How the Brain Changes When We Practice Knowing Our Minds

Practicing self-affirmation wires your brain to recognize your own brand of failure, reducing the defensiveness that can hinder performance improvement.

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It was the 1980s that made self-esteem more like a punch line than a desirable quality. That decade brought us the much-ridiculed California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem (only California would create an official program for making people feel better about themselves), the National Association for Self-Esteem, and enthusiastic efforts to raise people’s self-esteem, not by making them smarter, more talented, kinder, or otherwise better but just by telling them how wonderful they are. It was the era of sports trophies for every kid who simply showed up.

Alas, as research subsequently showed, such artificially inflated self-esteem does not boost academic performance, occupational success, or leader ship ability, let alone improve personal relationships. The best account of these findings is a May 2003 paper in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

I was prompted to take this trip down memory lane when I began noticing a profusion of studies on “self-affirmation.” This is a little different from self-esteem. Self-affirmation is the process of reminding yourself of the values and interests “that constitute your true or core self,” Lisa Legault, assistant professor of psychology at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., told me. “It’s taking stock…