresented in the media. These “facts” about our world are often blindly shared and become widespread beliefs that may simply be untrue. Thus, with the critical eye of science, we can begin to question the information we are presented with in order to come to a better understanding of the reality of it.
Furthermore, psychology can relate to nearly any aspect of life. That is one of the reasons why I chose to go into it, because it relates to so many aspects of my own life. I’m fascinated by how much I can understand about myself and other people by simply applying psychological principles to human thoughts and behavior.
3. You mentioned there being a dark side to high self-esteem and fragile high self-esteem. Can you explain to our readers what those mean?
As mentioned previously, high self-esteem is typically viewed as being uniformly positive. However, there may be different types of high self-esteem (i.e., positive self-views) that lead to different outcomes. In other words, there may be a variety of psychological factors that influence the components of and outcomes associated with high self-esteem. For example, high self-esteem likely encompasses both people who have strong feelings of high self-worth that are justified through successfully managing life circumstances, as well as people who have feelings of high self-worth that are inflated and grandiose.
In contrast to secure high self-esteem, which is marked by stable, well-anchored, favorable self-views that do not need constant validation, fragile high self-esteem is marked by self-views that are favorable, but shallow and require consistent validation though achievements and demonstration of excellence. This may stem from a sense of value and self-worth that is contingent upon exhibiting behaviors consistent with the others’ perceptions of what is good and appropriate rather than a sense of unconditional value and self-worth, thus resulting in the need to consistently validate self-views through achievements and successes.
4. What do you think having a healthy sense of self-esteem means? What does it look like?
A healthy sense of self-esteem is likely one that is secure, stable and well-anchored. A person with secure high self-esteem will likely have a sense of self-worth that is not dependant upon accomplishments and successes, but rather a view of self-worth that is valued unconditionally, regardless of how many achievements one might have. In other words, not feeling like a less worthwhile person because one failed at a task or didn’t quite reach one’s goals.
We all have failures in life, and someone with a healthy sense of self-esteem would be able to maintain their positive self-views despite these failures. After all, our failures don’t determine our worth, but rather how we respond to those failures.
5. What can someone do to build their self-esteem if they struggle with insecurities?
There are several important things a person can do to maintain or enhance their self-esteem when faced with insecurities. Firstly, it’s important to view our inevitable failures as separate from ourselves. Instead, recognize that they are not reflective of who we are as a person, but rather a simple behavior or outcome that can be improved upon in the future. Also, there are strategies that we can use to affirm the self.
For example, if we are insecure about one area of ourselves, it might be helpful to think about another area of the self that we are secure in. This may help to remind ourselves that we are not just one thing, and thus if we don’t succeed or are insecure about one aspect, it’s only a small part of ourselves. Similarly, if we reflect on values that are important to us, this may help give us confidence in the face of our insecurities by reminding us of our greater self.
6. You mentioned vulnerability and resilience being areas that you’ve also explored. Can you tell us about what you’ve learned from studying these two topics?
Potentially “stressful” situations occur on a regular basis and may represent some of the most crucial moments that people face in life. Within this context, different individuals can experience an objectively similar situation in very different ways, from confidence and excitement to apprehension and self-doubt. Being resilient is related to being able to evaluate our own personal resources. In other words, the things that we bring to the table, as being enough to handle the situation and meet the demands at the task at hand.
Vulnerability to threat occurs when we are unable to do this, and we are unsure whether or not we have what it takes to accomplish the task at hand. These different psychological experiences during a stressful situation have been shown to lead to a number of different outcomes, such as performance differences, ability to trust important people in our lives, and even perceptions of pain and illness. Overall, these psychological experiences can have profound impacts on many different outcomes in our lives.
7. Why do you think some people are more resilient than others? What are they doing that others may not be?
One thing that may explain why some people are more resilient than others is exposure to adversity. Although adversity is commonly viewed as disadvantageous and has been linked to negative outcomes, exposure to difficult life events may also have a beneficial toughening effect. Some of the work I was involved in during graduate school revealed that a moderate amount of lifetime adversity predicted greater resilience during potentially stressful situations than both no and high adversity.
Thus, it seems that it is important to have practice overcoming difficult situations successfully, which may build one’s confidence and ability to overcome future struggles. So, in the face of adversity, it might be helpful to remember times when one has successfully handled difficult situations in the past.
8. Why is vulnerability important? What are some strategies people can use to practice being vulnerable more?
The type of vulnerability that I’ve studied has more to do with being vulnerable to threat, and the potential negative effects of that vulnerability. However, if you think of vulnerability as being open to one’s feelings or the ability to recognize our faults, then this is likely an important factor in our ability to progress and improve ourselves. This type of vulnerability could potentially be related to fragile self-esteem and defensiveness. If we are secure in ourselves, we should be able to look at our failures as separate from ourselves and allow them to motivate us to become better, rather than something to become defensive about.
9. Many of our fans are going into psychology themselves. Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for them?
Many people go into psychology thinking that it is common sense or that it mostly involves the study of mental illness. However, it is important to recognize that psychology is a science, and thus it can be quite complex. But, it is extremely fascinating, so it is worth it!
It is also so much more than the study of mental illness and is related to nearly every aspect of life, from why some of us get better sleep at night, to how our memories work and strategies to improve them, to how to best interact with others to reduce conflict, how to understand and reduce prejudice, to how we are affected by our environment and genetics. Thus, it’s helpful to be open to the many wonderful things psychology can teach us!
10. Thank you so much for your time and consideration. We hope our community members can take away something valuable from your experiences, wisdom, and insights, Shannon! Please include your email and your site so our fans know where to reach you in case they have more questions! 🙂