We live events in our lives at least twice. Once when events actually happen and again later when we review those events and organize them into some sort of coherent story. Both matter. Lucky events can be undermined by a destructive narrative about who you are and what you've accomplished, while challenging experiences can be transformed by thoughtful reflection.

Mentally creating these stories comes naturally (to a greater or lesser degree) to us humans, but new research suggests you can consciously manipulate your inborn need to connect the dots to boost your self-esteem and feel better about yourself.

Write your way to more self-esteem

The work is very new, the British Psychological Society Research Digest blog notes in its write-up of the findings, but it's also fascinating and potentially useful for anyone in need of a self-esteem boost.

The setup for the studies was simple. Scientists rounded up around 700 adults and asked half of them to write about four "chapters" in their life for 10 minutes each. They were asked to think about how these incidents impacted their lives as a whole and how various events were linked together. As a control, the other half wrote similar biographical sketches of famous Americans. All participants' self-esteem was tested before and after the activity.

The results were clear. "The participants who wrote about chapters in their lives displayed small, but statistically significant, increases to their self-esteem, whereas the control-group participants did not," reports BPS. "This self-esteem boost wasn't explained by any changes to their mood, and -- to the researchers' surprise -- it didn't matter whether the participants rated their chapters as mostly positive or negative." 

In short, whether you wrote about happy or sad memories, or about events in or out of your control, you ended up feeling better about yourself, though not necessarily any happier. The effects, however, only seemed to last a day or two. But that's long enough to give you the boost you need to start a project, face a daunting challenge, or just get over one of those humps in life where you're feeling a bit down on yourself.

Why does writing about your life make you feel better about yourself?

As this was only a preliminary study, the researchers aren't sure why writing your life story has a positive effect. One possibility is that it might force people to confront and put a label on their emotions, a process other research says helps with feeling more in control of your moods and your life. Plenty of other studies show writing about your life in a journal has psychological benefits, so this specific exercise could just be an extension of that effect.

BPS doesn't mention another set of studies that show psychological distance, i.e., thinking about your own life and problems from the perspective of an outsider, can be clarifying, But perhaps the detachment from your own story required to write it coherently gifts you with a little distance and with it greater wisdom.

But while scientists figure out the details, the takeaway for those who need a self-esteem boost right now is clear: Try writing down the story of a few important chapters of your life. Chances are great you'll feel more confident and comfortable in your own skin after you do.

Published on: Apr 11, 2019
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