Fragile vs. Secure High Self-Esteem: Why Ego Isn't Real Self-Esteem

Everyone has insecurities—and if you think you don’t, you might be kidding yourself. What matters most, though, is how you think about yourself both in relation to and in spite of your self-defined shortcomings. Do you admit them and strive to improve or accept them? Or do you avoid them altogether? The way that you think about yourself is going to be with you wherever you go, and the security of your self-image can have implications for all areas of your life. For this reason, it is vital to understand this self-conception and consider it part of your overall well-being. 

What is self-esteem? 

Generally speaking, self-esteem refers to your thoughts, opinions, and feelings about yourself. People with secure self-esteem tend to be fairly steady in their self-view and self-evaluations. These evaluations are often based more in deep beliefs about the self and don’t rely on external validation—for example, getting negative feedback on something won’t cause questioning or  re-evaluation of the sense of self.

On the other hand, fragile self-esteem (also called “unstable,” “insecure,” “contingent,” or “defensive”) is highly related to performance or evaluations from other people. It is often characterized by unrealistic views of the self that are vulnerable to be challenged by failure. People with fragile self-esteem may often seek validation, recognition, or reassurance from those around them and will likely take struggles or failures quite harshly (Jordan & Zeigler-Hill, 2018). 

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It is not known with certainty what exactly causes some to have more fragile self-esteem than others. Like many things in life, researchers believe the stability of self-esteem is related to a combination of genetic and environmental influence; the expression of genes often changes during development, so a change in regulation during adolescence or early adulthood might explain a shift toward or away from fragile self-esteem. Living in a stressful environment may also increase vulnerability to fragile self-esteem, and stress such as from high pressure may in turn further alter the expression of genes (Kamakura, Ando, & Ono, 2007). The exact mechanisms by which self-esteem becomes fragile are unknown, but individuals who place a large amount of importance on the approval of others or display highly dependent behaviors are often at the highest risk of experiencing fragility (Kernis, 2005).  

Why is fragile self-esteem harmful?

Fragile self-esteem impedes success in life and work

When your sense of self is fragile, it can make accepting feedback difficult. Hinging your self-worth solely on your performance may motivate you in the short-term, but in the long run you are more likely to shy away from a challenge or take constructive criticism to heart. Some people struggle with something called a hostile attributional bias, which leads to the assumption that any ambiguous or slightly negative interactions are malicious and ill-willed. In 2019, a study examining how this relates to self-esteem found that among 128 university students, those whose self-esteem was more fragile displayed higher levels of these biases (Park et al.). Interpreting suggestions or conversations as personal attacks makes it incredibly difficult to succeed in the workplace by making feedback feel like a threat. 

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Fragile self-esteem can also make you feel less fulfilled in your work; a study of 254 performers found that those who displayed high levels of contingent self-worth and perfectionism experienced lower life satisfaction and greater burnout compared to performers whose self-worth was not as contingent (Raedeke, Blom, & Kentta, in print). In other words, although perfectionism might feel like an asset, if you base your evaluation of yourself on whether or not you can achieve perfection, you’ll end up feeling less satisfied in the long-run. Instead, trying your best and being willing to accept feedback will not only prevent burnout, but it will also give you the opportunity to learn new things or approach tasks differently. 

Fragile self-esteem harms social relationships

As cited above, fragile self-esteem has been linked to social biases leading to the perception of a personal attack where none is present. This same study also found that higher levels of fragile self-esteem correlate with increased paranoia, making social relationships all the more difficult (Park et al.). Anxiety and paranoia are characteristic of insecure attachment styles—individuals who experience insecure attachment often require a great deal of reassurance and validation in relationships to assuage fears of abandonment or unrequited feelings. Though we all want to feel validated in our relationships, the exaggerated need to be reassuring of an anxious partner can put a strain on one’s partner and ultimately lower the happiness and relationship satisfaction of both partners (Lemay & Dudley, 2011). Recent research on the connections between self-esteem and relationships has expanded on this idea, finding that lower and/or more fragile self-esteem decreases feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment across both short- and long-term intervals (de Moor et al., 2021). 

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Fragile self-esteem can create emotional issues 

When you are constantly re-evaluating yourself, it can make understanding and managing your emotions feel impossible. Fragile self-esteem often leads to defensive and protective responses when faced with difficulties, which may lead to ignoring or justifying negative reactions instead of investigating them (Borton et al., 2012). A study that examined the relationship between personality traits and learning and coping strategies in 2020 found that, out of 588 university students, those who were high on the trait of contingent self-esteem were the most likely to engage in maladaptive strategies for emotional regulation, making them more subject to volatility and preventing them from fully engaging with or understanding their own moods and feelings (Fairlamb). 

In the long-term especially, fragile self-esteem can have more serious consequences for your psychological well-being. An insecure sense of self hinders your ability to heal and recover from negative events by increasing poor emotion-regulation habits like rumination. Being unable to let go of negative thoughts and self-conceptions is, of course, harmful to your mental health; chronic rumination is not only a symptom of depression, but has been shown to occur in higher rates among people with fragile self-esteem (Phillips & Hine, 2014). Because of these maladaptive tendencies, people with fragile self-esteem are at a higher risk for development or diagnosis of depressive or anxiety disorders. In a study examining the differences in self-esteem between individuals with remittent depression and those who had not been depressed, both general low self-esteem and fragile self-esteem was characteristic of the group which had experienced depression. Further, the degree of fragility directly corresponded to the severity of residual depressive symptoms, suggesting that these issues of self-esteem created an obstacle in managing depression (van Tuijl et al., 2016). 

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Why is secure self-esteem important?

Secure self-esteem improves resilience 

First and foremost, having a secure sense of self-esteem makes coping with failure or difficult life-events much easier. Just last year, a study examining factors promoting resiliency among 210 patients with rheumatoid arthritis found that those with the most secure self-esteem and sense of self employed more adaptive coping mechanisms and experienced overall greater life satisfaction than patients who were lower on this trait (Ziarko, Sikorska, & Samborski, 2020). Essentially, separating their challenges from their personal self-understanding made these patients better equipped to handle adverse experiences both associated with and separate from their diagnoses. Another study examining the impact of fragile and secure self-esteem on college students supports this finding. Out of 632 participants, those who displayed secure self-esteem were better-adjusted and overall more happy with themselves than were participants with fragile self-esteem (Wang et al., 2020). It makes sense—having non-contingent views of yourself makes it possible for you to experience setbacks without damage to your self-worth. 

Secure self-esteem facilitates clarity and confidence 

While fragile self-esteem leads to choices that protect one’s sense of self, secure self-esteem allows for more exploration by making challenges and the potential for failure much less daunting. Individuals who have fragile self-esteem might avoid trying something new for fear of being unable to succeed, reducing the overall number of opportunities they might have in recreational, educational, or occupational settings.  These tendencies can eventually lead to indecision and insecurity when pursuing a career; secure self-esteem is instead related to more clarity in career path and greater levels of self-efficacy in achieving goals (Shin-Huei, Chia-huei, & Lung, 2015). 

Secure self-esteem can also make social interaction more constructive; in cultivating a secure sense of self, the idea of disagreement as a threat is much less profound and therefore facilitates much more engaging and dyadic dialogues. People with fragile self-esteem often feel the need to be unequivocally correct and thus engage in a number of defense mechanisms when they feel their stance has been threatened. Contrarily, people with secure self-esteem are more likely to strive for improvement and recognize their errors (Zogmaister, & Maricutoiu, 2020). Having a secure sense of self consequently encourages the acknowledgment (rather than avoidance) of shortcomings and the subsequent efforts to make progress.

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Secure self-esteem promotes personal and professional growth

We established above that fragile self-esteem conflates the view of the self with how one performs or is evaluated by others. In contrast, secure self-esteem disentangles these factors and allows for a concrete, stable sense of self in spite of external appraisals. Earlier this year, a study was conducted to examine the relationship between types of self-esteem and motivating factors in productivity. As it turns out, people with secure self-esteem respond well to recognition respect, which objectively evaluates the value of some product of work.

Fragile self-esteem, on the other hand, leads people to respond better to appraisal respect, which refers to the evaluation of a person and their merits, suggesting that any sort of feedback given to an individual with fragile self-esteem will be interpreted as reflection of their self (Grover, 2021). Secure self-esteem, then, directly relates to the ability to accept suggestions without damage to the self. This is especially valuable in the workplace because employers rarely tell employees that they are “good people” just because they perform well (or “bad people” if their work could use some revision). A secure sense of self, then, is a valuable asset in professional life because it facilitates positive response to constructive feedback in terms of productivity.

Secure self-esteem is also conducive to satisfaction and well-being. The flexibility allowed by this security prevents burnout and makes room for introspection and self-awareness. Secure self-esteem is not associated with the same defensive, self-protective, and ego-inflating behaviors that are characteristic of fragile self-esteem, which in turn allows for growth in the face of adversity (Borton et al., 2012). Being able to accept a challenge or difficult emotion for what it is facilitates a much deeper and more constructive response to the problem than would simply dismissing it or making an excuse. Having security in your sense of self is like gardening in rich soil—you’re giving yourself the best environment to experience growth and reach your potential in all walks of life.  

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How can I improve my self-esteem?

Research has identified numerous ways to reduce the fragility of self-esteem. One solution involves reducing the contingencies of your existing self-esteem, also called diversification. Having a more holistic approach to your self-worth makes failure in one domain much less critical (Koszegi, Loewenstein, & Murooka, 2019). Diversifying your self-esteem can also involve strategies of self-compassion and acceptance, allowing you the opportunity to treat yourself with kindness instead of cruelty in the face of difficulty.

Changing your approach to learning and challenges is another good place to start; employing a growth mindset encourages the treatment of difficulty as an opportunity to learn and grow, whereas fixed and mastery orientations overemphasize the importance of skill and success. Adapting how you approach a task leaves room for failure and second chances without self-punishment. 

Self-esteem at its core is cognitive, so strategies akin to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are also effective in improving and fortifying your self-esteem. Just ten weeks of CBT is just as effective at increasing levels of self-esteem as EMDR when compared to non-intervention groups—the improvements following immediately after this ten-week session held true even three months following a CBT session (Griffioen et al., 2017). Reforming your self cognitions is crucial to experiencing growth in that it allows you to overcome the obstacle of your mind. After all, you will only ever be as happy or successful as you believe that you can be. 

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Develop your confidence with LIFE Intelligence

Research has shown that something as simple as using daily therapy apps can be effective in improving self-esteem (Giraldo‐O'Meara & Doron, 2020). LIFE Intelligence is an all-in-one self care apppart productivity app, part therapy app, part relationship app. It provides you with a comprehensive toolkit to manage your emotions, set and meet goals, make wiser decisions, and build positive relationships, both at work and in your personal life. With hundreds of scientific studies, it makes self-development simple, a guided journey to understand yourself and strengthen your self-esteem.

For example, in Mission 1 (out of 9 Missions, or topics), you'll learn Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and be able to develop control over emotions, from insecurity to anxiety. You can also use an interactive mood tracker to identify feelings, and then, manage them with coping and communication exercises. By setting goals and completing short exercises, you’ll become more self-aware, gain relationship skills, and master your mind to ultimately build your best self.

Johanna Caskey
February 17, 2021


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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. doi: 10.1037/pspp0000379.supp (Supplemental)

Fairlamb, S. (2020). We need to talk about self-esteem: The effect of contingent self-worth on student achievement and well-being. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/stl0000205  

Giraldo‐O'Meara, M, Doron, G. (2020).  Can self‐esteem be improved using short daily training on mobile applications? Examining real world data of GG Self‐esteem users. Clinical Psychologist. 1– 9. doi: 10.1111/cp.12219 

Grover. (2021). Different respect motivates different people: How self-esteem moderates the effects of respect on performance. Personality and Individual Differences. 168. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2020.110312.

Griffioen, van der Vegt, de Groot, &  de Jongh. (2017). The Effect of EMDR and CBT on Low Self-esteem in a General Psychiatric Population: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Frontiers in Psychology. 8. 1910. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01910       

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Kamakura, T., Ando, J., Ono, Y. (2007). Genetic and environmental effects of stability and change in self-esteem during adolescence. Personality and Individual Differences. 42 181-190. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2006.07.005 

Kernis, M.H (2005). The Importance of Stability of Self-Esteem in Psychological Functioning. Journal of Personality. 73(6) doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00359.x

Koszegi, Loewenstein, & Murooka. (2019). Fragile self-esteem. Carnegie Mellon University. Available at SSRN 3412006

Lemay, & Dudley. (2011). Caution: Fragile! Regulating the interpersonal security of chronically insecure partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 100(4). 681–702. doi: 10.1037/a0021655

Park YJ, Park JY, Chung KM, Song YM, Jhung K. (2019). Discrepancies of Implicit and Explicit Self-Esteem as Predictors of Attributional Bias and Paranoia. Psychiatry Investig. 16(3). 185-192. doi: 10.30773/pi.2018.12.24. 

Phillips & Hine. (2016). En Route to Depression: Self‐Esteem Discrepancies and Habitual Rumination. J Pers. 84. 79-90. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12141

Raedeke, Blom, & Kentta. (in print). Perfectionism and Self-Perception Profile Comparision on Burnout and Life Satisfaction in Aesthetic Performers. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology. 15. 1-22. doi: 10.1123/jcsp.2019-0007 

van Tuijl, Glashouwer, Bockting, Tendeiro, Penninx,&  de Jong.  (2016.) Implicit and Explicit Self-Esteem in Current, Remitted, Recovered, and Comorbid Depression and Anxiety Disorders: The NESDA Study. PLoS ONE. 11(11). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0166116

Wang, Y., Chang, E. C., Xu, J., & Liu, J. (2020). Finding “Just-Right” Self-Esteem: Syncretic Self-Esteem Promotes Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Well-Being. doi: 10.31234/                             

Shin-Huei Lin, Chia-huei Wu & Lung Hung Chen. (2015). Unpacking the role of self-esteem in career uncertainty: A self-determination perspective. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 10(3). 231-239. DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2014.950178 

Ziarko, Mojs, Sikorska, Samborski. (2020). Coping and Life Satisfaction: Mediating Role of Ego-Resiliency in Patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Med Princ Pract. 29. 160-165. doi: 10.1159/000503708 

Zogmaister, & Maricutoiu. (2020). If you are not prepared to be wrong, then your self-serving biases are simply not enough. Relationships between self-serving biases and discrepant self-esteem. doi: 10.31234/

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