August 30, 2017

Of Brains, Databases, and Self-Affirmation


By Vega Subramaniam

What we want, a lot of us, is to face life with confidence and contentment, and to make a difference.

A requirement of building confidence and contentment, if I may posit, is maintaining an accurate inventory of our talents and accomplishments. And a requirement of maintaining an accurate inventory of our talents and accomplishments is acknowledging our talents and accomplishments.

It stands to reason. Right?

And yet! Acknowledging ourselves for a job well done makes far too many of us downright queasy.

Like: “self-affirmation”? Privilege alert! Would you like some locally-harvested, farm-to-table, gentrification-certified truffle reduction with that “self-affirmation”? Seriously. We’re over here trying to not be killed while working on saving the world. You keep doing you over there with your self-affirmations.

Also, I mean, who wants to be that person? Really, I’m supposed to pat myself on the back for cleaning the bedroom, or mowing the lawn, or completing a project on time — basically, for doing what every human being should just be doing because obviously? Like, that’s the bar, now? I don’t need a cookie just for getting to work on time. I’m not that special. Some of us, not naming names, can just hear our hard-as-nails immigrant mother’s gasped rebuke when she hears us “bragging.” Oh the immodesty!

The No Apologies Jar

Speaking of not being that special, there’s that whole other end of the spectrum where some of us feel so worthless that we can’t think of a single thing we’ve done well, or a single thing we’re talented in. We shrug off compliments. “Anyone could have done that” or “it wasn’t that great.” Some years ago, our friends encouraged Mala to keep a “No Apologies” jar. Basically, she needed to get through an entire meal (that she cooked single-handedly and which was typically exquisite though admittedly sometimes slipped precipitously down to merely quite-better-than-average) without apologizing when she received a compliment (“This rasam is delicious!” “Ugh, I’m so sorry; it needs more salt and it’s too tomatoey and the dal is undercooked.”). If she could do that — get through an entire meal without apologizing, then she would add a dollar to the jar. If she did not get through the whole meal without apologizing, stay with me here, then everyone else would add a dollar to the jar. Basically, our friends threatened to give Mala money if she apologized. (I know. “Where do I sign up,” right?)

It’s a double-whammy. Our cultural milieu encourages (those of) us (who are not white men) to deprecate our accomplishments and talents and to overemphasize our failures and shortcomings.

There’s a fundamental problem here, and I bet you can see where I’m going with this. Our brains are entering, with diabolical speed and precision, all of our failures and shortcomings. The result? The powerful database that is our brain becomes a giant garbage dump of inaccurate data entry. So naturally, its output in terms of self-perception is a godawful mess.

Well, that’s no good. We rely on our brains to spit out accurate data for us to act upon, correct? That means we need to take immediate and continual corrective action. And what is that corrective action? Basically, we have to manually enter our personal, individual, unique value proposition.

There’s increasing evidence that there’s virtually no end to the ways self-affirmation helps us. Fancy scientific evidence, with fMRIs and 3 Tesla GE Signa MRI scanners, not to mention catchy titles like: Self-Affirmation Activates Brain Systems Associated with Self-Related Processing and Reward and is Reinforced by Future Orientation. Or: Beyond Self-Protection: Self-Affirmation Benefits Hedonic and Eudaimonic Well-Being. Eudaimonic, no less! Who among us could say no to some eudaimonic well-being?

I kid, but these articles are worth a read. In the first article, researchers got study participants to get off their asses and move their bodies. That’s right: self-affirmation makes you exercise more. That may or may not be the main point of the article, and I may or may not be distorting the results of the study with that statement, but the fact remains that self-affirmation paired with positive behaviors does seem to lead to an increase in those positive behaviors. The second study demonstrates a relationship between self-affirmation and wellbeing in terms of need satisfaction, meaning, and flow. Eudaimonia FTW.

Take note, though: it’s complicated. It’s not about making exaggerated claims, like “I am totally lovable in every way possible!” (if you don’t believe it). We all know what it feels like to receive overly-effusive (aka, false) praise from others — it makes us cringe and negate the compliment internally and then go to that dark place where we remind ourselves that there’s truly nothing about ourselves worth complimenting. Same applies when we are our own praise-givers. Accuracy counts, here as everywhere.

To counteract the negative effects of our otherwise constant stream of hypercritical self-talk, what we need is to shine a spotlight on our values, our talents, and our accomplishments. The trick with self-affirmation seems to be to stay focused on what matters to us and “who we really are.” It’s about reflecting, on purpose, on our core values, and how we’ve demonstrated those values in the past, and how we envision demonstrating those values in the future.

It’s not an easy endeavor, to be sure, to suddenly decide to self-affirm. It appears to go against our principle of checking our privilege. It goes against years, decades, generations of cultural messages about propriety and humility. It requires us to challenge head-on our insecurities and self-doubt.

But the payoff is immense. It changes everything. Our expanded sense of self allows us to check our privilege without becoming defensive. Our ability to confidently bring our full selves to an experience allows us to be humble enough to learn and grow from it. Our faith in our core values allows us to recognize and own our strengths in the face of frightening, threatening situations.

And if that’s not enough: self-affirmation has been shown to improve problem-solving under stress. And boost performance in high-stakes professional situations. It makes us less defensive. Turns out the list of positive effects of self-affirmation is long.

Self-Affirmation and Social Psychological Intervention

Hell, even the New York Times is telling you to pat yourself on the back:

…Or, alternatively, you could be content with unfettered inaccurate cognitive data collection, I guess. But why?



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