How (and why!) other people have the power to affect our self-esteem

Have you had that one childhood friend that you did almost everything together with?

If so, you’ve probably often heard your parents compare you to her/him (mine did): “Look at Jane (John)–how come they are doing better in school, at sports, at playing the piano?” or “Why can’t you be more like Jane (John)?”

How did this make you feel? Unhappy, perhaps. Envious, maybe. Jealous of your best friend’s successes. Depressed that although you try, you can’t seem to reach their level of performance.

More importantly, although you may not have realised it at the time, but such ill-executed parenting strategies aiming at boosting your ambition and vigour, often didn’t have the intended effect. On the contrary, your self-esteem likely plummeted and became tied to your performance (at school, at sports, etc.). 

It’s the beginning of a very unhealthy relationship with the self.

Psychologists have, of course, studied the ways our close friendships have power over our own sense of worth.

Here is the how and why behind the phenomenon.

One of the most interesting theories, which looks at these complex links, is called “Self-Evaluation Maintenance (SEM)” Theory. It was developed in 1988 by the American psychologist and professor from the University of Georgia Abraham Tesser and examines the concept of self-evaluations within the capsule of the relationship between two individuals.

Self-evaluation is also analogous to self-esteem and is basically the way we view or think about ourselves. The theory takes into account 3 variables—the closeness of another person to us, the relative performance of the other compared to ours, and the relevance of the performance to our self-evaluation. These elements interlock and subsequently affect our levels of self-appraisal.

Additionally, the theory reveals, there are two processes involved during these interactions—comparison and reflection. In his work, “Toward a self-evaluation maintenance model of social behavior” from 1988,[1] Dr. Tesser gives the following example to support his ideas. If a close to us person (a sibling or a friend) does well at some activity, we often share their success and bask in the reflected glory of their performance.

The better this person presents themselves and the closer they are to us, the more our positive self-evaluation will surge. This is called “a reflection process”—the higher the performance and the closeness, the greater the boost in our self-esteem. Alternatively, if our friend or sibling does very well but we compare ourselves to them instead, our favorable self-evaluation will plummet.

If, however, someone does well but is not very close to us (or if, similarly, they perform very poorly), our self-appraisals will be, most likely, unaffected, since we won’t be sharing the success nor comparing against the other person. Moreover, the theory goes, whether we engage in reflection or parallel depends on relevance—that is, how much of our self-definition, pride and esteem we rest on the particular activity or skill. Say, our best friend wins a piano competition.

If we are not a musician but an athlete instead, our friend’s success will have low relevance—thus, by being proud of them and sharing their success, our self-evaluation will increase. If, however, we both perform at that competition and our friend wins the first place, we won’t reflect but compare instead, and will go through a whirlwind of unfavorable emotions about ourselves. Naturally, our feelings of self-worth will suffer too.

There is a silver lining for our ailing confidence, however. There are things that we can do, Prof. Tesser advises, to offset drops in our self-evaluation. We can, for instance, distance ourselves from that particular friend. Less closeness will lower or even remove the negative impact on our hurt self-esteem in the situations when the friend does well. Alternatively, we can change our self-definition and decide that music is not our forte—we are, perhaps, better at sports. This will also reduce the relevance effect to us of our friend’s success—and will dampen or eliminate hits on our confidence.

Yet another (less advisable) step we can take (again, per Prof. Tesser) is to try and affect the performance of our friend—by, let’s say, sabotaging them and hiding their notes. Undoubtedly, quite the evil route to feel good about ourselves. And talk about unfair competition! To be in sync with our moral standards, though, most of us (I strongly hope) will not consider, nor engage in such treachery conduct even if, as the theory suggests, it may briefly boost our confidence.

The most self-pride-deserving approach will be to simply work on becoming better than our friends in the things that matter to us—by putting more effort and by practicing more, which are, of course, the victorious roads to take if we are truly devoted to our passions.

The endeavor to improve ourselves will, naturally, lift our self-esteem as well. Rather than envying those who have sacrificed more by working harder, by putting longer hours and by having greater persistence and patience than us, we can take steps to become a notch better.

Interestingly enough, the theory’s ideas were put to the test and were supported by further research.[2] It turns out, however, we are not always the “good” friends and our motives are not pure all the time, as the theory originally assumed.

When something is important (or relevant) to us (a skill, activity or outcome), research tells us, in 10 out of 13 times, we’d rather help a stranger succeed than a friend. The opposite is true when relevance is low—then, we will definitely be the virtuous person we are expected to be—10 out of 13 times we will give our friends a hand. 

Fundamentally, the SEM theory adds yet another layer to the complex affair between self-esteem and its influencers. It reckons that our relationships affect the levels of our self-evaluations (self-esteem), and that, generally, people always look for ways to maintain or increase their self-opinions.

Even if it means that, in order to re-gain the belief in ourselves, we need to either convince ourselves that the outcome is not really important to us, or to alienate our friends, or even worse—to betray their trust and secretly help them fail.

And such options may leave us wonder—is there such a thing as a hefty price tag on self-esteem, or is the saying true that the end, in the end, justifies the means?


[1] Tesser, A. (1988). Toward a self-evaluation maintenance model of social behavior. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 21, pp. 181-227). New York: Academic Press.

[2] Tesser, A. , & Smith, J. (1980). Some effects of friendship and task relevance on helping; You don’t always help the one you like. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 16, 582-590.



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