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Cold Family History Can Disrupt Adult Sense of Self, Even With High Self-Esteem

Cold Family History Can Disrupt Adult Sense of Self, Even With High Self-Esteem

Although some children emerge from cold and neglectful family environments as adults with high self-esteem, a new University at Buffalo study suggests these people may still be at a relative disadvantage in life, with a foggier sense of who they are.

On the other hand, adults with low self-esteem who grew up in the same type of negative environment actually have relatively high self-clarity, according to the study’s findings.

“Our findings show that even those people who manage to get out of that relatively negative time and view themselves as good, worthwhile, and capable people are still not sure of the entire picture of themselves,” said study co-author Dr. Mark Seery, University of Buffalo professor of psychology. “So they’re held back a little bit in that sense.

“It seems counterintuitive at first,” he said, “but people who currently view themselves more negatively — as not so worthwhile or capable — have the most clarity about themselves when they grew up around a harsher family environment.

“We think that sense of clarity comes from the fact that there is a match between their negative view of themselves and their negative experience growing up.”

Typically, greater self-clarity is associated with better psychological adjustment, lower neuroticism, better academic performance and a lower likelihood of anger and aggression in response to failure.

Self-esteem and self-clarity are each unique components of the self. Self-esteem refers to a person’s overall feelings of self-worth; self-clarity reflects the extent to which self-views are clearly and confidently defined.

Previous research has shown that higher self-esteem is associated with higher self-clarity, so people who feel good about themselves tend to have a clearer sense of who they are.

“But we thought there might be more to the story,” said Lindsey Streamer, a University of Buffalo graduate student in the Department of Psychology and co-author of the study.

The study has been published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

“Drawing on previous research, we know that getting feedback that’s inconsistent with self-esteem leads to reduced clarity,” she said.

“So people with high self-esteem who get messages contrary to their overall self-evaluation tend to have conflicting interpretations of the self, or low self-clarity.”

That research, however, focused on feedback that was isolated, like a recent comment or something else that was “very much in the moment.”

“We wanted to look more at ongoing, chronic social feedback, such as early family experiences,” Streamer said.

In the new study, researchers used a questionnaire to determine the degree to which subjects were raised in a warm and loving environment as opposed to one filled with chaos and conflict. Subjects also completed assessments that measured self-esteem and self-clarity.

Similar to previous research findings, the results suggested that when people experience an inconsistency between how they think about themselves and what they’re hearing from others, they develop low self-clarity.

This study, however, is the first to examine the ways in which early family experiences may influence aspects of self-clarity.

Curiously, the results suggest that people with low self-esteem who grew up in a caring environment are particularly likely to have low self-clarity.

“If I think I’m a good person and have positive expectations, I think good things are going to happen to me. So it makes sense when they do,” said Seery.

“But if I have low self-esteem, things like getting a promotion at work or having a secret crush ask me out on a date may feel good, but they don’t entirely make sense to me, because I don’t expect to be treated as though I’m a person of worth.”

“These results show how important consistency is for people,” said Seery.

“We have a strong motive to expect consistency and to find consistency in our lives. It includes us and how we fit in the world, and that can lead to some counterintuitive findings like we have in this study.”

That motivation for consistency is present regardless of whether people view themselves positively or negatively.

It’s the inconsistency between self-views and what happens around us that contributes to this lack of clarity about the self, the researchers conclude.

“Our work is another striking demonstration of this basic idea, but extending it into early family experiences,” said Seery.

Source: University of Buffalo

Cold Family History Can Disrupt Adult Sense of Self, Even With High Self-Esteem

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Cold Family History Can Disrupt Adult Sense of Self, Even With High Self-Esteem. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 10 Mar 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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