If you’re hoping to fall in love in 2016, you may have resolved to be more confident. Confidence, singles are repeatedly told, is sexy. The common belief is that if you look in the mirror and see a gorgeous, brilliant, and wildly popular person, others will view you that way, too.
The prescriptions for raising self-esteem are also fairly well-known. Recite affirmations about how fabulous you are. Greet every coffee date with a straight spine and a shiny smile. Be sure to let them know how happy you are, how utterly satisfied with your fun, fulfilling life. In other words, the best way to win’s someone’s affection is to demonstrate how little you need it.
Confidence is great—if you’re confident. But what if you don’t feel so great about yourself? What if you dislike your job? What if your last relationship left you feeling fragile and insecure? What if the sight of your five-figure credit card bill fills you with dread and shame? Are your dates doomed before they even start?
No. Here’s the open secret about self-esteem: It doesn’t make people like you more.
An analysis of multiple self-esteem studies led by Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister found that people with high-self esteem consider themselves highly attractive, intelligent, popular, and socially skilled. However, the analysis also found that other people—roommates, teachers, fellow study participants–don’t necessarily share this view. IQ tests revealed that people with high self-esteem were no smarter than those with lower self-assessments, and outside observers did not find the highly confident to be better looking or more likable than anyone else.
“The superior social skills and interpersonal success of people with high self-esteem exist mainly in their own minds,” the authors write.
In certain situations, people with high self-esteem were rated as less likeable than those with low self-esteem. In one study, people with both high and low self-esteem took a very difficult test and were then informed that they had performed far worse than their peers.
Afterwards, they socialized with other study participants. The people with high self-esteem were considered more antagonistic and less likeable than those with low self-esteem. Once their sky-high self-images were threatened, they lashed out and alienated the people around them. By contrast, individuals with low-self esteem who suffered the same ego-bruising were actually more liked than participants in a control group.
Sure there are plenty of advantages to having confidence. People with high self-esteem are happier, more resilient, more likely to speak up for themselves, and more likely take social risks. (They may not be accurate in their assumption that they’re more likable, but the happy delusion makes it easier for them to approach others). People who are high in self-esteem are also more likely to leave a bad relationship.
And of course, it’s a great idea to do things that will help you feel good about yourself, from wearing nice clothes to doing volunteer work.
But if you’re heading out for a date on a night when your boss yelled at you or your skin is breaking out—in other words, when your confidence has flagged—don’t worry. High self-esteem doesn’t make people any more sought after or desirable—it only makes them think they are.
Sara Eckel is a personal coach and the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her any questions here.