Self-Esteem in a time of isolation: How quarantine is giving birth to new meanings in culture.

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VP, Client Experience

If you’re like me, you’re sitting at your dining room table right now, staring at your laptop, trying to figure out what the heck is going on in the world.

It’s weird out there.

People are freaking out. The media is overwhelming. And we are being asked to eliminate the human contact that normally makes dealing with a crisis much more bearable.

As a result, I have been observing how people have been reacting to this situation.

And while there has been a lot of information written and reported on the threat to our physical wellbeing, I have been obsessed with something a little different – our self-esteem.

For context, my company Motivbase, specializes in performing observational ethnographic research on large samples of online data. We are experts at helping some of the biggest companies in the world go beyond “what” people are doing to understand and quantify the “why”. So, I am always interested in how people engage with each other online. But as you can imagine, watching how people are presenting themselves, and treating others online during this time of crisis has been fascinating.

Here’s the biggest problem: Humans are creatures of habit.

And our habits have been drastically interrupted by the recent Covid-19 pandemic. I am not talking about the obvious things. Like not physically being able to go somewhere you normally go or do the things you normally do. I’m talking about how we, as people nurture and protect our self-worth.

This self-worth or, to be more specific, contingent self-esteem (CSE) is self-esteem based on the approval of others or on social comparisons. In layman’s terms, our worth is largely linked to how we feel we are perceived by others.

According to Dr. Jennifer Crocker and her colleagues there are seven contingencies of self-worth:

  1. Approval: Our CSE is contingent on feeling like we belong and are accepted by the people in our life.
  2. Physical: Our CSE is contingent on our appearance.
  3. Competence: Our CSE is contingent on convincing others we are smart.
  4. Love of family: Our CSE is contingent on being able to prove that we care for and are cared for by our family.
  5. Performance: Our CSE is contingent on feeling like we are better than or outdoing others in competition.
  6. Virtue: Our CSE is contingent on feeling like people think you are a “good” or moral person.
  7. Faith: Some people turn to God, or embrace the idea that God loves them, in order to protect their CSE.

Think of this in the context of your “normal” day to day life. Our self-esteem is propped up when we:

  1. Interact with others in our work and social life and feel like others approve of the choices we make.
  2. Present ourselves to the world and feel like others approve how we look, how we dress and how we carry ourselves physically.
  3. Prove our intelligence by appearing knowledgeable (either in proving we are good at our jobs, up-to-speed on political events, or an expert on pop culture references).
  4. Reinforce that we put family first, and that our family cares for us (largely proven through the programming we participate in with our children or the experiences that we engage in).
  5. Compare ourselves to others, to feel like we are superior. This can be everything from our coed basketball game on Tuesdays, our trivia night at the pub on Wednesdays or outperforming our coworkers in the office.
  6. Do the right thing. Whether we hold the door for someone, let a car in while in traffic or volunteer at a soup kitchen, our self-esteem is fueled by finding ways to feel morally superior.
  7. Feel there is a bigger picture. Some look to forces beyond our comprehension to feel like their life has meaning.

In our current state of things, we are being forced to deny ourselves experiences that bolster and feed our CSE. Not only is this uncomfortable from an emotional standpoint. Studies suggest that the quantity and quality of our social relationships affect our physical and mental health and may even be a factor determining how long we live.

So, it is only natural, that we would look for alternative ways to feed the ego.

As we have started to self-quarantine and isolate ourselves, I have noticed an interesting pattern emerge in the types of posts people are writing and sharing on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. While people often, look to exert social dominance online to bolster their self-worth, now, given social distancing, it’s become both more overt, and unapologetic.

But before we go any further, I want to reiterate that sharing these examples is not to judge the people or the posts, but instead to examine how we are fueling our self-esteem in this current situation. I have even included some of my own online activity to illustrate that we are all dabbling in this at this moment in culture.


People are creating Microcultures (more on this below) based on drawing a line between acting responsible and acting selfish during this crisis. This can be seen in a multitude of content being generated and shared online and with varying degrees of responsibility.

