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One piece of advice that’s been floating around for 30 years or so says that positive affirmations – pumping yourself up with specific, positive statements – will raise your self-esteem.

While positive belief and a sense of optimism is generally better for heath and wellbeing than negative belief, it is what lies beneath that matters, not the gloss that we might put on things.

Telling myself that I “love and approve of my body”, or that “I’m a beautiful child of the universe” when deep down I think that I’m an ugly prat destined for rejection and failure, just doesn’t cut it.

Ideas from the self-esteem movement have had an ever increasing and pernicious hold on thinking, and ‘self-esteem’ has become a household word. Therapists teachers, parents, and others have taken up the mantra of self-esteem, on the assumption that boosting it automatically result in improved performance and greater success. But it’s not so.

High self-esteem doesn’t result in better performance, more success, or greater confidence, it is the other way round. We develop self-esteem through trial and error, overcoming setbacks, developing social skills and building relationships. Self-esteem grows with affirming experiences and each small success contributes to our sense of self.

While the mantras of the ’80’s were laudable in their attempts to instill positive belief in people at risk because of low self-esteem, the research doesn’t bear this out.

Self-esteem has to be developed through effort, taking risks and experience. However well-intentioned, telling me I’m great when I believe I’m rubbish simply denies my belief about me and makes me feel less understood. How can this make me feel better about myself?

See also:

Baumeister, R., et al, Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, May 2003 vol. 4 no. 11-44.

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