Self-esteem and Security as Determinants of Behavior


Self-esteem and Security as Determinants of Behavior

Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    7-14

ABSTRACT:  Our moment-to-moment status with regard to self-esteem and security are the two greatest emotional determinants of our behavior.  One can understand oneself and others better by frequently checking on these two elements in oneself and in others.

KEY WORDS:  self-esteem, security, insecurity, behavior

Our momentary emotional status has a great deal to do with our choices of behavior, since emotions/needs are the primary determinants of motivation, and since all behavior is motivated.  We may think that we choose behaviors through considering our choices, assuming that this “considering” is mainly a cognitive activity, but without motivation for action, the cognitive apparatus would not be brought into play at all in our search for an effective means (the behavior) of altering the unpleasant emotion or fulfilling the need. 

Human beings are quite adept at hiding their emotions and needs from themselves and also from others.  We use this maneuvering to avoid feeling painful emotions and to hide emotions and needs that we are ashamed of or that would be criticized or punished if known to others.  When a parent says to a child “I’m only doing this for your own good,” it is likely that this is an attempt to disguise part of the parent’s motive from himself as well as from the child.  In deciding whether to drop atomic bombs on Japan, U. S. planners certainly had intense debates about the war-related outcomes of the bomb, but it is almost certain that their punitive impulses toward Japan at that point in the war played a significant role in the decision to actually drop the bombs.  It is also true that some people are raised without learning to understand their decision-making processes and may be largely ignorant of their complexity.

The result of this self-deception (or ignorance) is that people are often unaware of their motivating emotions and needs, and this often interferes with effective gratification behavior or even results in creating additional problems.  Being more aware of our motivating emotions and needs, as well as of our cognitive biases, can allow us to refine our decision-making.  This is not to suggest that emotions be eliminated from decision-making but that full awareness of emotional factors will help us to make better decisions and therefore to better handle our emotions and needs.

Two “feelings” are particularly significant in determining our motivation—our self-esteem and our sense of security or insecurity.  (The word “feelings” is used here because self-esteem and insecurity are not technically “emotions,” although they fall in the general category of emotional states or feelings.  The emotion behind security-insecurity is fear.)  These two feelings are particularly significant both because they are powerful motivators and because they are constantly with us.

Human beings are wired genetically and by evolution to be able to reflect on the self or organism, and these reflections stimulate various reparative or self-correction behaviors.  Self-esteem is defined (Ebbe, 2003) as our emotional response to our perceptions of ourselves.  For example, if we view ourselves as succeeding at something important to us, we feel “good” about ourselves, and if we fail we often feel “bad” about ourselves.  Every time we achieve a desired gratification, even for simple things like getting a drink of water, we add to the positivity of our self-esteem.  Since we are raised to monitor our own behaviors so that we can please authority figures and avoid punishments, and since our primary motive is to protect ourselves and enhance our situations, we are constantly experiencing this reflective and self-checking process—so frequently that we may even not notice it any more.  You can check this out by committing to noticing every feeling you have about yourself through the day.  If they don’t come automatically to your attention, you can purposely ask yourself from time to time how you are feeling about yourself.

Self-esteem is very motivating because it indicates to us our status with respect to our avowed values (whether we are acting consistently with the principles and values that we believe will get us what we most want) and with respect to our position in the status hierarchy, which has much control over what we get in life.  If we are not “true to ourselves” we feel ashamed or guilty for the self-betrayal.  Being low (or going lower) on the status hierarchy implies fewer resources and gratifications for our future lives.  Both self-betrayal and lowered status lead to lower self-esteem, and poor (negative) self-esteem is painful and leads to depression.

We also constantly monitor our safety in the world.  We react to the perception of danger with fear, which motivates us immediately to regain safety.  A person may or may not perceive danger realistically, but regardless, he or she acts to regain safety.  When we feel no fear, we feel secure, and when we feel fear, even in the background with respect to possible harm, we feel insecure.  Fear preempts most other emotions as motivator and takes over to ensure that our safety is assured, before we attend to other emotions and needs.  Most people are relatively unaware of their constant sensitivity to danger, particularly if they stay within their routine zones of safety all the time, but if they are put into an unfamiliar situation, they will immediately be aware of that sensitivity.

Our concern for safety extends to all possible harm, both physical and emotional, so we each attempt to organize our lives and behavior so as not to feel shame, guilt, demeanment from others, or other painful feelings.  When we plan or scheme, we both want to achieve the concrete outcome desired (being elected, getting the car we want) and to avoid feelings of failure and criticism or attacks from others if we infringe on their claimed “rights” or territory with our goal-oriented behaviors.

The point of bringing these two fundamental feelings, self-esteem and security, to attention is to suggest that conscious checking of one’s status with respect to self-esteem and security may go a long way toward making better decisions, instead of making decisions without this conscious awareness.  Being conscious of all of our motives allows us to plan better for making good outcomes for ourselves.  Also, we tend to hide painful feelings and possibilities from ourselves and hence tend not to use these awarenesses in making decisions unless they are unavoidable in the context of a particular decision.  For each of your plans or decisions, ask yourself what your self-esteem motivations (both desires and avoidances) are, and ask yourself how fear is influencing your planning.

As an example, consider the situation of a boy thinking of asking a girl to a dance.  His desired outcome is that the girl agrees to go with him to the dance.  His self-esteem is involved if he perceives her answer as a success or a failure, as a recognition of his value versus a negative evaluation.  His sense of security is involved if he views a “no” answer as rejection and anticipates feeling less valuable and less socially acceptable in the event of a “no” answer.  He may also fear that she might talk negatively about him to others.  Girls, of course, have the same kinds of concerns.

If he is relatively unaware of his feelings and conceptualizations (a “no” answer indicates lesser value), then before asking the girl he may feel just generally keyed up and upset, whereas if he was more “in touch with his feelings” and paid attention to his thoughts, he could recognize his fears and self-esteem concerns for what they are and do something about them, such as a little self-talk and reassurance or talking to a parent, some other trusted adult, or his peers, for reassurance and to discover that everyone else has similar feelings.

Almost every situation we face has self-esteem and security aspects, since every experience we have can alter our self-esteem and since every problem worthy of the name that we face has negative implications for us if we do not solve it.  It is best if you can be aware of all of your motivating emotions and needs, but if this is not possible in every moment, at least consider your current feelings regarding self-esteem and security.  You will benefit significantly by consciously considering these feelings and thoughts through the day as you deal with life.

Ebbe, Christopher (2003).  How To Feel Good About Yourself:  12 Key Steps To Positive Self-Esteem.  ISBN 978-0-615-24647-5.