While many people are looking to share what we should and shouldn’t be doing in an attempt to educate and inform people via their feeds, we are also seeing a great deal of social shaming.

In life, we are able to engage with likeminded individuals and reaffirm that our beliefs and values are shared with others. In isolation, we are looking for ways to clearly outline what we believe and enjoy the approval that comes with others affirming that they agree with the content we share.


Social media has always been a place to get social validation for the way we look. But in this new normal, we are seeing people dress up their cozy clothes or post #workingfromhome pics in order to show the world that even though they are isolated (and in their house), they are still looking good.


To understand this, you need only google “Coronavirus Memes”. But memes are not the only way people are looking to fuel their ego by showing the world how clever they are. People (including myself as you will see below) are looking to use the situation to find ways to illustrate they are better than, and more learned than others.

This can be finding a clever way to say what you are doing as I have (my wife said this made me look “thirsty” and I had to go look up what that meant) or finding ways to use historical references to tell others to “quit their complaining” and get with the program.

Love of Family:

I am sure you have seen friends update that their older family members are safe or posted pictures of the amazing home schooling ideas they have come up with to help make sure that their children aren’t just watching YouTube or playing video games all day. This example does both.


Without the ability to thrive at work, impress our friends and feel like we are superior to others via traditional channels, many are looking to leverage social media to show they are “winning” the coronavirus.

This can be as simple as showcasing your cooking prowess and creations to once again, finding ways to exert your social superiority on others by suggesting that they are not doing the things they should be doing, or are complaining too much.


While we could cite a number of the previous posts to illustrate how people are looking to reinforce their moral superiority, another way that this is being satisfied in the current crisis is in the support memes for front line staff.


Lastly, the role of faith in the context of the crisis is presenting itself. But not just in the context of religion. Interestingly, there is a large number of posts and memes that look to almost justify what is happening, as a lesson from a larger power, or way of “mother earth” having a moment of reprieve from the dirty, dirty sinners that are the human race.


In our recent book Microcultures, we spend a lot of time exploring the role and importance of symbolic capital. Our CEO and Cultural Anthropologist Ujwal Arkalgud has been quoted:

“We define symbolic capital as a resource that is acquired by exhibiting or drawing on particular forms of knowledge, competencies or skills and interpersonal relationships that, like money, provide access to things. These intangible forms of capital can be converted into other intangible but valuable assets, such as prestige, honor, privilege and acceptance into a particular community and beyond (which, in turn, can also translate into actual capital, that is, money).”

It is this symbolic capital that shapes culture and is so inherently tied to the actions we take to nurture and protect our self-worth.

As schools close, employees are told to work from home and millions and millions of people isolate themselves across this country, we are just starting to see how people are jockeying for position in this new, social hierarchy. We are seeing new factions (or tribes) of people rally around new, emerging meanings and using these meanings to exert themselves over others.

In other words, we are seeing the Covid-19 crisis birth new microcultures.

Why is this so important to understand?

A microculture refers to the nuanced and particular sets of meanings that substantially sized groups of the most dominant people attribute to an idea, trend or topic at any given point in time.

It then in turn gives direction to—and indicates the broader shifts that will happen in culture and in time, impact the mainstream (or macroculture).

In other words, microcultures are the forces in the present that shape the behavior of the mainstream in the future.

These posts are not just posts. Nor are they simply affirmations of one’s self-worth. Every single meme, share and post is giving new meaning to the things we buy, do, and say. This is monumental moment in culture. And as a result, we are seeing a monumental shift in these meanings, which is driving the emergence of, and rapid evolution of numerous microcultures.

These new norms and expectations will reshape how we engage with each other for years to come. In order to better understand these shifts, our team is tracking these shifts (to view a presentation on how COVID-19 is impacting Consumer Culture, click this YouTube Link). But one thing is certain.

We are all in uncharted waters.

What do you want to research today?