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"I'm Unlovable": Changing Your Client's Lifetraps
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The role of self-esteem in typical and atypical changes in expectations. (eng; includes abstract) By Abel MH, The Journal Of General Psychology [J Gen Psychol], ISSN: 0022-1309, 1997 Jan; Vol. 124 (1), pp. 113-27; PMID: 9190053

High self-esteem is viewed as an adaptive personality characteristic (Taylor & Brown, 1988) associated with a greater capacity for self-regulation, including recognition of situational contingencies and task demands (Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1993), higher expectations of success, persistence, and successful performance (Brockner, Wiesenfeld, & Raskas, 1993; McFarlin & Blascovich, 1981; Sandelands, Brockner, & Glynn, 1988). Situations exist where performance is related to effort, and persistence does pay off for individuals with high self-esteem--that is, when performance exceeds expectations (Schalon, 1968; Shrauger & Sorman, 1977). However, high self-esteem has also been associated with maladaptive behaviors, including the maintenance of overly ambitious and unrealistic goals under threatening failure situations (Baumeister et al., 1993; McFarlin & Blascovich, 1981) and counterproductive persistence when performance is not related to effort (McFarlin, 1985). The present study was an examination of the role of self-esteem in the appraisal of task demands and setting of appropriate expectations under conditions promoting attainment and nonattainment of goals.
Expectations are realistic predictions of performance and include goal-directed behavior influenced by past performance (Maddux, 1991). In early research on this topic, Lewin, Dembo, Festinger, and Sears (1944) focused on the influence of attainment and nonattainment of goals on future expectations. Their research findings suggested that expectations increase after performance exceeds the level of expectation, creating a positive goal discrepancy. In contrast, expectations decrease after performance fails to meet the level of expectation, creating a negative goal discrepancy. The research of Lewin et al. (1944) on the raising and lowering of expectations in response to performance has been supported by the investigations of Lachman (1961) and Hergenhahn (1974), both of whom used a design that manipulated the participants' success and failure in exceeding expectations.
Lewin et al. (1944) also suggested that a realistic person will be more flexible and responsive to changes in performance and more likely to make typical changes in expectations. Lewin et al. defined a typical change as an increase in expectations from one trial to the next after successfully attaining the goal or a decrease in expectations after failing to attain a goal. In contrast, an unrealistic person will be less likely to make typical changes and more likely to make atypical changes. Atypical changes occur when expectations are lowered after successfully achieving a goal or when they are raised after failing to achieve a goal. According to Lewin et al., atypical changes occur more often under repeated failure situations because repeated failure creates a highly stressful and emotional situation that negatively affects judgment and results in a more unrealistic approach to setting goals.
Current research has revealed that stress can impair task performance by negatively affecting judgment and decision making. Keinan (1987) found that individuals under experimentally induced stress used an unsystematic and disorganized approach to reviewing available options, failed to use a logical and deductive approach to decision making, and made hasty decisions without considering alternatives.
To examine typical changes in expectations across trials, Feather (1966) used a design where participants received immediate feedback regarding whether they had succeeded or failed at a task. No explicit information was offered on the task contingencies. These procedures required the participants to determine for themselves whether performance was contingent or noncontingent upon effort. Feather's (1966) findings of trial-by-trial changes in expectations relative to prior success or failure supported the model of Lewin et al. (1944). However, success-oriented participants made more typical changes in expectations under success conditions than under failure; the reverse was true for failure-oriented participants. Feather (1966) suggested that success-oriented individuals tend to make more typical changes in expectations under success conditions because they are more frequently involved in successful encounters; hence, success is a more familiar situation for them than failure is. In contrast, failure-oriented participants are more familiar with failure.
In other current research, the influence of self-esteem on expectations of success and performance under experimentally induced conditions of success and failure has been investigated. Overall, in those studies individuals with high self-esteem consistently set higher expectations of success than low self-esteem individuals did (Baumeister & Tice, 1985; McFarlin, 1985; McFarlin & Blascovich, 1981). In addition, high self-esteem has been related to greater persistence and better performance than low self-esteem under failure conditions (Schalon, 1968; Shrauger & Sorman, 1977). Finally, individuals with high self-esteem have higher perceptions of their ability and higher expectations of success after failure than after success (McFarlin, 1985; McFarlin & Blascovich, 1981), suggesting compensatory self-enhancement (Baumeister, 1982; Baumeister et al., 1993).
According to McFarlin and Blascovich (1981), individuals with high self-esteem are more optimistic after failure because their past experience has consistently revealed that their effort will "pay off"; that is, they will succeed because their performance is related to effort. Hence, individuals with high self-esteem respond and adapt to failure with increased persistence, resulting in successful outcomes when performance is contingent upon effort (Schalon, 1968; Shrauger & Sorman, 1977; Sigall & Gould, 1977). When individuals with high self-esteem are also given explicit information that performance is not contingent upon effort, they are less likely to engage in nonproductive persistence and maintain lower expectations of success than individuals with low self-esteem (McFarlin, 1985).
Goal-directed behavior of individuals with high self-esteem becomes maladaptive when they continue to engage in nonproductive persistence even after implicit advice has been offered that persistence may be counterproductive (McFarlin, Baumeister, & Blascovich, 1984). Feather (1962) suggested that people with high personal expectations of success will continue to persist even when it is nonproductive. Therefore, if explicit information is given to individuals with high self-esteem that performance is not contingent on effort, they are capable of using the contingency information (McFarlin, 1985) by maintaining more realistic expectations and engaging in less nonproductive persistence than individuals with low self-esteem. However, if no explicit information is given, individuals with high self-esteem may find it difficult to detect a noncontingency and will continue to engage in overly optimistic goal-directed behavior and counter productive persistence (McFarlin, 1985; McFarlin et al., 1984).
