The Richard Nicholls Podcast

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Episode 157: Self-Worth and Anxiety

Let me tell you a little bit about the psychological theory of what’s called The Resources and Perception Model. What it suggests is that our psychological resources, our self esteem, our internal resilience, influences not just the way we see ourselves but also the way we see our external world.
Other studies have shown that by exposing someone to rejection, by being ostracised in a computer game of catch that is used in psychology research a lot called Cyberball, you can influence someone’s self esteem for a short while. The offshoot of this game is that now we know we can influence someones sense of self worth temporarily we can use that to see how these levels influence other things.
Jamie Lynn Gorman, a lecturer at Rutgers University in New Jersey, used it in her doctoral dissertation. Using Cyberball she creating a rejected feeling in people and then showed them animations of people walking in various different styles. Some were unrecognisable even as people, some were walking in a happy way, some angry, some were acting scared, you get the idea.
The point of this was to see what difference being rejected would make to how easily people can pick up on the emotions of the animated character. Also everyone had to do a little questionnaire that measured their normal sense of self worth as well as their social support, which we already know is a great buffer for dealing with stress.
What it found is that if someone’s resources were strong in the first place, being rejected in the Cyberball game didn’t affect how well they identified the emotions in the actors walking styles. But if their resources were low then it did, showing us that not only does being ignored have a negative effect on our perception of the external world around us but also that a good strong support network and healthy levels of self esteem are really helpful in dealing with stressful situations.
Previous studies have shown how our physical resources influence our perception of the world too. It’s been long known that being physically tired influences are how steep the climb up a hill is perceived to be and distances seem further away when energy is low. But according to this research we also find that things that we might perceive as threatening, like tarantulas, are perceived as being closer to us not further away. Now, this wouldn’t normally be that much of an issue, but we can see that by altering our perceptions like this it means that something which is in reality quite manageable actually feels less possible and so we miss out on opportunities if we’re not careful.
We need to know that our brain plays this trick on us, because it can easily prevent us from applying for jobs not just because our self esteem is low, but because the job description sounds more difficult than it actually is. But it looks as if there could be other factors at play here that make it feel as if something’s going to be harder than it actually is, because one of the experiments they did in this study was to have people look over a handrail from a great height and estimate how high up they were by imagining a table tennis ball being dropped and guessing how long it would take to hit the bottom.
According to the theory if someone had good internal resources then they would estimate the drop as less of a threat and guess it as lower, but when someone’s sense of their resources was poor then the drop would be perceived as higher. Now, some were allowed to hold onto the handrail as they looked and others had to have their hands behind their backs, the really interesting thing is that the only time that someone’s internal resources correlated with the perception of a lower drop was when the weren’t allowed to use the handrail for support.
When they held onto the handrail for support they didn’t activate any internal support and so they guessed the drop as higher. In other words using something as an external support actually holds us back rather than helps us. It’s a bit like learning to backflip. It takes hours and hours of practice, and any videos of people learning is mostly just footage of them landing on their heads onto crash mats. But until they move the crash mat out of the way to give themselves a firmer surface to push off or an extra few inches to get their feet back underneath them, they can never land the backflip.
The thing that is supposedly supporting them is actually holding them back. And it seems to be that this process exists in lots of different areas of life. So have a think, does your sense of self worth prevent you from taking opportunities at all?
If it does then as much as low self esteem is an issue it could be that your mind is also playing tricks on you and making it even worse. What’s fascinating is that the Resources and Perception Model recognises self worth as a resource in the same way as a good support network is, in other words having a low sense of self worth doesn’t have as much of an influence on our stress levels if we have a few good friends or family members that we can rely on in hard times.
I mention this because it can take years to build up our self-esteem, if you’re 45 and your sense of self worth has never been anything but rubbish it’s going to be quicker to build up your Psychosocial resources by connecting with friends more, or making new ones, this is likely to have a decent effect on self esteem anyway.
The only downside is that stretching your comfort zone is likely to make you more anxious at first rather than make you feel happier. It can be hard to have the positive perspective that allows you to feel happy about being anxious. But it should.
The more things you do that activates your anxiety, the more proud of yourself you should be. Poking your anxiety will make it easier to connect with people, help you to make more solid friends and boost your self esteem. It makes it so that hills don’t seem so steep, spiders don’t seem so scary and anything that you once perceived as a brick wall is actually just a hurdle for you to leap over, which soon becomes just a stepping stone onto something even better.