It’s natural to think that the more secure you feel about yourself, the healthier your relationships will be. After all, when you’re feeling good about yourself, you should, theoretically, be in a better emotional place with your loved one. Even if the person you’re closest to gets an inside view of your true self, as long as that true self feels reasonably confident, all should go smoothly, right?
But new research on the value of acknowledging personal weaknesses as a key to relationship satisfaction throws these seemingly commonsense assumptions into question.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. is currently a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The author of over 160 refereed articles and book chapters and 16 books (many in multiple editions and translations), her most recent popular work is The Search for Fulfillment.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
According to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Alice Huang and Howard Berenbaum (2017), our healthiest self-evaluations involve recognizing and then accepting our failings. As the authors define it, this quality of self-security is the “open and nonjudgmental acceptance of one’s own weaknesses” (p. 64). Key to self-security is the idea that we allow ourselves to notice, but not be bothered by, the “things that challenge our self-worth” (p. 64). Self-security is not the same as self-esteem. You can have high self-esteem but low self-security, if you tend to be critical of yourself and your failings, constantly finding flaws in your personal characteristics, the decisions you’ve made in your life, or the way you think and feel. Your self-esteem can still be high, even while you try to protect yourself from confronting any of these unfortunate truths.
There are solid reasons behind this theoretical rationale. In general, high self-esteem is indeed linked to a number of favorable psychological qualities, including better relationships. However, if that self-esteem rests on a fragile underpinning of fear of having your weaknesses exposed, then your relationships too will rest on an unstable foundation. When people high in self-esteem but low in self-security run into criticism or failures, they can become defensive and even condescending, according to Huang and Berenbaum.
To maintain your self-security, in contrast, the researchers believe that it’s necessary to practice self-compassion, which allows you to experience “self-kindness,” common humanity, and mindfulness. You aren’t overly harsh on yourself for your weaknesses, you recognize that no one is perfect, and you notice your weaknesses without letting them get to you. To achieve this state, it's important that you avoid becoming ashamed when you do something that threatens your sense of self-worth.
Huang and Berenbaum used this set of ideas as the basis for a 13-item measure intended to provide an index of self-security. Try it below; rate each statement on a scale of 1 (strongly agree) to 7 (strongly disagree).
1. My weaknesses make me feel like there's something wrong with me.
2. My weaknesses make me wish I could fix myself.
3. My weaknesses make life less enjoyable.
4. My weaknesses make life less fulfilling.
5. My weaknesses make life less meaningful.
6. Because of my weaknesses, I find it hard to like myself.
7. Because of my weaknesses, I find it hard to forgive myself.
8. Because of my weaknesses, I find it hard to respect myself.
9. My weaknesses bother me a lot.
10. I would be happier without my weaknesses.
11. I wish I didn't have my weaknesses.
12. Despite my weaknesses, I find it easy to appreciate myself for who I am. (reverse-score)
13. Despite my weaknesses, I find it easy to be kind to myself. (reverse-score)
As you can see from these 13 items, self-security involves being able to handle, non-defensively, knowledge of your imperfections. People high in self-security forgive themselves for these weaknesses, don’t regret having them, and don’t believe they need to be fixed at all costs.
To test the validity of the concept, the researchers examined the relationship between scores on this scale and measures of self-esteem, self-compassion, and proneness to shame. Participants also rated their relationship quality, as did individuals nominated by participants as closest to them, including parents, friends, siblings, other relatives, romantic partners, and roommates. Among the validational measures given were personality trait measures and indicators of attachment style.
In two additional studies, the researchers examined the statistical structure of their new measure and evaluated whether scores would be relatively stable over a short-term interval. Although related to other measures of self-evaluation, total scores on self-security independently were linked to relationship quality as judged by the participants and their closest family or friends. Further, Huang and Berenbaum reported that people high on the self-security measure were lower on such qualities as hypersensitivity to the judgments of the self by others, anxiety about being emotionally vulnerable, and the tendency to engage in self-aggrandizement. People high in self-security are also better relationship partners: By being able to accept your own weaknesses, you’re also more accepting of the shortcomings of others.
Now let’s turn the scale items into constructive ways to improve your own self-security. The authors did not provide a way to determine which scores are high or low on the self-security scale, but you should be able to judge from your own answers just where your own limitations lie.
Items 1 and 2 tap your tendency to fixate on your flaws as you focus on what’s wrong with your personality, physical attributes, or abilities.
Items 3-5 assess the way your weaknesses provide an imaginary obstacle to your ability to enjoy your life experiences. You believe that it’s your weaknesses that stand in the way of your fulfillment.
Items 6-13 relate to how harshly you judge your weaknesses in the context of liking yourself as you are, flaws and all. Wishing they would go away, you punish yourself for having them.
How, then, does self-security allow you to have better relationship and be judged more favorably by the people you care about the most? When you're self-secure, you don’t feel that you need to be constantly propped up and flattered. As a result, you’ll be far more easy-going and probably more fun to be around. People can tease you and you won’t fall apart. If you make a mistake, you won’t feel you have to lie to cover it up. You’ll be less defensive in general, less anxious, and less likely to replay over and over in your mind any possible slights or even unintended insults from the people to whom you’re close.
Huang and Berenbaum believe they’ve identified a key aspect of self-concept that no one has examined before. Self-security also fits into the recent positive psychology focus on self-acceptance and the idea that you can be happy without being perfect. If you believe your fulfillment to suffer from your defects and weaknesses, the idea of self-security suggests that you can let those weaknesses into your consciousness and still feel good about yourself and the others in your life.