My old friend and former roommate, Tony Hermann, is doing research on self-esteem. Recently, I asked him:
Why are people with low self-esteem doormats?
His answer is consistent with recent research in psychology that positives and negatives should be treated as distinct constructs and not as opposites along a single continuum. Said in a way that normal people can understand: although people may want to avoid a bad impression, it doesn’t mean that they will do things that foster a positive impression.
A bit more about the paper:
Hermann, A. D., & Arkin, R. M. On Claiming the Good and Denying the Bad: Self-Presentation Styles and Self-Esteem
Two studies investigated the relationship between self-esteem and two forms of active, favorable self-presentation: attributive (claiming desirable characteristics) and repudiative (denying negative characteristics). In a pilot study, participants lower in self-esteem were equally likely to deny possessing negative personality characteristics to a new acquaintance as those higher in self-esteem, but were less likely to claim possessing desirable characteristics. An experiment found that participants lower in self-esteem were equally likely to compensate for a negative public image by denying they possessed negative characteristics unrelated to that image as those higher in self-esteem (i.e., engage in compensatory self-protection). However, only those very high in self-esteem engaged in compensatory self-enhancement, compensating for the negative public image by claiming unrelated desirable characteristics.