Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Does Self-Esteem Function as an Emotional Immune System?

Boosting self-esteem can improve your emotional resilience

People usually wish they had higher self-esteem because they want to feel more confident and assured. But having higher self-esteem can do much more for us than simply boost our confidence. A variety of studies have begun to demonstrate that self-esteem can endow us with a layer of emotional resilience when we encounter common psychological injuries such as rejection and failure, as well as insulate us from stress and anxiety. The picture these studies are painting implies that in many ways our self-esteem functions very much like an emotional immune system.

Self-Esteem as an Emotional Immune System

Although experts are still debating what self-esteem actually is (defining such constructs is always tricky in psychology research), we do know quite a bit about what it does. In terms of its general behavior, our self-esteem fluctuates from day to day and sometimes, from hour to hour—much as our physical immune system does. When we’re having a ‘good self-esteem day’, we not only feel different about ourselves but we respond differently to stresses from our environment.

Specifically, having low self-esteem renders us more vulnerable to many of the psychological injuries we sustain in daily life. For example, brain scans have shown that people with low self-esteem experience rejection as more painful than people with high self-esteem do and they withdraw further from others as a result

People with low self-esteem are also more vulnerable to failure, in that they experience greater drops in motivation and show less persistence after failing than those with higher self-esteem. Having low self-esteem also makes us more vulnerable to anxiety and stress. People with low self-esteem release more cortisol into their bloodstream when they experience stress and it stays there for longer periods, than people with higher self-esteem.

In other words, when our self-esteem is low, our emotional immune systems function less effectively in a variety of ways, making it harder for us to deal with common psychological assaults when we encounter them.

But does improving our self-esteem necessarily boost our emotional immune systems?

The answer is—yes! Researchers have found that boosting our self-esteem can indeed strengthen our emotional immune systems. Self-esteem interventions might not be able to catapult someone with low self-esteem into the high self-esteem range, but certain science-based approaches to boosting self-esteem have been shown to have an impact on our emotional immune systems.

For example, one study examined people’s anticipation to receiving a mild electrical shock. Half the people received an intervention to boost their self-esteem and half did not. Those whose self-esteem was boosted displayed significantly less anxiety than the control group. Other studies demonstrated that interventions to boost people’s self-esteem helped them manage failure, rejection and especially stress more adaptively (such interventions had the added benefit of helping prevent drops in will-power and self-control).

How to Boost Self-Esteem and Enhance Your Emotional Immune System

The problem with most self-esteem programs is that they are not individualized (read more about why most self-esteem programs fail—here). Indeed, the approaches that have been proven effective in boosting self-esteem, come primarily in the form of writing exercises because writing allows us to make the self-esteem exercise both specific and individualized:

1. Self-compassion exercises. Self-compassion exercises are ones that force us to substitute our automatic self-critical perspectives with ones that are more compassionate and ‘self-esteem friendly’. Since we often judge those we care about less harshly than we do ourselves, such exercises use a ‘what-if-it-happened-to-someone-you-care-about’ perspective to access more self-forgiving and self-compassionate points of view.

2. Self-affirmation exercises. Self-affirmation exercises are those that affirm real aspects of ourselves we find valuable (as opposed to positive-affirmation exercises that affirm idealized versions of how we wish we could be). The exercises are ways of thinking about individual traits we have or characteristics that are specific to relationships, the workplace, or other contexts.

3. Personal empowerment exercises. Personal empowerment is not something we merely feel but something we can demonstrate in our lives. In other words, such exercises provide proof that we are not powerless and that we have can an impact (read How to Attain Personal Empowerment).

Check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

Watch my TED Talk here

Click here to join my mailing list

Copyright 2013 Guy Winch

Follow me on Twitter @GuyWinch