I recall a recent dinner date with a friend who was tentatively speaking about her life’s purpose, goals, and hopes for the future. She stated that she did not know what she was doing with her life and was uncertain about future education or career plans, despite already having an extensive work history and education. I have also known this friend to have low self-esteem in the past, as she struggles with low self-confidence. Additionally, in school she always anticipated receiving poor grades in her classes due to her low self-perception (not necessarily due to her academic abilities, as she was quite an intelligent, studious individual).
I couldn’t help but think about how low self-esteem has been correlated with negative or maladaptive behaviours (Aronson, 2008).
In other words, self-judgemental thinking can be a vicious cycle in which our self-defeating thoughts can be manifested in our actions (i.e., I can’t do X, so I don’t do X).
This friend of mine has perhaps categorized herself as an unintelligent, unworthy individual and these labels likely influence many of her interactions and daily activities. And I would imagine she’s not fully aware that this is the case. By placing oneself in such a category with negative labels, one may be assigning specific attitudes, rules, and behaviours to which one must adhere in daily life, perhaps without knowing this is happening!
Increasingly, we are seeing how social behaviour can occur in an unconscious, or implicit way (Greenwald and Banaji, 1995), meaning that we may not even be fully aware of how our thoughts and judgements are affecting behaviours and decision-making. Although poor self-concept may not lead someone to cheat or commit immoral acts, a person’s insecurities can negatively impact many other facets of life (school, work, relationships), and therefore overall wellbeing. However, we are NOT condemned to remain boxed into our beliefs and stuck doing the same behaviours repeatedly.
Good news! Implicit cognitive effects may actually be reduced by merely bringing attention to our judgements and behaviours (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995); in essence, shining a light on what was otherwise hidden.
We see that negative self-regard is almost self-fulfilling in nature, whereby an individual may experience negative thinking about themselves, and then avoid engaging in certain behaviours or activities for fear of failure or judgement. If, however, positive self-regard is cultivated, an individual may feel more confident to try new activities, and subsequently experience positive feedback from trying such activities; feeling pleasantly surprised at how successful they might actually be!
We know that positive information about self-identity can lead to better performance, productivity, and more pro-social behaviour (Aronson, 2008).
A growing body of evidence proposes ‘self-monitoring’ as a strategy to identify and begin to shift unwanted thoughts and behaviours. Epstein et al. (2008) define self-monitoring as “the ability to notice our own actions, curiosity to examine the effects of those actions, and willingness to use those observations to improve behaviour.” Self-monitoring may allow folks to recognize cognitive biases, emotional reactions, and may facilitate self-correction with positive self-thought (Epstein et al., 2008). This strategy, in addition to removing oneself from negative social interactions, has been demonstrated to improve self-esteem. Cultivating habits of self-awareness such as experiencing information as novel, seeing situations from multiple perspectives, and engaging in self-questioning in contrast to “automatic pilot” can be useful in everyday life and shake us out of our habitual behaviours and thoughts.
LOTS of folks fall into negative thought patterns about themselves; perhaps you have noticed some of these patterns in yourself, or someone you know, and would like to practice self-monitoring.
Self-monitoring can be practiced by engaging in regular journaling to ‘catch’ thought or behaviour patterns that come up often. Alternatively, take a few moments each day to simply notice how you feel or what you are experiencing/ doing in response to certain situations. Start to notice when your mood drops or shifts, when self-critical thoughts arise, and when those ‘negative labels’ start to inform how you think about yourself. Perhaps try asking yourself:
What specific thoughts am I having in this moment? How do these thoughts make me feel?
What are the precursors to such thoughts (what is my environment, who are the people I am spending time with, what are the topics being discussed)?
How am I responding in these situations? How else would I prefer to respond?
Identifying, or ‘self-monitoring’ our thinking and behaviour can be a helpful first step towards improving self-perception and confidence. Sometimes working with a trusted therapist or counsellor can help to point out our ‘blind spots’ as well!
Aronson, E. (2008). The Social Animal (10th Ed.) New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
Epstein, R. M., Siegel, D. J., & Silberman, J. (2008). Self‐monitoring in clinical practice: A challenge for medical educators. Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions, 28(1), 5-13.
Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (1995). Implicit social cognition: Attitudes, self-esteem, and
stereotypes. Psychological review, 102(1), 4.