According to Baumeister et al. (1993), self-knowledge and self-regulation are necessary to appraise situational contingencies accurately, set appropriate goals, and achieve successful performance--characteristics associated with high self-esteem (Bandura, 1989; Campbell, 1990). Baumeister et al. (1993) found that individuals with high self-esteem in a non-ego-threatening situation related to earlier success excelled at self-regulatory behaviors because they understood situational contingencies and task demands and how to set appropriate goals for success from available options that accurately predicted their performance. However, when placed in a situation of failure suggesting an ego threat, that self-regulation disappeared. Those individuals with high self-esteem engaged in "self-enhancement" (Baumeister, Tice, & Hutton, 1989) strategies by committing to overly ambitious goals that they were unable to reach. They became more optimistic, unrealistic, and irrational in goal-setting behavior (see McFarlin & Blascovich, 1981).
According to Baumeister et al. (1993), high self-esteem can result in "overconfidence, overestimation, and consequent failure" (p. 143), maladaptive consequences of high self esteem when faced with an ego threat such as failure. In contrast, individuals with low self-esteem set lower, safer goals. They were more conservative and engaged in more self-protective strategies (Baumeister et al., 1989), regardless of success or failure (Baumeister et al., 1993). The lack of self-regulation in individuals with high self-esteem under the threat of failure can be related to a self-defeating aspect of compensatory self-enhancement. Self-defeating behavior patterns are linked to judgment errors, misperceptions of situational contingencies, and subsequent negative consequences (Baumeister et al., 1993; Baumeister & Scher, 1988). Self-defeating behavior is also reflected in the unrealistic expectations of success under repeated failure situations, as discussed by Lewin et al. (1944).
My purpose in the present study was to examine the influence of self-esteem in recognizing task demands and making typical and atypical changes in expectations in response to performance across trials that either (a) increased the probability that the participants would exceed their expectations, thus resulting in repeated success, or (b) decreased the probability that they would exceed their expectations, thus resulting in repeated failure (see Hergenhahn, 1974; Lachman, 1961). I designed the conditions to create a nonthreatening success condition and a threatening failure condition. Past research has indicated the importance of past performance in goal-setting behavior; therefore, previous performance was a critical variable in the determination of typical and atypical changes in expectations. I defined a typical change as the raising of expectations above prior performance after success and the lowering of expectations below prior performance after failure. An atypical change was defined as maintaining or lowering expectations after success and maintaining or raising expectations after failure.
Research has suggested a link between high self-esteem and the accurate appraisal of task demands and setting of appropriate goals--hence, adaptive goal-directed behavior under nonthreatening conditions (Baumeister et al., 1993). In addition, Lewin et al. (1944) suggested that realistic individuals are more likely to make typical changes in expectations after repeated success. Therefore, when individuals with high self-esteem were more accurate in appraising task demands, I expected self-esteem to be positively related to typical changes in expectations and negatively related to atypical changes, when the participants were allowed to experience repeated success in exceeding their goals. Individuals with higher self-esteem would more readily determine the situational contingencies of the task and raise their. expectations above previous performance across trials in the nonthreatening success condition, consequently making fewer atypical changes.
High self-esteem has also been related to a lack of self-regulation and overly ambitious and unrealistic goal-setting behavior under threatening failure conditions, serving a self-enhancement function (Baumeister et al., 1993). Atypical changes appear more likely under repeated failure conditions because repeated failure creates a stressful condition, eliciting negative reactions that can disrupt judgment in recognizing task demands and induce a failure in self-regulation, reflected in a more unrealistic approach to setting goals (Lewin et al., 1944; see also Baumeister et al., 1993). Therefore, I expected to find no relationship between self-esteem and typical changes under conditions designed to induce the experience of repeated failure in attaining a goal. I expected that the threatening repeated-failure condition would have a negative impact on the accuracy of recognizing task demands by individuals with high self-esteem; therefore, individuals with high self-esteem would be no more likely than individuals with low self-esteem to make typical changes in expectations. However, I predicted a significant positive relationship between self-esteem and atypical changes in expectations. Individuals with higher self-esteem would have difficulty recognizing the task contingency that requires the lowering of expectations, engage in compensatory self-enhancement, and experience a failure in self-regulation because they maintain unrealistic expectations, resulting in more atypical changes across trials.
Finally, I expected a significant difference between conditions of attainment and nonattainment of goals for individuals with high self-esteem, on both typical and atypical changes. Individuals with high self-esteem would make a significantly greater number of typical changes under a nonthreatening success condition than under a threatening failure condition. Individuals with high self-esteem would be more accurate at appraising task demands and excel in self-regulation under a nonthreatening and more familiar condition of success. The threatening failure condition, however, would negatively affect the appraisal process, resulting in fewer typical changes. As a consequence, individuals with high self-esteem would make a significantly greater number of atypical changes under a threatening failure condition than under a nonthreatening success condition, because they would engage in compensatory self-enhancement by setting overly optimistic and unrealistic expectations.

