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The two kinds of self-esteem

by Marcos Economides

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“I’m usually down on myself; I just don’t like who I am.”

“I don’t like myself because I’m ugly.”

“I’m a nothing. I have no personality.”

Hopefully those don’t sound too familiar, but they can to a lot of people.

Self-esteem reflects a person’s overall subjective emotional evaluation of his or her own worth. Those with healthy self-esteem tend to generally have positive beliefs about themselves, whereas those with low self-esteem often focus on their weaknesses and mistakes, which can reinforce feelings of self-doubt and loathing. Seems pretty obvious, right? But did you know meditation can help change those beliefs? First, let’s dig into what self-esteem really is.

If you’ve suffered from low self-esteem, you’re not alone; our self-esteem pack continues to be one of the most popular in the Headspace library. But if low self-esteem becomes severe, it can encourage a fear of social situations, and may be associated with psychological difficulties such as depression and anxiety.

Scientists measure self-esteem in two ways. Explicit measures come from self-reported questionnaires that include statements such as “I take a positive attitude towards myself”, or “I tend to let fear and anxiety control many of my decisions”. Responding to these statements requires conscious and reflective self-evaluation. Implicit measures on the other hand, are derived from computerised games that test how people react to stimuli associated with their own identity, such as the letters of their name. These reactions, which are thought to be automatic and unconscious, may more closely reflect one’s intuitive feelings of self-worth.

For some people, implicit and explicit self-esteem are highly related, but for others they don’t match up well. Self-esteem can be ‘fragile’ when explicit measures are higher than implicit measures, and ‘damaged’ when the reverse occurs. Both types of misalignment can be detrimental to physical and psychological health, leaving people vulnerable when faced with criticism, and promoting a tendency towards narcissistic behavior and perfectionism. So how can you adjust when these measures are out of alignment?

Recently, a study conducted in the Netherlands showed that mindfulness can increase congruency between implicit and explicit self-esteem, that is, what people say about their self-esteem and what their behaviour suggests they actually believe. Mindfulness might therefore encourage people to rely more on intuitive feelings of self-worth, which can increase well-being. In addition, several studies have shown that people who are naturally more mindful in their daily lives report having higher self-esteem in response to prompts such as “On the whole, I am satisfied with myself”, and “I feel that I’m a person of worth, at least on an equal plane with others”.

So far so good, but can practicing mindfulness really improve self-esteem, and if so, what’s the underlying mechanism? An exciting study from Stanford University investigated this question in a group of 16 patients with social anxiety disorder. In the study, participants were shown a sequence of positive and negative words, such as ‘brave’ and ‘coward’, and asked to indicate whether each word was a good description of themselves or not. The researchers found that after eight weeks of mindfulness training, participants were more likely to agree that the positive words described them well, and less likely to agree that the negative words described them well. The participants also experienced a reduction in anxiety symptoms.

Importantly, the mindfulness training also changed activity patterns in their brains. Activity went up in brain regions associated with regulating attention, but went down in brain regions involved in evaluation of the self, which may be responsible for the observed increase in self-esteem. Yet, a small sample size and lack of a comparison group make it difficult to draw firm conclusions. For this reason, the researchers conducted a follow-up study, in which they recruited a larger sample of 56 patients and compared mindfulness training to an exercise-based stress reduction course. Once again, they found that mindfulness training was associated with an increase in brain activity related to attention, specifically when participants were trying to regulate negative thoughts about themselves. As expected, the participants reported a decrease in negative emotions, including symptoms of social anxiety, which implies an increase in self-esteem.               

So, does mindfulness boost self-esteem by altering activity in brain regions associated with self-evaluation? While more studies are needed before we can give a definitive answer, the evidence to date certainly makes for a compelling argument. Why not meditate and see for yourself?

Marcos Economides

Marcos Economides is a cognitive neuroscientist and avid drummer based in London. He completed his PhD in neuroscience at University College London (UCL) in 2014, where he used neuroimaging to study the brain mechanisms supporting decision-making and self-control in humans. He joined Headspace shortly after, where he works on both in-house research and external collaborations to better understand how meditation can influence our collective well-being.