Get Self-esteem With a Little Help From Your Friends (and Vice Versa)
Psychologists have long suggested that social relationships have a profound impact on people’s self-esteem. One idea called Sociometer Theory states that the reason why people have low, moderate, or high self-esteem is to signal to themselves how approved they are by their peers. Thus, if people tend to like you, your self-esteem is high, and if they don’t, it is low. Another idea from Attachment Theory is that self-esteem originates when infants first form relationships with primary caregivers, and the self-feeling that is established early on tends to persist as children form new relationships. The research testing these theories has been inconsistent in that some studies found support for long-term effects of social relationships on later self-esteem, whereas other studies did not.
Therefore, to compare the different paths of connection between self-esteem and relationship quality found in the literature, we assembled the findings from 48 studies that followed the same people over time to see whether relationships influenced later feelings of self-esteem. Because theories and research suggest the link can go the other way as well—self-esteem influencing relationships—we also gathered 35 studies testing that path. Self-esteem was defined as people’s comprehensive and subjective views towards themselves, including feelings of self-liking and self-acceptance. Relationships included those with parents, peers, romantic partners, and general social networks. The quality of social relationships was measured either by participants’ ratings of warmth, support, or intimacy; or by partners’ ratings of participants’ popularity/likeability.
The average effect of people’s past relationship quality on their current self-esteem was small but very meaningful given the multiple factors in people’s life histories that can influence their present-day self-esteem. Thus, the studies confirmed long-standing psychological theories claiming that social relationships from your past influence how you feel about yourself today.
What Factors Make a Difference?
Which social relationships matter the most? From what we know so far, all types of relationships (with parents, peers, romantic partners, and general social networks) are equally important in predicting later self-esteem.
At what ages do relationships matter the most? The studies included individuals as young as age 4 and as old as age 76, with an average age of 21 years. In addition, the amount of time between measuring relationships and self-esteem ranged from 4 weeks to 11 years, with an average time lag of 2.3 years. However, there were no effects of either time lag or age. This means that relationships have just as strong an impact on self-esteem for children as they do for older adults and anyone in between.
And What About the Reverse Path?
People’s self-esteem, in turn, also had a small but similarly meaningful effect on the quality of social relationships. This means that the extent to which you feel good about yourself today can impact how positive and supportive your relationships are in the future. This was especially true for relationships in general rather than a particular relationship partner.
An unfortunate implication of our finding is that it holds for negative relationship experiences as well as for positive ones. This means that harsh and unsupportive relationships from your past could continue to diminish your self-esteem today, and vice versa. But there’s no cause for panic because other resources such as resilience, accomplishments, and many other factors can supplement your self-esteem at any point and in turn lead to new relationships that help you get by once again.
For Further Reading
Harris, M. A., & Orth, U. (2020). The link between self-esteem and social relationships: A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(6), 1459-1477. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000265
Cameron, J. J., & Granger, S. (2019). Does self-esteem have an interpersonal imprint beyond self-reports? A meta-analysis of self-esteem and objective interpersonal indicators. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 23(1), 73-102. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868318756532
de Moor, E. L., Denissen, J. J. A., Emons, W. H. M., Bleidorn, W., Luhmann, M., Orth, U., & Chung, J. M. (2021). Self-esteem and satisfaction with social relationships across time. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 120(1), 173-191. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000379
Michelle Lucas is an Evaluation Analyst for Austin Independent School District and coauthor of the Lifespan Self-Esteem scale.
Ulrich Orth is Associate Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Bern. His main research interests are self-esteem and personality development.