Method


Participants
Participants were 96 undergraduates (51 women, 45 men), voluntarily recruited from introductory psychology courses. Their ages ranged from 18 to 29 years, with a mean of 19.0 years (SD = 1.76). The majority (75%) were 1st-year students.
Procedure
I randomly assigned participants to small groups (3-10participants) of either an increasing-time condition (nonthreatening success) or a decreasing-time condition (threatening failure). As part of a larger study, the participants first completed a self-report questionnaire assessing their level of self-esteem (Rosenberg, 1965). The self-esteem scale was included within a randomly ordered packet of several questionnaires, to control for order effects.
After completing the packet of questionnaires, participants were exposed to eight trials of a timed digit-substitution task, substituting correct letter codes for numbers (Hergenhahn, 1974; Lachman, 1961). After instructions about the task, all participants completed a practice trial (30 s for the increasing-time condition and 65 s for the decreasing-time condition). After Trial 1, they counted the number correct that they had achieved (performance). At the beginning of each trial, from Trial 2 and through Trial 9, the participants estimated the number they expected to achieve and wrote down that number at the beginning of the row. For Trials 2 through 8, they counted the number they actually achieved (performance) after completing each trial and wrote that number at the end of the last row completed. Participants were asked to estimate the number correct that they expected to achieve on Trial 9; however, they did not complete Trial 9. This manipulation allowed immediate feedback to participants about their performance relative to their expectations on Trials 2 through 8.
Participants in the increasing-time group began the task with 30 s on Trial 1; 5 s were added to each subsequent trial, through Trial 8 (e.g., Trial 1 = 30 s, Trial 2 = 35 s, . . ., Trial 8 = 65 s). This manipulation allowed participants the opportunity to exceed their expectations and was designed to induce feelings of success. Participants in the decreasing-time group began the task with 65 s; 5 s were subtracted from each trial from Trial 2 through Trial 8 (e.g., Trial 1 = 65 s, Trial 2 = 60 s, . . ., Trial 8 = 30 s). This manipulation was designed to prevent participants from meeting or exceeding their expectations and to induce feelings of failure (see Lachman, 1961). The participants were not told the amount of time allotted per trial. When questions arose about the amount of time allotted, the experimenter explained that that information could not be given to participants. The total time allotted for the eight trials was the same in both the increasing-and decreasing-time conditions.
Measures
Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1965) is a self-report measure of generalized feelings about the self. The scale includes 10 items rated on a 5-point scale ranging from I (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly disagree). The items are summed to compute a total self-esteem score, with higher scores indicating higher self-esteem. In this sample, the internal consistency of the scale was .85 (Cronbach's alpha).
Typical changes. I calculated typical changes in expectations across trials by comparing expectations at the beginning of each trial with performance and expectations on the next trial. According to Lewin et al. (1944), expectations can be raised, maintained, or lowered after successfully achieving expectations or failing to meet expectations. In the present study, I defined a typical change from one trial to the next under the increasing-time condition as an increase in expectations after a performance that exceeded expectations and was greater than or equal to the previous performance. For the decreasing-time condition, a typical change was defined as a decrease in expectations when a performance did not exceed expectations and was less than or equal to the previous performance. The maximum possible number of typical changes was 7.
Atypical changes. I calculated atypical changes in the same manner as typical changes, comparing expectations at the beginning of each trial with performance and expectations on the next trial. An atypical change from one trial to the next trial was defined as expectations that were either maintained from trial to trial or (a) lowered after a performance exceeded expectations under the increasing-time condition or (b) raised after a performance that did not exceed expectations under the decreasing-time condition. The maximum possible number of atypical changes was 7.

Results


