This chapter explores the many ways in which people’s self-conceptions are involved in the stress process. The appraisal of stressors’ magnitude and thus their impacts on mental health may depend on whether or not they occur in a highly valued role-identity domain. Changes in self-esteem mediate the damaging impacts of stressors on individuals’ mental health, including the impacts of stigma-related rejection and discrimination. The stress-buffering effects of social support may be attributable to the self-esteem boosts people obtain from their supporters. Persons with high self-esteem are more likely to use problem-focused coping strategies, which are effective in reducing distress when circumstances are actually controllable. One major way of coping with adversity in a particular social role is to de-emphasize the importance of the role as an identity or as a source of self-evaluation, softening the distressing effects of role-related stressors. Self/identity factors are complexly involved in the stress process; understanding the complexities is key to developing powerful interventions.
- social support
- mental health
- mental illness
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Manic and hypomanic episodes (aspects of bipolar disorder) and narcissistic personality disorder, on the other hand, include states of inflated self-esteem or grandiosity. Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, and Vohs (2003) argue compellingly that high self-esteem is not always a good thing.
Readers interested a detailed history of self and identity terms, variations in their meanings, and their roles in theory will find Weigert et al. (1986) a valuable source.
Self-esteem is only moderately correlated with others’ evaluations (e.g., May, 1991) for two reasons. First, we tend to perceive others’ opinions of us through rose-colored glasses (e.g., O’Connor & Dyce, 1993), which weakens the association between our own self-regard and others’ true evaluations. Second, we can assess our abilities or worth independently through social comparison processes (e.g., Gecas & Schwalbe, 1983; Suls & Wills, 1991); others’ evaluative feedback may not match our own assessments of our relative ability or worth.
Hence, our socially based selves/identities and our reflected self-esteem motivate conformity—sustaining and perpetuating the social order. However, the potential for unpredictability, creativity, and deviance is always present in the “I” aspect of the self (Blumer, 1969).
One must be careful with this strategy because a person’s current psychological state can influence his subjective reports about the events and difficulties in his life; his stress appraisals may be a product of the very outcome (his psychological state) that the researcher is attempting to explain.
Stryker argues that identity commitment in turn determines identity salience, which in his theory refers not to importance but to the likelihood that an individual will call up a particular identity when he or she has freedom of choice, for example, when introducing himself/herself to someone new or when spending leisure time.
Changes in identities are less commonly examined as intervening variables perhaps because identity losses are stressors and because weakened allegiance to an existing stress-filled identity can be understood as a coping strategy (Breakwell, 1986).
In contrast, symbolic interactionist theorists almost always presume the dominance of self-enhancement motives (i.e., they presume that individuals prefer positive feedback about themselves over feedback that is consistent with their existing self-images).
Although increased commitment may enable individuals to persist in the face of adversity, investigators have not yet assessed the psychological consequences of greater commitment combined with thwarted efforts to overcome problems.
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Thoits, P.A. (2013). Self, Identity, Stress, and Mental Health. In: Aneshensel, C.S., Phelan, J.C., Bierman, A. (eds) Handbook of the Sociology of Mental Health. Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-4276-5_18
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