This post is largely based on an article by Sharon Begley, “To Love You Is to Know You,” published in the June issue of Mindful magazine. The importance of self-esteem was emphasized in the 1980s. All sorts of benefits were supposed to accrue to those with high self-esteem. Consequently programs were developed to enhance self-esteem. I remember being criticized by a student in her course evaluation for my having damaged her self-esteem. Although I had given the student a solid “A” in the course, she said that her self-esteem had suffered due to her getting several incorrect answers on an exam.
Subsequent research has debunked the benefits of self-esteem. Although programs to build self-esteem might build self-esteem in individuals, this self-esteem does not manifest itself in better performance in school or work, in particular, and in life, in general. Fortunately a new concept has emerged to replace the concept of self-esteem. This new concept is self-affirmation. The simplest way to think of self-affirmation is as self-esteem absent the “I’m wonderful” component. Another way of thinking of self-affirmation is as “mindfulness of the self.” According to the article, “Self-affirmation is the process of reminding yourself of the values and interests that constitute your true or core self.”
Research into self-affirmation has shown that self-affirmation can not only reduce the anxiety and defensiveness that usually arise when we make mistakes, but it can also help us to learn from our mistakes so that we do better the next time. Self-affirmation makes us less defensive when receiving threatening information, be it negative feedback from a supervisor, criticism from a loved one, or poor performance. We become more open to opposing views and more self-controlled.
A study done by the psychologist Lisa Legault provides some insight as to the mechanisms underlying the benefits of self-affirmation. Two groups of college students were provided different instructions. One group performed an exercise to foster self-affirmation; the control group performed an exercise that did not foster self-affirmation. Both groups performed the same simple task: to press a button whenever an “M” appeared on a computer screen for one-tenth of a second. If a “W” appeared, they were to refrain from pushing the button. Brain activity was monitored when they performed this task. The group given the self-affirmation instructions made fewer errors of commission, pressing the button when the “W” appeared (7% vs. 12.4%). The more important result was the difference in brain activity. There is a brain wave that occurs when a mistake is made called error-related negativity (ERN). This ERN is generated by the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in detecting errors, anticipating rewards, and being emotionally aware. It generates the feeling that a mistake was made. It has a strong emotional component and is why we feel bad when we mess up. The more we care, the stronger the ERN that results when we fail or receive criticism. In this study, the self-affirmation group had stronger ERN waves than the control group. It appears that this enhanced response to the task resulted in better performance.
In view of these results, it becomes clear why self-esteem is ineffective. A person with high self-esteem might not care how well he does. He already thinks that he is great. Similarly, a person with high self-esteem is likely to reject criticism because he thinks he is great. The result is that learning does not occur. Now a person with self-affirmation will have among her core beliefs that she is capable of succeeding, but is open to criticism and failure as the means to success. Mistakes will feel more troublesome, but that results in more attention and better learning.