Overall, the procedure for manipulating performance to either exceed or not exceed expectations across trials was successful. A positive "attainment discrepancy" existed between average expectations and performance across trials for the increasing-time condition; that is, performance exceeded expectations. A negative "attainment discrepancy" existed between average expectations and performance across trials for the decreasing-time condition; that is, expectations exceeded performance (Lewin et al., 1944; see Table 1).
I used moderated multiple regression in all analyses (Aiken & West, 1991). Moderated multiple regression is a hierarchical multiple-regression procedure used to examine interaction effects when one or more of the independent variables are continuous. This procedure maintains the continuity of a continuous variable and eliminates the inherent problems associated with dichotomizing a continuous variable such as self-esteem (i.e., a median split; see Cohen, 1983). The procedure includes using centered scores of continuous variables; for example, I used deviation scores such that the mean of self-esteem was zero, and I examined unstandardized regression coefficients (B) and the semipartial correlations (sr) between continuous variables for the individual contributions of the predictor variables. A significant interaction indicates that the relationship between a predictor and a criterion variable is conditional upon the levels of the other variables in the equation. Each effect is subsequently examined through simple regression equations: continuous variables computed at the mean and 1 SD above and below the mean are used (see Aiken and West, 1991, for complete details of the procedure).
I entered condition (increasing time vs. decreasing time), self-esteem, and the two-way interaction term hierarchically, with either typical changes or atypical changes in expectations as the criterion. I examined significant interactions through simple regression equations, using self-esteem scores computed at the mean (average self esteem), I SD below the mean (low self-esteem), and I SD above the mean (high self-esteem). (See Table 2 for intercorrelations and descriptive statistics of all variables.)
Typical Changes
Overall, the mean number of typical changes was significantly higher under the increasing-time condition (2.93) than under the decreasing-time condition (1.73), F(1,94) = 14.57, p < .001. The moderated multiple-regression analysis revealed a significant two-way interaction between condition and self-esteem, F(3,92) = 5.30, p < .05, accounting for 5% of the variance in typical changes (see Table 3). I computed simple regression equations to examine the simple linear regression of self-esteem on typical changes within each condition. A significant positive relationship existed between self-esteem and typical changes under the increasing-time condition, B = .11, sr = .28, t(92) = 2.98, p < .01. I found no significant relationship between self-esteem and typical changes under the decreasing-time condition (see Figure 1).
Simple regression equations computed at the mean and 1 SD above and below the mean of self-esteem revealed a significantly greater number of typical changes under the increasing-time condition than under the decreasing-time condition for average self-esteem, B = 1.12, t(92) = 3.62, p < .001, and high self-esteem, B = 1.83, t(92) = 4.23, p < .001. No significant difference between conditions existed for low self-esteem (see Figure 1). (See Table 4 for intercorrelations and descriptive statistics of variables, by condition.)
Atypical Changes
Overall, the mean number of atypical changes was significantly higher under the decreasing-time condition (1.61) than under the increasing-time condition (.51), F(1,94) = 16.54, p < .001. The moderated multiple-regression analysis revealed a significant two-way interaction between condition and self-esteem, F(3,92) = 7.66, p < .01, that accounted for 7% of the variance in atypical changes (see Table 3). I computed simple regression equations to examine the simple linear regression of self-esteem on atypical changes within each condition. A significant positive relationship existed between self-esteem and atypical changes under the decreasing-time condition, B = .07, sr = .21, t(92) = 2.25, p < .05. A marginally significant negative relationship existed between self esteem and atypical changes under the increasing-time condition, B = -.05, sr = -.16, t(92) = -1.70, p = .09 (see Figure 2).
Simple regression equations computed at the mean and I SD above and below the mean of self-esteem revealed a significantly greater number of atypical changes under the decreasing-time condition than under the increasing-time condition for average self-esteem, B = 1.10, t(92) = 4.17, p < .01, and high self-esteem, B = 1.84, t(92) = 4.95, p < .01. No significant difference between conditions existed for low self-esteem (see Figure 2). (See Table 4 for intercorrelations and descriptive statistics of variables by condition.)

