A bit of psychology: The Terror Management Theory of Self-esteem

A rather interesting and somewhat unorthodox self-esteem concept is the so-called “Terror Management” Theory (TMT). It was developed in 1986 by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski—all American professors of social psychology, and is based on the 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by the social anthropologist Ernest Becker “The Denial of Death.”

Becker claimed that human behavior is motivated by the awareness that death is inevitable. The tension — that we want to live and that we will all die one day –creates anxiety. Therefore, the theory says, we need self-esteem as it serves as a bufferit helps us to decrease the terror and to alleviate the fear of demise, which otherwise “paralyzes” and prevents us from pursuing our life goals.

Therefore—in a condensed recap—the TMT views self-esteem as a solution to keep our anxieties, including the fear of death, at bay.

A recommended road to feeling valued and boosting our confidence is through favourable appraisals from others—that is, affirming the idea that a positive public image is essential to our self-worth.

The utmost form of approval, however, is being loved, the authors state, and “being loved may be the primary source of self-esteem.”

However, equally essential to our personal value are having children and helping those in need. 

As one can imagine, the theory is not without criticism. Researchers have argued against the idea that higher confidence will completely eliminate the fear of death. People who pursue self-esteem as a way to relieve the terror—perhaps not surprisingly—would get only a short-lived comfort. The real problem—the inevitability of death—still remains.

Instead, opponents reason, the quest for self-esteem may be viewed as a mere attempt to escape the tension, similar to drinking alcohol or taking drugs. Hence, striving to become more confident turns into a relentless chase—the worry always returns, necessitating another boost to self-esteem, requiring even greater successes and accomplishments to achieve. Pursuing self-esteem to relieve anxiety is like running on a treadmill—despite enormous effort, one never really gets anywhere.

Finally, although the assumptions of the theory are disputable and perhaps even ambivalent (although parts of it have, indeed, been supported by studies and tests), the main notion to take away about the TMT is that it gives us a link between our deeply-rooted anxieties (as the fear of death) and our confidence. 

And even if we are not paralyzed by the fear of dying today, ultimately, we can still relate to the advice on how to feel more valuable—by striving to create a positive self-image, by seeking love and by helping others.

With such aspirations in sight, as the TMT implies, the road to self-esteem requires of us to also become better human beings.

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