The road to self-lovability

July 6, 2009

*PR science blogging alert*

Psychological Science is quickly becoming my favorite journal.

Allow me to — gasp! — quote the latest press release:

Psychologists Joanne V. Wood and John W. Lee from the University of Waterloo, and W.Q. Elaine Perunovic from the University of New Brunswick, found that individuals with low self-esteem actually felt worse about themselves after repeating positive self-statements.

The researchers asked participants with low self-esteem and high self-esteem to repeat the self-help book phrase “I am a lovable person.” The psychologists then measured the participants’ moods and their momentary feelings about themselves. As it turned out, the individuals with low self-esteem felt worse after repeating the positive self-statement compared to another low self-esteem group who did not repeat the self-statement. The individuals with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive self-statement–but only slightly.

In a follow-up study, the psychologists allowed the participants to list negative self-thoughts along with positive self-thoughts. They found that, paradoxically, low self-esteem participants’ moods fared better when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts.

The idea is that for people with low self-esteem (as measured, I’m guessing, by numerical responses to statements such as “I am a capable person”), telling themselves how great they are sets up contradictory thoughts, because, you know, their entire world view depends on how ungreat they are. To admit to greatness would entail drastic changes in their way of being.

Like a psychologist tells the BBC:

“If you’re not close to your parents, don’t have many friends, are unemployed and are unhappy with your appearance, it might be hard to have high self-esteem.”

A good therapist teaches you to find the upside to your down traits, and then to isolate the negative world view that’s twisting the expression of that upside, e.g., “I would communicate my feelings honestly to friends and loved ones, but a) my feelings don’t matter and b) I would be rejected anyway.”

Seeing the upside — a desire for honest communication — gives you a foundation for making (incrementally) better decisions. Then you can seize on any improved outcome as signs of your newfound potency.

Or in other words, it’s like Bill Murray said: “baby steps.” Even with 20 pounds of explosives strapped to your torso.

Update: Did I accidentally kill Robert McNamara? 

If ever there was a guy who needed to calibrate his self-love, it was Robert McNamara, the much-vilified defense secretary who was forever tarnished by his role in the Vietnam War. This weekend I re-watched The Fog of War, the Errol Morris documentary in which McNamara very nearly breaks down with regret for his mistakes. Today I learn that McNamara has died. By Jenny McCarthy’s logic, I am partially responsible for the death. I regret my involvement.


4 Responses to “The road to self-lovability”

  1. The Psych Gal Says:

    The issue with this particular study is that it is well-known in the psych community that positive statements are only really “heard” by those who already have high self esteem.

    And in order to move from low self esteem to moderate-high self esteem (as measured by a good/reliable self esteem test) one must go through a hell of a lot of therapy – and not simply jump right into writing down “I’m a lovable person.” for four minutes then get tested on self esteem again. Which is what these researchers did in their second experiment.
    It simply doesn’t make sense. It would be akin to writing, “I’m perfectly comfortable.” when you were in a burning building.

    First you need to put out the fire — or at least have firemen in the building before you could even start to think “Maybe, just maybe, I am comfortable.”

    heh, psych, and science — always a catch!

  2. JR Minkel Says:

    Thanks for the context, which matches my own experience and analysis above. I’m new to the mind-brain beat. My back channel informs me Psych Sci publishes a lot of “silly pop psych stuff” but has some occasional gems. I can’t speak to the study’s methodology, but my interpretation stands — to make use of positive self-talk, get therapy!

  3. The Psych Gal Says:

    Why do I like your responses more when they’re directed at someone you think you don’t know, but is actually me.

    Cool accidental experiment!

  4. JR Minkel Says:

    The power of science! Single-blind science, anyway.

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