Discussion


The results confirmed my predictions and supported the influence of past performance on expectations and its interaction with self-esteem. Overall, a significant difference was obtained between repeated success and repeated failure on typical and atypical changes in expectations across trials. A significantly greater number of typical changes was made under a nonthreatening success condition than under a threatening failure condition. Participants were more likely to raise expectations above their earlier performance after success, but they were less likely to lower expectations below their earlier performance after failure. A lack of self-regulation under failure was further reflected by the significantly greater number of atypical changes in the repeated-failure condition than in the repeated-success condition. However, as expected, those results were moderated by level of self-esteem.
A significant positive relationship was obtained between self-esteem and typical changes in expectations across trials under a nonthreatening condition, which increased the probability of successfully exceeding expectations. In addition, a marginally significant negative relationship existed between self-esteem and atypical changes. Thus, individuals with high self-esteem were more likely than those with low self-esteem to recognize task demands and set appropriate goals under the repeated-success condition, as indicated by both typical and atypical changes in expectations. This finding supports the expectation of greater capacity for self-regulation in individuals with high self-esteem in a nonthreatening success condition. The lack of self-regulation exhibited by individuals with low self-esteem may be the result of their limited self-knowledge (Campbell, 1990), their inability to understand task demands, and their more conservative and cautious approach to goal setting (i.e., maintaining or even lowering their expectations). Research has indicated that individuals with low self-esteem maintain lower expectations of success than individuals with high self-esteem do (McFarlin & Blascovich, 1981) and are more concerned with self-protection strategies (Baumeister et al., 1993). Success may also be more threatening to individuals with low self-esteem because they lack confidence that they will repeat their successes; their failure after success could result in even greater disappointment (Baumeister & Tice, 1985; Brown & Dutton, 1995; Campbell, 1990).
As predicted, different relationships between self-esteem and typical and atypical changes in expectations were obtained under the threatening failure condition. I found no significant relationship between self-esteem and typical changes, which suggests that individuals with high self-esteem are no more likely than those with low self-esteem to accurately determine task demands and to set appropriate expectations based on previous performance. This finding supports the contention that a condition threatening failure may negatively affect the accurate appraisal of task demands by individuals with high self-esteem (Baumeister et al., 1993).
In addition, I found a positive relationship between self-esteem and atypical changes in expectations under repeated failure, suggesting a disruption in the appraisal of task demands and a lack of self-regulation in individuals with high self-esteem. Individuals with higher self-esteem apparently engaged in a self-defeating aspect of self-enhancement by maintaining overly optimistic and unrealistic expectations, as reflected in the greater number of atypical changes across trials. My findings therefore support explanations offered by Baumeister et al. (1993) and Lewin et al. (1944) regarding the negative influence of failure on self-regulation and goal-setting behavior. Participants with low self-esteem were less likely than those with high self-esteem to make atypical changes in expectations under the threatening failure condition. Consequently, individuals with low self-esteem engaged in fewer self-defeating behaviors of inflating their expectations of success and maintaining unrealistic goals. This result supports the findings of other research that individuals with low self-esteem engage in less compensatory self-enhancement and more self-protection strategies (Baumeister et al., 1989). Finally, repeated failure may not be as threatening to individuals with low self-esteem because the experience is more familiar (Baumeister & Tice, 1985).
