Public Release: 

Who am I? New study links early family experiences, self-esteem with self-clarity

University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. - 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," says study co-author Mark Seery, UB professor of psychology. "So they're held back a little bit in that sense.

"It seems counterintuitive at first," he adds, "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."

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, the researchers explain.

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 UB graduate student in the Department of Psychology and co-author of the study, published in the new issue of Personality and Individual Differences.

"Drawing on previous research, we know that getting feedback that's inconsistent with self-esteem leads to reduced clarity," she says. "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 says.

The 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," says 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.

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