The Fluctuations Of Self-Esteem Across The Life Span


In the context of behavioural psychology, the idea of self-esteem implies an individual’s perception of self-worth that develops over time through a set of principles and belies with which he or she has been raised from early childhood. Such beliefs correspond to one’s appearance, expected behaviour in the presence of others, attitudes, emotional intelligence and stability, performance in professional and personal responsibilities and relationship with others. These aspects determining an individual’s degree of self-esteem further depends on intrinsic factors such as age, gender and core personality traits as well as extrinsic factors like socio political culture in which one is reared, interpersonal relationship one has with his or her family, peers and those in the job circle. Human lifespan comprise of four stages: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Scientific evidences suggest that self-esteem is considerably elevated during childhood, relatively drops in adolescence phase, gradually recovers and heightens through adulthood and declines drastically in old-age (Baumeister, 2013). The following essay highlights the causes of fluctuations in self-esteem through childhood till old age and how it operates in the context of social and cognitive changes impacting one’s maturational trajectory in their lifespan. Through extensive researches and surveys it has been observed that these changes influence individuals of the same demography and culture in similar ways. This fact has given rise to normative shifting patterns of self-esteem throughout developmental periods. Another form of change suggests that stability of individual difference reflects the amount by which an individual’s self-esteem varies over time.

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Trajectory of Self-Esteem from Childhood to Old Age

Childhood: This phase of one’s life span is usually marked by an inflated self-esteem which happens because as a child, an individual tends to form self-views that are based on unrealistically positive information. This high self-esteem gradually declines as the child moves from pre-school to elementary school and advance towards more realistic expectations (Brown, 2014). Self-evaluation at this stage is in accordance with the testimony of their teachers, parents and peers. Such external feedback and social comparison expose the individual to more accurate but negative judgment about oneself.

Adolescence: As the individual transitions from childhood to adolescence, they become cognitively more conscious about themselves. They start taking note of their body image linked with puberty and succumb to certain emerging problems associated with it. In the context of junior high school, they are faced with increasingly socially complex challenges and often form distorted perceptions about self in cases of missed opportunities or failed expectations (Chung et al., 2014). Their ability to acknowledge abstract approaches in alternative solutions are generally low. All these factors, in combination, lead to a sharp degeneration in one’s self-esteem during adolescence.


Adulthood- During this stage, self-esteem gradually increases and reaches its maximum level at around 60 years of age (Dweck2013). Throughout adulthood, an individual utilises his capacities into developing skills and enriching knowledge in order to acquire powerful status and position in their professional life. Being successful in such endeavours promote their feeling of self-worth. Research evidences have suggested that achievement in career are usually at its peak during adulthood which brings about a positive outlook about oneself that gets reflected in one’s self-esteem. Individuals are cognitively more matured and emotionally stable to take up complex challenges and accomplish outcomes that are consistent with their expectations.

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Old Age: As observed by Orth, Maes & Schmitt (2015), self-esteem begins to degenerate at an average of 70 years of age. Older individuals face major life changes like retirement, death of their beloved and their own physical incompetency to deal with the challenges of life. Such emotional changes are manifested through depression. Older people face health issues and often do not receive the amount of care they expect from their children or nearest care-givers. Many individuals also face stark socio-economic crisis which hinders their chance to revive their quality of life. Though they have strong notions of self-worth, their self-esteem diminishes considerably with a drastic shift from powerful to a modest and humble perception of life. Usually, older individuals have a balanced view of themselves at the last stage of their lifespan which increases their tendencies to accept their limitations rather than defending them. Consistent with such interpretation, they score relatively low in their self-esteem scale.

The Big Five Personality Dimensions correlating with Self-Esteem

The Big Five Dimensions of Personality consist of Extraversion (vs. Introversion), Conscientiousness, Openness, Emotional Stability (vs. Neuroticism) and Agreeableness to experiencing new events. These five dimensions are responsible in impacting self-esteem in individuals across age, gender, socio-economic status, ethnicity and nationality. The interrelation between these five dimensions and self-esteem lies in the developmental roots of gene and environment and provides insight into one’s personality across lifespan. As per genetic evidence, about 30% of the variance in one’s self-esteem arises from some heritable trait (Anusic & Schimmack, 2016). For example, one’s temperamental characteristics generating affective feelings determine what kind of nature that person possesses and the extent to which the person tend to feel negatively about themselves. In the age trajectory it has been clearly observed that during adolescence, both males and females direct their personality dispositions to build up negative affect which eventually lowers their self-esteem during this phase. At the core of Extraversion, positive emotionality heightens self-esteem in an individual. The affective component in Neuroticism critically gives rise to a distorted self-esteem which eventually increases in the old age.  Personality essentially shapes the individual’s beliefs, their actions and reactions in various situations, their pursuit in life goals, their relationships with others and their potential to cope in novel environment. Self-esteem determines the person’s level of self-confidence or the lack of it, which in turn regulate their ability to engage successfully or otherwise in the above mentioned aspects.


Gender Differences induced by Environment and Genetic factors

Research evidence, in quest of validating gender differences as one of the significant factors affecting the level of self-esteem, have suggested that males and females when subjected to certain environmental factors exhibited different levels of self-esteem. Interaction with family members was considered to be the primary source of such environmental factors. As argued by Marshall et al. (2014), genetic predispositions have also been considered as being instrumental in influencing self-esteem differently in males and females. Further researches in this field have offered explanation regarding how maturational changes linked with puberty and socio-cultural factors lead to more variable trajectories in the evolution of self-esteem in the two genders across their teenage years followed by adulthood and old-age. Traditionally, males have been found to possess higher self-esteem throughout their adolescence whereas females do not exhibit such continuous linear growth. They are more prone to experience radical increase or decrease in their self-esteem during adolescence. This fact was observed in a cross-sectional study that revealed a female was more oriented towards self-objectification, symptoms of disordered eating, appearance anxiety and habitual body-monitoring during their teenage years. However, the consequences of such dissatisfaction eventually decreased beyond 30 years age.