Individuals with high self-esteem are more familiar with success and raising expectations after achieving a goal; they are less familiar with failure when performance does not exceed expectations and requires the lowering of expectations (see Feather, 1966). Their greater familiarity with success could help explain the significantly greater number of typical changes that occurred under the nonthreatening success condition than under the threatening failure condition, findings that support Feather's (1966) findings for success-oriented individuals. In contrast, individuals with high self-esteem were no more likely than individuals with low self-esteem to recognize the necessity of lowering their expectations below their previous performance under a repeated-failure condition. Their persistence in maintaining unrealistic expectations after failure was perhaps guided by the assumption gained from past experience that successful performance is related to persistent effort (McFarlin, 1985). This inaccurate appraisal of task demands and lack of self-regulation by maintaining unrealistic expectations thus resulted in greater atypical changes in expectations by individuals with high self-esteem across trials of repeated failure than across trials of repeated success.
I found no significant differences between repeated success and repeated failure for either typical changes or atypical changes in expectations for individuals with low self-esteem. Therefore, their appraisal of task demands and goal-setting behavior was the same, regardless of whether they experienced repeated success or repeated failure. This finding suggests a lack of self-knowledge (Campbell, 1990) and self-regulation (Baumeister et al., 1993) in individuals with low self-esteem and their use of conservative self-protection strategies (Baumeister et al., 1993). Consequently, the overall differences between conditions on typical and atypical changes were the result of individuals" with high self-esteem setting more appropriate expectations across trials under the nonthreatening success condition and more inappropriate expectations under the threatening failure condition.
My findings support both the adaptive and maladaptive consequences of high self-esteem. The adaptive nature of high self-esteem is readily observable in situations where performance is correlated with effort. Individuals with high self-esteem will often experience success in such situations and subsequently maintain high expectations of success, even after failure, because persistence usually pays off (McFarlin & Blascovich, 1981). Less-than-ideal situations will undoubtedly surface when performance is not contingent on effort and failure is the consequence. Self-regulation would require understanding task demands and lowering expectations accordingly, evidently a difficult task for individuals with high self-esteem under a threatening failure situation (Baumeister et al., 1993). Individuals with high self-esteem also appear to be highly capable of using explicit contingency information; however, that information is not always available and requires the accurate appraisal of task demands to make realistic predictions of performance. For high self-esteem to remain an adaptive characteristic in threatening failure situations, individuals must refrain from letting their positive illusions (Taylor & Brown, 1988) interfere with the accuracy of the appraisal process and reinforce self-defeating behaviors associated with the lack of self-regulation.
Further research should be conducted to examine the generalizability of my findings to other nonthreatening and threatening conditions and real-life situations. In addition, if individuals with high self-esteem commit to more unrealistic goals because they assume from past experience that success always follows persistent effort, would repeated success before a threatening repeated-failure condition result in even greater atypical changes in expectations? Finally, would a threatening failure condition have a greater negative impact on expectations than aspirations, given that expectations are more realistic predictions of performance and aspirations include more desirable, but perhaps unrealistic, goals (Lewin et al., 1944)? These are questions requiring further study into the potential maladaptive consequences of high self-esteem.
The author acknowledges major contributions of Joanne Sewell and Elena Caporale in the data-collection procedures.

 

 

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Coordinating Author/Instructor: Tracy Appleton, LCSW, MEd


 
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