Everyone wants to have higher self-esteem and an endless array of books, articles, programs, and products promise to deliver it to us. We typically invest significant amounts of effort, time and money in purchasing these products, and while some of them end up collecting dust on a shelf, we take many of them seriously; we listen to the full set of subliminal tapes, we attend the weekend workshop, or we diligently recite the positive affirmation of the day.
Of course, once we complete the program, we’re eager to assess whether our self-esteem has improved. We reflect back on how we felt about ourselves before we started, and conclude that we certainly feel better about ourselves now. After all we used to be riddled with negative self-talk, self-doubt and self-loathing, we used to have a chronic lack of confidence, we used to be shy and apprehensive, and now, we feel…much less so.
But then we go back to our lives.
And the moment we encounter stress, rejection, failure, or any kind of situation that challenges our self-esteem our old fears, doubts, and insecurities come flooding back, and we realize our self-esteem hadn’t improved as much as we thought it had after all.
Why does this happen? Why do we initially believe these self-esteem programs worked for us when in fact, they did not? Is it wishful thinking on our part? Are we merely deluding ourselves?
Is it even possible to improve our self-esteem when it is chronically low?
We Get What We Expected to Get
When it comes to self-esteem programs, what determines whether we feel they were effective is primarily one thing—our expectations. To illustrate this principle, researchers gave people commercially produced subliminal tapes designed to improve either self-esteem or memory. Participants completed memory and self-esteem tests before and after listening to the tapes for 5 weeks. Subjects who listened to self-esteem tapes indicated their self-esteem had definitely improved and subjects who believed they listened to memory tapes were equally convinced their memories had improved. However, results showed no change whatsoever on the subjects’ scores. Neither their memory nor their self-esteem had improved a lick.
We tend to believe self-esteem and self-improvement programs work because we’re prone to unconsciously distorting our recollection of how we felt before we started. We tend to remember ourselves as being much more insecure or much less confident than we actually were (or having a much worse memory), and therefore conclude that our self-esteem has improved. But then, once we're confronted with experiences such as rejection or failure (that challenge our self-esteem), we quickly realize we’re no better off than we were.
Did You Fail to Build Self-Esteem or Did the Self-Esteem Product Fail You?
The most consistent finding we have in the self-esteem literature is that the vast majority of programs and products marketed to boost self-esteem simply don’t work. However, the news is not all bad because some of the products do. Numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies have demonstrated that it is possible to enhance our self-esteem and there are numerous books and products that utilize these findings to create effective programs for doing so. However, positive affirmations products, subliminal tapes, and many of the ‘workshops’ are not among them.
In order to build our self-esteem we have to do two things: 1. Minimize the self-critical and self-punitive self-talk that so many of us have in our heads. 2. Identify valuable aspects of our characters and personalities—personal qualities within ourselves that we already possess—and affirm them. In other words, self-esteem programs can only work if they are individualized for us, and therefore, individualized by us.
Cookie cutter mass market products that are good for everyone are in essence, good for no one because they cannot address our uniqueness as individuals. For example, one person might need to learn how to value their creativity and artistic talents, while another, their business acumen and mind for numbers. One person might need to learn to appreciate their supportive and loving nature, and another, their independence.
Building self-esteem is a form of cognitive retraining. It requires discipline and effort. First we have to cut out the damaging impact of negative self-talk. Second, effective self-esteem products implement an individualized approach by requiring the user to complete writing assignments and essays in which they self-reflect upon their qualities and experiences, and express why they value them, or write about how they can see themselves and their experiences in a more compassionate light.
The next time you acquire a product to boost your self-esteem investigate the principles it is based upon, and make sure your efforts and money aren't wasted.
For examples of individualized science-based self-esteem exercises, check out Chapter 7 in my new book, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013).
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Copyright 2013 Guy Winch
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