Does self-esteem actually exist?

"Mr. Orth, how does our self-esteem arise?"

The Developmental psychologist Ulrich Orth explores self-esteem. He explains why self-esteem is typically highest in adulthood - and how self-love helps children and young peopleto feel good at school and with friends.

Interview: Claudia Landolt
Picture: Salvatore Vinci / 13 Photo

Mr. Orth, many people believe that self-worth is innate. Is that correct?

Indeed, some part of self-esteem is innate. Indeed environmental factors play a slightly larger role than genes. In particular, social experiences have a formative influence, for example the relationships a child has with their parents and peers or, later in adulthood, the quality of partnerships, friendships and the general social integration of the person.

So there is no self-esteem gene?

No. Certain human traits such as personality, appearance, and health are influenced by a variety of genetic factors. Such genetically determined characteristics then determine the many experiences that a person has in their life. Compatible, intelligent and socially competent people are more likely to be valued by others and as a result develop a better self-esteem than people who are less liked.

You recently published a study on the influence of parents on self-esteem. What are the main results?

For this work I used data from a representative long-term study from the USA in which several thousand children were followed from birth to adulthood. The results showed that the quality of parenting behavior was the best way to predict the future self-esteem of the children. In addition, the analyzes suggested that the early family environment has a long-term effect Has. The influence became somewhat smaller in the course of development, but it did not disappear and was still observable in adulthood.

So experiences from early childhood can shape a person's self-esteem over their entire lifespan?

Correct. However, the influence of early childhood is not deterministic: one positive development is also possible with unfavorable family circumstancesand vice versa, a problematic development despite good family relationships.

As parents, you often have the feeling that younger children have a lot of self-confidence. Is that correct?

It has long been assumed that self-perception at the age of four or five tends to be excessively positive, that self-image begins to become more realistic around school entry and that this leads to a loss of self-esteem in many children. However, research shows that this is not the case. Typically, self-esteem increases from preschool age to around ten to twelve years of age and then remains at this level through the puberty years.

So puberty is not a time of crisis for self-esteem?

Of course, there are teenagers whose self-esteem hits rock bottom during puberty. At the same time, however, there are also young people who develop more self-acceptance at this age. Teenagers' wellbeing is often not as bad as one might think. The idea that self-esteem troughs during puberty may be related to the fact that at that age it fluctuates more from day to day than it does in adulthood. In teenagers, it is not uncommon for an argument with friends or a failed exam to temporarily provoke high self-doubt.

How does self-esteem develop after puberty?

In later adolescence and adulthood, self-esteem usually continues to rise up to the age of around 60 or 70, although life events such as the beginning of a partnership, separation or a serious illness can influence the individual course. It is not until old age that self-esteem typically decreases again.

Why does self-esteem keep getting stronger over the years?

In the course of their development, most adolescents and adults find better and better the place that suits their personality, skills, attitudes and interests, both professionally and personally. This is believed to be an important reason why self-esteem increases over large parts of the life span. However, these are changes that extend over many years. There are usually no radical changes in self-esteem. That means: At the age of 16, those who have a lot of self-doubts often have a somewhat weaker self-esteem at the age of 30 or 50, at least in comparison to their own age group.

Our social relationships have a big effect on our self-esteem, bigger than work and profession?

Yes. This confirms a meta-analysis on the role of social relationships that we recently carried out in my working group. The results showed that social relationships and inclusion at any age have a significant impact on self-esteem. Interestingly, it was also found that the relationship between social relationships and people's self-esteem is reciprocal. This means: Good social relationships promote self-esteem and at the same time a high self-esteem leads to further improvement in social integration. Unfortunately, this also means that People with low self-esteem enter a vicious circle of self-doubt and negative social experiences can come. It is therefore all the more important to promote the self-respect of children and young people.

Does Self-Esteem Depend On Gender?

On average, boys and men have a slightly higher self-esteem than girls and women. However, this difference is really small. There are many girls who have high self-esteem and, conversely, boys who have low self-esteem. The characteristics overlap considerably. In addition, research shows that Gender does not significantly affect the development of self-esteemthat boys, like girls, typically develop in the direction of more self-acceptance in the course of development.

Are Self Doubts Bad?

Self-doubt is not harmful per se. However, low self-esteem is unfortunately a risk factor for that Development of problems in social relationships, at school, at work and for the development of depression. Having a good self-esteem also means taking on all of your strengths and weaknesses. It is therefore important to help some children and young people to develop a constructive and benevolent way of dealing with themselves.

More about self-esteem: