Self-esteem, an individual’s own, subjective evaluation of their own worth, varies wildly, from hour-to-hour, day-to-day, and year-to-year. This makes it a frequent topic of investigation for psychologists. A brand-new paper, published in the Psychological Bulletin, attempted to nail down how self-esteem generally changes throughout life.
Average levels of self-esteem increased from 4 to 11 years of age, which then remain stable until 15. At this point, it increases strongly until 30, then increases more slowly until it peaks at 60. Then, it remains more or less constant until 70, whereupon it drops slightly until 90. It then, rather distressingly, falls precipitously until the age of 94.
The team, at the University of Bern, took a look at plenty of pre-existing research for their meta-analysis. They carefully assessed the validity and applicability of hundreds of studies, finally choosing 175 journal articles, 15 dissertations and 1 book chapter to analyze.
These studies involved 164,868 participants engaged in longitudinal research endeavors, wherein someone’s self-esteem – measured explicitly, not merely implied – was tracked at least twice across an interval of at least six months. Various ethnicities, genders, and ages, from 4 to 94, were involved in these studies.
That would make this study the most comprehensive look at how self-esteem changes throughout a person’s life, but there are plenty of caveats.
Each person’s life is completely unique, and it’s difficult to compare the existence of someone in a war-torn nation to someone in a relatively liberal, peaceful society. There are countless factors that influence a person, and subsequently, their self-esteem and how they assess it.
Nevertheless, the researchers explain in their study that the patterns they found seem to hold true even when such complexities are taken into account. “The pattern of mean-level change held across gender, country, ethnicity, sample type, and birth cohort,” they write, adding that their “findings are robust and generalizable within Western cultural contexts.”
They also note that their data disagree with several narrative reviews, some of which say – for example – that self-esteem decreases in the transition from early to middle childhood, around 4 to 8 years of age, as a result of increasing awareness of the difference between the ideal self, and the actual self.
The authors stress that solid evidence of self-esteem is difficult to obtain at this age, though. They speculate that their findings – that it only increases – could be related to a child’s gains in personal autonomy and ability to interact with the world around them.
Adolescence is emphasized to be a chaotic period, for sure, but in general, their data, which suggests a variable but inexorable increase in self-esteem, is solid. They speculate less about the changes in adulthood, but also point out that even though there is a decline in very old age, it was based on a very limited number of studies, so there’s a bit of a question mark here.
The authors explain, though, that if this decline exists, it must be better understood. “If very old adults experience significant loss in self-esteem, these changes may impair their level of well-being and contribute to the emergence of depressive symptoms and disorders,” they stress.
As insightful as this study is when thinking about average trends, it cannot be underscored more emphatically that your own self-esteem may not fit these patterns. Self-esteem, remember, is subjective.
For many, it’s constantly changeable. It’s unfortunately common to base it on the actual or perceived achievements of others, which makes determining self “worth” is an exhausting, endless task. A consistently low level of self-esteem can be devastating and destructive.
Just like everyone has self-esteem issues, everyone has worth. Having low self-esteem doesn’t make you alone – and things can, and often do, change for the better.