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Research: The Link Between Self-Esteem and Relationships

By January 22, 2020Blog
self-esteem and relationships

Have you wondered whether your social relationships affect your self-esteem and whether your self-esteem affects your relationships? Well the verdict is in.

A new analysis of research data collected over a long period of time using 83 samples including 68,226 participants found that, over time, relationships and self-esteem reciprocally predict each (Harris & Orth, 2019). These two-directional effects were found to be true at all developmental stages across the life span.

The data used had been collected between 1979 and 2011 and the studies were published between 1993 and 2016.

Different ethnicities were included: 60% of the samples were predominantly White, 2% were predominantly Hispanic/Latino/a, 12% were predominantly of another ethnicity, and 19% were of mixed ethnicities; for 8% of the samples, information on ethnicity was not available.

Thirty samples were from the United States, four were from Switzerland, three were from Germany, and there were two each from China, Korea, and the Netherlands. One sample was also included from each of the following countries: Australia, Sweden, Finland, Greece, Belgium, Canada and Russia.

A variety of relationship types were included in the research. The relationship partner in the studies were:

  • parents in 16 studies;
  • general others in 13 studies;
  • peers in 10 studies;
  • either a different partner – e.g. a coworker, or a combination of two or more partners – in 9 studies;
  • and romantic partners in 5 studies.

The analysis of this wealth of data suggests that positive social relationships, social support, and social acceptance are all important in shaping the development of self-esteem in all phases of our lifespan regardless of ethnicity and gender.

Though one downside of this analysis is that more than half of the studies utilise self-reports which are highly subjective and can, therefore, be biased, with the amount and variety of data used here, there is no doubt this is enlightening. So, how are your relationships affecting your self-esteem and how is your self-esteem affecting your relationships?

If you lack self-esteem do you find:

  1. You are overly critical of yourself and those you have relationships with?
  2. You ruminate/obsess over negative thoughts/incidences that are bothering you?
  3. You can become withdrawn rather than engaging?
  4. Your verbal communication tends to have a large amount of negative content?
  5. You focus on and discuss problems more than solutions?
  6. Your body language conveys insecurity/awkwardness?
  7. You tend to be unenthusiastic with others?
  8. You have a lot of self-doubting thoughts?
  9. You lack optimism?

If you have positive relationships in your life do you find:

  1. They empower you?
  2. They encourage you to be your true authentic self?
  3. They boost your confidence, self-esteem and self-worth?
  4. They nourish your mental and physical health and well-being?
  5. They frequently demonstrate compassion/kindness when interacting with you?
  6. They get excited for your successes?
  7. They help your personal growth?
  8. They give you sincere support and compliments?
  9. They intentionally try to help your happiness and health?

If the first list above resonates, take steps to elevate your self-esteem, for example: (a) ‘nurture, pause or prune’ the relationships in your life (nurture the good, pause or prune the bad – more on this in Happy Relationships) (b) create good self-care and happiness-building habits (science-backed strategies in all three books pictured below); (c) achieve personal goals as long as they are goals that matter to you; (d) speak kindly to yourself as self-critical self-talk is linked to low self-esteem and positive thoughts have been shown to help us be happier, healthier and achieve goals.

If the second list does not resonate with you for any one of your relationships, you need to assess how close to your inner circle you want that person to be and whether you need to cut them out of your life altogether.

  • Only surround yourself with people who reinforce your worth and well-being. Below are some tips to help you work out who is good for you and who isn’t:
  • If they frequently make you question your self-worth and/or they proactively knock your self-esteem, or otherwise threaten your well-being and your life, whether intentionally or not, and you’ve done everything you can to make the relationship happy and healthy, you need to remove them from your life or minimise the time you spend under their influence (around them).
  • Trust the bodily sensations you feel and the emotions they conjure when you interact with them:
    • people who are good for us make us ‘feel good’, emotionally and physically, in their presence, most of the time;
    • people who are bad for us make us ‘feel bad’, emotionally and physically, in their presence, most of the time.
  • Actively learn from each relationship, tune into the bodily sensations you experience most frequently around each person, online and offline, trust yourself to know who is a threat to your well-being and who is a friend.
  • Vet everyone, for your health, happiness and survival’s sake, regardless of whether you invited someone into your personal social network or someone else did. When they are clearly damaging your mental health, your physical health and your happiness, it’s okay to say goodbye. If they loved you or at least cared for you, they wouldn’t be treating you terribly anyway, so don’t feel bad. Yes, you may feel sad, very sad, and for a very long time, and you may love them, but you know intuitively what you need to do when they mostly bring destruction and pain to your life rather than love and happiness.

Love and look after yourself, love and look after the people with whom you have positive relationships, and be a steadfast gatekeeper of who is allowed to enter your life and who is turned away at the door; your health and happiness depend on it.



Harris, M. A., & Orth, U. (2019). The link between self-esteem and social relationships: A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.