Self-Esteem Influences How We Perceive Our Failures

Failure is a part of life. How an individual perceives their failure gives an indication of their overall sense of well-being and adjustment. Reflecting on past failures through imagery can provide even further detail into the one’s coping strategies. “As people recall and imagine life events, they often form mental images of those events and may do so from different visual perspectives,” said Lisa K. Libby of the Department of Psychology at Ohio State University. “With the first-person perspective, one sees the event from their own vantage point, as an actor in the scene; with the third-person perspective, one sees the event from an external vantage point, watching the self. This subtle phenomenological variable can have powerful effects on responses to pictured events, influencing judgment, emotion, and behavior.” Libby was interested to see if this shift in perspective was influenced by self-esteem, or if self-esteem played a role in how perspective affected one’s perception of failure. “One of the most well documented differences between low- and high-self-esteem individuals (LSEs and HSEs) is in how they react to failure: LSEs have more extreme negative reactions,” said Libby. “In particular, LSEs are prone to overgeneralize, a response style that is characterized by ‘a tendency to bring thoughts of personal inadequacy to mind and/or experience a reduction in the sense of self-worth.’”

Libby and her colleagues enrolled 83 undergraduate students in their study. The students were instructed to recall a failure they had experienced or to imagine one, from whichever perspective came naturally. The results revealed that LSE’s overgeneralized when they viewed their failures from the third-person. “In contrast, no such effects of self-esteem emerged when individuals pictured failure from the first-person perspective.” Libby added, “Further, among LSEs, picturing failure from the third-person, as opposed to first-person, perspective produced greater negativity in accessible self-knowledge and greater shame. Among HSEs, no such detrimental effects of third person imagery occurred—only beneficial effects.” Libby believes these results have important implications for understanding how clients cope with failure in their lives.

Libby, L. K., Valenti, G., Pfent, A., & Eibach, R. P. (2011, November 7). Seeing Failure in Your Life: Imagery Perspective Determines Whether Self-Esteem Shapes Reactions to Recalled and Imagined Failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026105

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • cooper


    November 15th, 2011 at 5:09 PM

    People with low self esteem feel bad about themselves to begin with. You would have to know that experiencing failure is going to make them feel even worse.

  • Ally


    November 15th, 2011 at 11:56 PM

    I’m in college presently and whenever there is an academic setback I don’t feel bad about it. Its not because I don’t care or anything but I believe a failure does not deserve to be given so much attention and energy.It could instead be used to fix it,right?! :)

  • mary andrews

    mary andrews

    November 16th, 2011 at 5:17 AM

    Those with LSE are prone to judging themselves way more harshly than the rest of the world is going to. But somehow they don’t see that they are their own worst critic.

  • emma


    November 16th, 2011 at 9:33 AM

    low self esteem is like strangling oneself I can tell you that.have had more than one person I have known closely who suffered from low self esteem and there have been times when I have been left shocked by their ideas of things and their own is so different from what you and I would think-really it is a waste of human power.

  • Hunter


    November 16th, 2011 at 5:12 PM

    Amen Ally! Wish we could all have that kind of attitude!

  • jackalberts


    November 18th, 2011 at 2:07 AM

    Let me guess. Lisa K. Libby is the wife of Captain Obvious LOL. It doesn’t take a member of Ohio State University to tell us that how we feel about ourselves has an effect on how we view our failers and mistakes!

  • Bradley D. Noble

    Bradley D. Noble

    November 18th, 2011 at 3:04 AM

    “Further, among LSEs, picturing failure from the third-person, as opposed to first-person, perspective produced greater negativity in accessible self-knowledge and greater shame.”

    I imagine that’s because when you have LSE you think everyone sees your mistakes on a grander scale than they actually do. Your mind magnifies the error beyond the reality.

  • Phil Appleby

    Phil Appleby

    November 18th, 2011 at 3:34 AM

    @Bradley D. Noble-That’s probably true. I suffer from low self esteem and the only thing that makes me squirm more when I make what I see as a big mistake is knowing that there were others around to witness that playing out. It’s bad enough when you screw up by yourself. With an audience there, it’s a million times more excruciating. I’m working on it. :)

  • d.m. wilde

    d.m. wilde

    November 18th, 2011 at 3:54 AM

    @jackalberts: Failers? I assume you spelled failures wrongly there. See, a person with real issues with self-esteem would have a nervous breakdown if they realized that after they posted it. My thinking is that they don’t truly have low self-esteem, but an underlying mental problem that is eating away at them and going untreated.

  • Sabrina McKay

    Sabrina McKay

    November 19th, 2011 at 2:23 AM

    @dmwilde–I can see where you’re going with that train of thought. Come to think of it, isn’t that one of the symptoms of OCD? Having to check every minor detail and get them absolutely perfect or you start to feel stressed out and tense? You might be onto something there.

  • Jasper Carlisle

    Jasper Carlisle

    November 19th, 2011 at 2:35 AM

    @d.m. wilde-I wouldn’t say that it’s a mental illness at all in the sense of OCD, although it genuinely is a problem those affected should face. Sessions with a shrink to help you vent and get a more neutral perspective on your life and how you’re going to get your self-esteem up to where you want it to be.

    When you feel you have no control over something about yourself, wise words can help you gain that control and clarity.

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