The Hidden Force of Self-Esteem

For some time, research has shown how much we each unconsciously distort our perceptions to enhance self-esteem.  We amplify the good and modify the bad.  We tend to think we are more attractive, smarter, better and nicer than we actually are.

Freud started out with such an idea when he proposed that we “censored” thoughts that threatened our idealized image as civilized human beings.  The American psychiatrist, Harry Stack Sullivan, made the preservation of self-esteem the corner stone of his theory, pointing out how we continually engage in “security operations” to defend ourselves against challenges to established ways of seeing ourselves.

In his book Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson pointed out how much psychological research supports this idea that we view ourselves through “rose colored glasses.”  In my book, What You Don’t Know You Know, I describe an extensive domain of research that continues to explore how our unconscious minds are dedicated to making ourselves look better that we really are.  “It is difficult to admit being vindictive, spiteful, envious, competitive, mean-spirited or nasty.  But it is also often embarrassing to acknowledge ignorance, dependency, confusion, poverty, or simple errors.  We don’t want others to know such things about us, but often we also don’t want to acknowledge them to ourselves.”

New research reported in the Science section of this week’s New York Times now shows how memory joins in this effort to massage our self-image:   “In piecing together a life story, the mind nudges moral lapses back in time and shunts good deeds forward . . . creating, in effect, a doctored autobiography.”  (See, “Why Indiscretions Appear Youthful.”)

So, it may be worth asking, with all this accumulated weight of evidence, why do we need to be reminded constantly of this tendency?  One more study is not likely to tip the balance.  Why can’t we hold on to such ideas?

It must be self-esteem itself that refuses to accept it.  We want to believe we are objective and impartial.  We don’t want to see ourselves as biased and inaccurate.  Maybe it is as simple as that and will continue to be that simple – and, also, impossible to accept.