Ethnic and Nationality Differences

The emergence of ethnic differences influencing the levels of self-esteem was observed sharply among the Latinos, Middle-Easterns, Asians and Black males and females (Trzesniewski, Donnellan & Robins, 2013). For example, self-esteem among Latino boys surged during adolescence and dropped in their adulthood unlike the pattern of normal trajectory. Similar deviations were observed in case of Middle-Eastern, Black and Asian women whose self-esteem peaked at the transition from adulthood to old age.

The different changes in the self-esteem across the life span influences several outcomes – such as satisfaction in relationships, job satisfaction, salary, occupational status, negative effects, physical health and depression. An ongoing debate is prevalent that human beings with higher self-esteem can have better chances at life rather than those with low self-esteem. Whereas some of the studies have suggested that there are particularly no relation between the success of a person and the self-esteem (Orth, Robins & Widaman, 2012). Again many of the studies have indicated that changes of the life esteem have important effect on the life outcomes.

Before discussing the outcome of the self-esteem development it is necessary to understand the connection between self-esteem and life-outcomes. It is the self-esteem the behaviour of an individual and how the person would react to situations in different phases of life. This varies from person to person and depends upon the amount of self-esteem present (Orth, Robins & Widaman, 2012). Some of the possible outcomes of the changes in self-esteem are- Relationship satisfaction, Occupational status and job remuneration and health.

Old Age

Several studies have reported that satisfaction in a relationship is positively associated with self-esteem. Some of the studies have revealed that human beings with high self-esteem display high relationship enhancing behavioural patterns that helps them to sustain in a relationship. Whereas those with low self-esteem has been found to be showing more relationship destroying behaviour affecting their relationship and marital life. Self-esteem suffers when a person grows up in a dysfunctional family (Orth, Robins & Widaman, 2012). People having low self-esteem generally do not follow models of a good relationship skills, cooperation, assertiveness, healthy boundaries and conflict resolution. Often children which are emotionally abandoned from the childhood suffers from low esteem in the adulthood that not only affects their personal relationship but also affects their way of viewing the life. Children with low self-esteem are incapable of developing long-lasting relation of friendship in schools and are also incapable of interacting with other children. According to a multivariate regression analysis, Satisfaction with peer relationships and suicidal ideation has been observed to be significantly associated with self-esteem.

According to Orth, Robins & Widaman, (2012), low esteem is associated with the occupational status of an individual. Occupational status are the key determinants of the socio economic status. Some of the studies have mentioned that high self-esteem helps a person to get higher education and thus aspire for high salaried jobs that further strengthens their self-esteem. Cai et al., (2013), have stated that positive evaluation of self from adolescent to young adults, has been related to highly paid jobs in future. Their high confidence level and determination helps them to sustain longer in jobs. Based on the Theory of Career Construction and The Theory of Self-Verification theory the study by Cai et al., (2013), have examined the relationship between self-esteem and future work self and the adaptability of the career. People with high self-esteem can adapt themselves better at any workplace. The study has also revealed that the satisfactory effect of self-esteem on analysis of career have been found to be higher and stronger in students having high levels of proactive personality. Low self-esteem can adversely change the work patterns of the individuals which can affect their professional development. Irrational fearing of rejection or becoming irritated easily with the performance is a common indicator of low self-esteem (Steiger et al., 2012). One of the dangerous behaviour displayed by the one with low self-esteem is pessimism that will not only affect the interpersonal development of the individuals but will also harm other people. It has been found that many individuals have high qualification but fail to succeed in life due to lack of self-esteem and confidence.

The Big Five Dimensions of Personality

As per the studies by Robins et al., (2002), individuals with high self-esteem are found to have a sound health. This is can be due to the fact that individuals with high self-esteem can freely seek for advice and social support and are more likely to take care of the health. Another factor is that they are less likely to suffer from stress and anxiety and have healthy coping behaviour. Health is an umbrella term that necessarily does not only mean physical health but also refers to mental wellbeing (Park et al., 2016). According to Robins et al., (2002), people with high self-esteem are more likely to contribute enthusiastically to family and society. They have a greater capacity of coping up with the adversities of life yet keeping their nerves strong during every thick and thins.  Socialisation is an important aspect for the peace of mind. People with high self-esteem are likely to socialise more and can interact freely with people (Steiger et al., 2014). Socialisation, openness and free interaction is again associated with low levels of depressive symptoms. According to a study by Park et al., (2016), poor self-esteem has been found to be playing a critical role in the development many cognitive disorders and social problems like anorexia nervosa, anxiety, violence and bulimia. It should be noted that symptoms like anorexia nervosa can lead to major health complications. Self-esteem has been positively associated to school grades and perceived health status. Thus, high self-esteem throughout the life span can helps in the enhancement of both physical and mental wellbeing of the individuals.


To conclude the above discussion it can be said that the various environment and genetic factors that determine personality and subsequently, the levels of self-esteem across age, gender and ethnicity has the potential to bring about positive outcomes in one’s life or negatively affect the individual causing him or her to succumb to failure in their life.


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