Egosystem or Ecosystem?
This piece was contributed by Robert W. Reasoner, former president of the International Council for Self-Esteem. It appeared in the council’s Research Bulletin #1, May 20, 2006
It is generally accepted that people seek to maintain, enhance, and protect their self-esteem. Although there may be cultural variability in its expression, the tendency to seek self-esteem is well established in Western cultures. The manner in which individuals foster their self-esteem has a great deal to do with their behavior and the consequences to others.
William James (1890) who first used the term self-esteem, argued that self-esteem rises and falls in response to successes and failures in domains on which one has staked self-worth. Susan Harter, researcher from the University of California states, “One does not have to feel competent in every domain in order to experience high self-esteem. Rather one needs to feel competent in those domains that he or she judges to be important.” Jennifer Crocker, professor at the University of Michigan, describes these domains as “contingencies of self-esteem.”
Young children typically base their self-esteem primarily on the feedback they receive from others, with the parents exercising the greatest impact. After age 4 they begin to consider their competence at different activities. By age 7 children typically base their self-esteem on three domains: academic success, social acceptance, and physical prowess.
As they enter adolescence they shift from the importance of feedback from parents to feedback from peers. At this age their level of self-esteem is normally based upon six domains or contingencies: inherited endowments, social acceptance, feeling unique and worthy of respect, feeling in control of one’s life, moral virtue or integrity, and one’s accomplishments, including academic success. How one appears to others, athletic prowess, and popularity become particularly important at this age, though these are all external sources for self-esteem. As they reach adulthood, additional contingencies may be added, including such areas as creativity, job competence, romantic relationships, sense of humor, or success in competition.
There seem to be two distinct approaches to developing self-esteem…
There seem to be two distinct approaches to developing self-esteem, which Jennifer Crocker describes as egosystem and ecosystem goals. She refers to goals focused on the pursuit of one’s self-esteem as egosystem goals. These include goals to prove to oneself and others that one is wonderful and worthy.
When people are concerned about their own feelings of self-worth, competence or acceptance, it can lead them to lose sight of the consequences of their behavior for others and sometimes comes at great cost. Self-esteem based on such goals is highly dependent upon external feedback from others and therefore has been found to be significantly more fragile and unstable. For example, she has found that self-esteem based on external contingencies of self-worth, especially appearance, have high costs for stress, aggression, and drug and alcohol use, and symptoms of disordered eating.
Ecosystem goals are those where one’s self-worth is not in jeopardy…
On the other hand, ecosystem goals are those where one’s self-worth is not in jeopardy. Such goals might include the pursuit of knowledge, engaging in service for the welfare of others, or risking failure, disapproval, or rejection to achieve something of greater value. Thus, self-esteem is optimal when we are not pursuing it directly, not trying to feel better, protect it, or increase it.
People are better served when they focus on adopting goals on which improvement is possible and progress can be made, goals that do not put them at the mercy of other people or events in their lives. Learning goals or goals that are good for others as well as the self create healthier self-esteem. When one is creating or contributing to something larger than the self one is more likely to satisfy fundamental human need s for autonomy, learning, relatedness and foster self-regulation and mental and physical health.
Based upon the research of Jennifer Crocker at the University of Michigan. From Self-Esteem Today, Newsletter #6-3.
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© 2006, 2012, Dr. Jane Bluestein
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