The Science Of Self-Esteem

May 12, 2014
body image, mental health, Nicole Kidman, self confidence, self esteem

Nicole Kidman announced in an interview she has finally embraced her curls. Frankly, Nicole didn’t need to tell us she didn’t like her natural hair – we can see the way she flat irons it so much, her hairline is receding. She has cosmetically altered her lips, her cheeks and her breasts. It is alarming to us when women, who have made millions of dollars out of their beauty, hope to look more beautiful. We assume they have infinite confidence. Self-esteem starts to look like the Yowie – everybody knows it exists but nobody has ever seen it. So how do we get self-esteem? And, more importantly, how do we lose it?

In times of doubt, people often reach for self-help books in search of encouragement and the use of self-affirmations. These books sell the idea you can raise your self-esteem by repeating a certain phrase, like a mantra. “I am loveable. I am attractive. I am healthy.” According to a recent study in Psychological Science, these statements actually have the opposite effect. People with low self-esteem feel worse after repeating them.

The problem is, if we don’t believe it, our brains work twice as hard rejecting the statement. You may say, “I am loveable” but if you don’t believe you are, the brain replies, “No, you’re not. If you’re so loveable, why are you lying in bed repeating this lame mantra. If you were loveable, you wouldn’t be alone in bed!” For every positive statement we don’t believe, the brain launches a counter-attack.

You can’t trick the brain into believing the opposite, but you can reason with it and come to a happy compromise. When these statements of positivity are tailored to the individual and the quality is something the individual values, the phrases can be repeated to good effect. For example, if I were to compliment myself on my wonderful driving, I wouldn’t feel any better about myself, because I don’t care about driving well. I just want to arrive somewhere uninjured. If I compliment myself on how wonderful I am at writing, I will feel the warm fuzz of an ego boost because I care about writing well and my mind will entertain the possibility that it is true.

Another important discovery about self-esteem is that most of it is based on what the culture values. We see fluctuations in young women’s self-esteem when they look at women in magazines. Overweight women’s self-esteem plummets when they view photographic models of any size and underweight women’s esteem increases, regardless of the models’ size.  A slender body type is what the culture values at the moment and so overweight women will never feel good about themselves no matter what size the woman. Thin women just walk around feeling smug, regardless of the magazines. Researchers discovered that what is culturally valued overrides our own personal values.

So the brain is judging those qualities we are actually good at and if that quality is actually valued in society, you find the sweet spot of an affirmation that will actually work. “I am loveable” just isn’t going to cut it. “I am really kind to my family.” “I am a great communicator.” “I have a great sense of style.” Find something you do well and pay attention to it. Appreciate that it is both true for you and objectively true. Then put that phrase on high-rotation but try to keep it on the inside.

Try it, it’s science.

By Vivienne Walshe

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