Our self-esteem is far from stable. It fluctuates day to day and sometimes hour to hour. Getting praise from our boss, completing our first 5K run, or acing an exam will make our self-esteem go up, while failing to stick to our new diet, getting turned down for a promotion, or getting snubbed by our neighbor can make it go down.
However despite this instability, our self-esteem tends to have a baseline -- a general set level to which it returns absent any "breaking self-esteem news." Having good self-esteem is important because it does far more than merely lend us a feeling of greater confidence. When our self-esteem is high we are stronger emotionally and more resilient to stresses from our environment. For example, studies found that when our self-esteem is low, we experience rejection as more viscerally painful than we do when our self-esteem is high, and we withdraw further from others as a result.
When our self-esteem is poor we are also likely to experience greater drops in motivation after a failure, and to demonstrate less persistence toward the task at hand. Lower self-esteem even makes us more vulnerable to anxiety and stress. Studies found that when our self-esteem is low we release more cortisol into our bloodstream when we experience stress and it circulates in our systems for longer compared to people whose self-esteem is high.
Taken together, these findings indicate that our self-esteem functions much like an emotional immune system. When our self-esteem is higher we are more resilient to common psychological injuries such as rejection, failure, anxiety and stress. Therefore, boosting our self-esteem when it is low can have an immediate impact on our emotional strength and resilience.
To illustrate the impact boosting our self-esteem could have, scientists examined how people dealt with the anticipation of receiving a mild electrical shock. Half the participants in the study received an intervention to boost their self-esteem and half did not. Those whose self-esteem was boosted displayed significantly less anxiety those who did not receive a self-esteem boost. Rest assured, no electrical shock was then administered -- but the participants did believe they were about to get zapped.
So, if boosting our self-esteem can improve our emotional immune systems, how can we give ourselves this extra fortification when our self-esteem is at a low?
One of the most effective self-esteem boosters is self-affirmations. In contrast to positive affirmations (which are general positive statements such as, "I am worthy of great love and success!" and which we might or might not actually believe), self-affirmation reflect personal qualities we know we possess. When you want to give your self-esteem a boost, make a list of at least five qualities or attributes you know you have and you believe are valuable, and write a brief essay (usually a paragraph or two) about why the quality is important and how you tend to express it.
For example, if you wish to boost your self-esteem in the dating sphere, write about qualities such as being loyal, considerate, emotionally available, supportive, or nurturing. Describe why the attribute is meaningful to you and why it would be meaningful to a potential mate, how you expressed it in the past, and how you might express it in a future relationship. Write at least one such essay a day, in the morning if possible.
Self-affirmation exercises are an effective way to boost our self-esteem and by doing so, increase our emotional resilience and become better protected against the various psychological injuries we encounter in daily life.
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