Today’s Read: Jennifer Crocker & Katherine M. Knight, Contingencies of Self-Worth, Current Directions in Psychological Science, v. 14, no. 4, pp. 171-228 (Aug. 2005), https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00364.x.
Well, hello there.
I have not done a blog post in a while because I have been making some changes in my life.
Last October, I joined the Great Resignation and left my job after nearly 10 years.
Then in November I did the following: (1) interviewed for and did not get a full-time librarian job at a local academic library, (2) interviewed for and got a part-time fully-remote librarian job at an academic library a few hours away, and (3) went to California to spend Thanksgiving with family for the first time since before the pandemic.
Then, in December, I went to Germany for almost three weeks to teach a class and freeze in the coldest cold snap Germany has had in a while.
I arrived back home on December 20, and then I was sick with some non-COVID, non-flu hell disease for almost three weeks.
And now here I am, basically well and adjusting to my new life. I love not working full-time, to be honest. I love having the time for a balanced mixture of treadmill runs, afternoon naps, cross-stitching, working in my cozy home office, and doing interesting projects. I’d have to say this has worked out well for me so far, and I really don’t have any regrets.
I suppose however, in the end, that “luck” was bound to run out.
I decided to apply for a part-time job in a local grocery store last week. I wanted to bring in a little cash, get out of the house, and meet some local people who are not in academia.
It was very weird doing a phone interview and an in-person interview for this job, with my recent job history that includes 15 years in academic law librarianship and two separate gigs as an adjunct/visiting professor at law schools. It is unlikely they have ever had a candidate like me before.
Today I got rejected for that grocery store job, in a three-line email that included the following sentence: “We wish you the best in finding a position that’s right for you.”
This is fine, I’m fine, everything’s fine.
Why is this blog post called “Timing”? Because the article that came across my desk and that I have chosen to blog about today is all about the development of self-esteem. This is kind of a funny area for me, especially right now. Life changes are bound to impact your self-esteem, especially if the way you measured it in the past no longer exists in your life.
My self-esteem has been tied up in my occupation as long as I can remember, and now I don’t spend the majority of my time and energy being a law librarian anymore. So far, I am a lot happier and not nearly as exhausted as I was before. This is a good thing.
But who am I? And how do I define personal wins and successes?
The problem, of course, is that I sought out another, completely different, occupation, essentially right away, and was rejected without even being given a chance to try it. I have never been a grocery store employee before. Clearly I am not cut out for that line of work, otherwise they would have hired me, right?
This rejection really stings, much more so that I would like to admit. But being an open and honest person is important to me. So here it is, in blog, for the world to see.
Anyway, about this article. It starts out by introducing concepts from the “self-esteem and contingent self-worth” literature, including the following suggestions written by William James in 1890:
ONE: “Momentary feelings of self-esteem fluctuate around a person’s typical or trait level in response to good and bad events.”
TWO: “People are selective about what events affect their self-esteem: They invest their self-esteem in—that is, are ego-involved in succeeding at—some things, whereas their success at other endeavors has no impact on their self-esteem.”
Getting rejected from two jobs in a span of three months definitely qualifies as “bad events.” Given my history, it makes sense that I am “ego-involved in succeeding at” anything related to work.
My first reaction to this latest failure in job-seeking was on-brand, because I immediately thought, “Awesome, I’m just going to stay home and not apply for any other job ever again.”
This, of course, makes sense according to the article’s explanation of the connection between self-esteem, contingencies of self-worth, and personal goals:
“When [people] are not sure that success is possible or failure can be avoided, they will disengage from the task, deciding it doesn’t matter, rather than suffer the loss of self-esteem that accompanies failure in these domains.”
What if we took the authors’ advice and looked at the pursuit of self-esteem as only having “short-term emotional benefits”?
I really like how they compared seeking self-esteem wins to enjoying a sugary treat:
“The emotional boosts associated with success in domains of contingency are pleasant but do not satisfy fundamental human needs for learning, relatedness, and autonomy. Rather, we think of boosts to self-esteem as analogous to sugar: tasty but not nutritious.”
Whoa. What a brilliant stroke of timing that this article crossed my desk today. If all I see in and take from this rejection is the blow to my ego, the authors argue, that reaction will come with the following costs:
- Costs to learning (including benefitting from “opportunities to learn and improve”)
- Costs to autonomy (“when self-esteem is contingent, autonomy tends to be low”)
- Costs to relationships (“pursuing self-esteem interferes with establishing and maintaining mutually supportive relationships”)
- Costs to self-regulation (“efforts to protect self-esteem can undermine success and … the intense emotions associated with failure in contingent domains can disrupt efforts to achieve goals”)
- Costs to mental health (self-esteem fluctuations “predict increases in symptoms of depression”)
- Costs to physical health (“through stress, and indirectly, through self-destructive behavior”)
The authors of this article argue, rather effectively I believe, that “contingent self-worth is an ineffective source of motivation; although boosts to self-esteem feel good, they can become addictive, requiring ever greater success to avoid feelings of worthlessness.”
So this latest rejection can sting, and it will. But it doesn’t define my value as a person. One thing I can take from it is the ability to bounce back.
This is going to be especially important now that I am considering a future that includes creating my own consulting business for research, editing, Bluebooking, translating, etc. I will have to think about my work and my value in a whole different way, and not let setbacks I experience during that process (and there will be some) define my worth as a person.
So for the rest of today, my schedule remains what it was before that email hit my inbox: nap, treadmill run, work on my ongoing projects, celebrate another day of Dry January, sleep well and soundly.